Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Genius of Theo Epstein

On November 25, 2002, the Boston Red Sox made history by hiring 28 year-old Theo Epstein as their general manager, making him the youngest GM in MLB history. Fast-forward 12 years to today, and now 40 year-old Theo Epstein has ended the Red Sox second longest World Series drought in MLB history with a World Series title in 2004. He then won one more in 2007, and he was also responsible for drafting or acquiring many of the players on the most recent 2013 World Series championship team. Theo Epstein killed the curse of the Bambino, and then added two more World Series titles on top of that. Now as President of Baseball Operations with the Chicago Cubs, Epstein is looking to end the Cubs' 106 year World Series drought and to finally kill the curse of the Billy Goat.

While I personally have an incredibly high opinion of Theo Epstein, I've noticed in my perusing of various blogs and articles on the internet that there are many Cubs fans who feel differently. The amount of hate directed towards Theo Epstein from Cubs fans that I've seen is absolutely appalling.

From this comment about how the Cubs are close to contention: "Bull...oney! The Theos are a long..long way from contending. I'd like to hear Mr. Cubs GM's answer to the question of when he believes the Cubs will win the World Series. I don't think he has an answer to that question other than you gotta be patient and that's pure bull. Seems full of contradictions. Why hype about the farm system which doesn't look that great to me then give serious thought...and money...to some over the hill free agent big name pitcher? What's a farm system for if you ain't got any pitchers there? Get real."

To this article about why Theo is a fraud: "When Theo Epstein took over the Cubs, he was billed as the savior of a franchise that hadn’t won a World Series in over 100 years. Cubs fans thought if this guy could break the curse of the Bambino, then there was no reason he couldn’t break the curse of the goat. But after just two years of the all-great and all-powerful Theo, the only goat is a gullible nation of Cubs fans... Theo and his boy-toy Jed Hoyer have been preaching patience and player development since they took over this sinking ship, but outside of Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz – where was all this player development in Beantown that the boy genius talks about? In some ways, I do get why Cubs fans bought into Theo Epstein. He’s smart, good looking, and talks a great game. Be he isn’t the ‘baseball genius’ that everybody thinks he is."

And finally, this gem: "I have no reservations in saying that Theo Epstein is the most overrated GM of all-time, having coasted his entire career off of a reputation that he built in 2003 and 2004."

Sometimes, reading opinions like that can be maddening. It's tough for me to empathize with others' negative opinions of the rebuild because it's obvious to me to see how incredibly bright the future of the Chicago Cubs is. While sometimes I am maddened by those comments, other times I feel like I do now, confused as to why so much hate is being slung in the direction of Theo Epstein. Before launching into a spiel about why Theo Epstein is in fact a baseball genius, let me quickly address why the the opinions of the writers above aren't grounded in fact and why they simply fail to capture the entire story.

Jose Fernandez is out for the year with Tommy John surgery
Comment 1: A GM giving a prediction for a World Series title is a death wish. If that GM doesn't make or win the World Series that year, the entire fan base will be calling for your neck. Also, if you, most intelligent comment writer, can't see the ludicrous talent the Cubs have marinading in their farm system, you need to reevaluate how you view a farm system. While there is a lack of high-profile, MLB-ready pitching, there's so much risk that those players will get injured (see Taijuan Walker, Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg). No one can say with certainty what those pitchers will be like when they return from injury, so at this stage in the rebuild, it's not as important as building overall farm system depth. The Cubs have quietly been adding a lot of pitching depth through trades (Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, Arodys Vizcaino, C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez), the draft (Jake Stinnett, Carson Sands, Justin Steele), and international free-agent signings (Jen-Ho Tseng). Don't question the Cubs farm system, because every expert unanimously agrees that they have the best system, even without a future ace.

David "Big Papi" Ortiz may be the greatest DH of all-time
Comment 2: Sir, the only 'goat' is whoever convinced you that Theo Epstein had a free ride to a World Series title. Outside of Jon Lester (an ace), Dustin Pedroia (ROY and MVP), and Clay Buchholz (most Wins in AL last year until he was injured), Epstein had acquired an additional slew of talent. He drafted Jonathon Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowry, Daniel Bard, Josh Reddick, and Wil Middlebrooks. His greatest acquisition, however, was his signing of Big Papi. Big Papi is arguably the greatest DH of all-time (Frank Thomas doesn't count, he played first base 44% of the time). Signing a player like Ortiz who had never been too successful up until that point epitomizes the genius of Theo Epstein. Ortiz went on to put up mammoth numbers that helped carry the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years. 

Comment 3: I need to quote this again just so you can let it sink in: "I have no reservations in saying that Theo Epstein is the most overrated GM of all-time, having coasted his entire career off of a reputation that he built in 2003 and 2004." Yes, because acquiring the aforementioned talent to win World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 makes him overrated. No GM can 'coast' to a championship. If the author of the quote above truly believes he built his reputation in 2003-04 and coasted from there, how do you explain the 2007 title? Or the 2013 team, which consisted heavily of players that Theo assembled? Maybe you're bitter the Cubs didn't win a world series within 2 years of hiring him, but baseball requires more patience in a rebuild than almost any other sport. Just because the Heat could suddenly compete after signing Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, doesn't mean that signing 3 all-stars in baseball suddenly puts your team in a position to compete. Rebuilds in baseball take time. Rebuilds take patience. Just because you lack the patience for an MLB-length rebuild, doesn't mean that you need to call Theo Epstein 'the most overrated GM of all-time".

Phew, now that that's done, let's take a look at some of the brilliant things Theo has done for the Cubs, and let's try to justify the one not-so-great thing Theo has done (cough Edwin Jackson cough). For ease of reading (and a little bit so my writing can stay focused), I'm going to break up the elements of Theo's role as a GM in 3 sections: The Draft, Trades, and Free Agents (international and domestic).

The Draft

Theo Epstein's draft strategy for the past 3 years has been to draft the most polished positional player with the best intangibles in the first round, and then draft every possible high-upside pitching arm with the subsequent picks in the draft.

Via Mike Rosenbaum's article on Bleacher Report and originally from Baseball Reference, here's a chart that shows the pitching depth the Cubs have drafted in the last three yars:

Notable Pitching Prospects Drafted from 2012 to 2014
YearPlayerCurrent AgeCurrent Level
2012RHP Pierce Johnson23Double-A
2012RHP Paul Blackburn20Low-A
2012RHP Duane Underwood19Low-A
2013LHP Rob Zastryzny22High-A
2013RHP Tyler Skulina22Low-A
2013RHP Trey Masek22Short Season
2013RHP Trevor Clifton19Short Season
2014RHP Jake Stinnett22Rookie
2014LHP Carson Sands19Rookie
2014LHP Justin Steele18Rookie
2014RHP Dylan Cease18N/A
2014RHP James Norwood20Short Season
2014RHP Jordan Brink21Short Season

These players, taken in conjunction with Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber (taken in the first round of 2012-2014), make up a promising future for the Cubs.

This strategy is brilliant for a couple of reasons:

Mark Appel was the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft
1. So much can happen between getting drafted and playing in the big leagues, so a team should never spend their first round draft pick on a specific target because of need. Yes, the Cubs need pitching, but so did the Astros last year, and look at how great that turned out (see Mark Appel). Meanwhile, the Cubs last 4 first round picks (including Baez, but he was drafted before the Theo regime) have been terrorizing the minor leagues and look like bonafide future stars.

2. Pitchers get injured. Tommy John has already taken 39 players this year (most of whom are pitchers). Drafting 1 pitcher and putting all of your stock in him is a dangerous thing to do. The much safer option is to draft a bunch of young arms with potential in the later rounds in hopes that they pan out.

3. Mark Appel was taken in the 15th round out of high school. While he hasn't had a good pro career, he was the consensus #1 pick last year. This is the case for many pitchers who don't sign out of high school. Those players picked between rounds 5-20 who decline to go back to college typically end up being first round talents. When Kris Bryant graduated high school, the Blue Jays took him in the 18th round. See where he is now? Case in point, the first round pick should be spent on someone you can guarantee will be a star, which is what Theo has been doing. When Theo selected pitchers Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Dylan Cease in the middle rounds, he was choosing high upside high school arms who had the potential to become top-10 draft picks after 3 years in college. For all intents and purposes, Theo drafted and signed 3 potential pitching studs for cheap. That's pretty brilliant.


Not much analysis is needed here to see that Epstein has brought in a copious amount of top-tier talent as well as general farm system depth by trading away veterans who did not have much value to the Cubs. Let's just recap some of the nutty trades Theo has been able to pull off:

1. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves for Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino. 

Holy cow. Vizcaino is a former top prospect with an incredibly high ceiling whose career was slowed down by injury. The Cubs traded Paul Maholm, for a top prospect. Let that sink in.

2. Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto to Rangers for Christian Villaneuva and Kyle Hendricks.

While the Cubs did not receive any incredible talent in return, Villaneuva plays stellar defense with great doubles power while Hendricks looks to be a future middle-back of the rotation starter. Not bad for a 35 year-old pitcher and a washed up catcher.

Jake Arrieta has been unhittable as of late
3. Scott Feldman and Steve "The Cleaver" Clevenger (I may be the only one who calls him that) to the Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

When this trade was made, tears of joy were shed. I have always been such a fan of Arrieta, and Strop was a nice throw-in as well. With Samardzija gone, Arrieta has stepped up and looks like a genuine front-of-the-rotation starter while Strop continues to excel in the set-up role out of the bullpen. Needless to say, this was a great trade.

4. Matt Garza to the Rangers for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm.

I repeat my sentiment from trade number 1: holy cow. Mike Olt, the original center piece of the deal, has not panned out, but no one blamed the Cubs for obtaining who many thought was to be a future star. Justin Grimm was viewed similarly to Jake Arrieta - a top prospect who's peripherals weren't in line with their actual production. While the Cubs have used Grimm exclusively in relief, he has been a solid contributor out of the bullpen. C.J. Edwards, despite injury, has been better than advertised, and looks like the future number 2 or 3 starter for the Cubs. And finally, the Player-To-Be-Named-Later, Neil Ramirez, has been one of the best PTBNL in recent memory despite the small sample size. Ramirez, too, had some injury issues that lowered his value to the Rangers. Once promoted to the Cubs, however, Ramirez has been incredible. I personally would love to see him moved to a starter role, because his wide arsenal of pitches would fit well there.

5. Alfonso Soriano and $10m to Yankees for Corey Black

Corey Black may be one of the most unknown prospects in the Cubs farm system, but just think of him as a more raw and more electric Neil Ramirez. His curveball (when located) is unhittable, and his fastball sits in the upper-90s. Even if Corey Black was awfulm most Cubs fan are in agreement that shipping out Soriano was long overdue.

6. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Athletics for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily

Russell has 3 home runs in 11 games with the Smokies
The biggest trade of the Theo era might also have been the best for the Cubs. Jason Hammel signed with the Cubs for $6m last offseason. Because he was traded halfway through the year, he had been paid about $3m of that. Jeff Samardzija was not going to resign with the Cubs. He wanted too much money and the Cubs weren't willing to give it to him. If that's the case, why hold on to him? Hammel, a $3m journeyman starter, was having his best season of his career, and the Cubs traded him before his numbers could regress to his norm. Samardzija has no value to the Cubs as a player, because who cares if he pitches well if the Cubs aren't in a position to compete? While many Cubs fans are up in arms about the shipping out of 2 of the Cubs' best 3 pitchers, I'm ecstatic. Who cares if we win this year?

On the flip-side of that, Addison Russell is a top 5 prospect in all of baseball. Billy McKinney is top 100 (he was #2 in the A's system), and Dan Straily (former top prospect of the A's) has similar peripheral problems to Jake Arrieta, so he could end up being a great acquisition as well. Needless to say, the Cubs were looking ahead to 2016 with this trade, and they could not have acquired better prospects from anywhere else.

Free Agents

As far as free agent acquisitions go, the Cubs haven't really broken the bank on anybody. An Emilio Bonafacio here, a Wesley Wright there, the Cubs have been quietly amassing a legion of role players to flip at the deadline. Most of the aforementioned players were signed to short term deals by the Cubs and traded for prospects. Most people can agree that the Cubs thriftiness on the free agent front has saved the Cubs millions of dollars while getting them a countless number of prospects as well. However, there is one blight on the otherwise flawless record of Theo Epstein, and that blights name is Edwin Jackson.

Jackson has struggled his entire career, with a career 4.55 ERA
Edwin Jackson was Theo's Cubs equivalent of his signing of John Lackey while in Boston. The only justification I could have is that Jackson is an inning eater. Someone needs to pitch 150+ innings a year, and that's what Jackson has done every season of his career since 2007 (Fangraphs). His metrics have never been that good. He always walks a lot of people and gives up a lot of hits, but his safe, repeatable delivery keeps him injury free and on the mound deep into ball games. The problem of late of course is that Jackson has been so bad that he can't make it past the 5th inning. However, expect Edwin Jackson to start pitching a little better, as he has had an uncharacteristically bad year, and expect him to start gobbling up innings again.

Aside from these domestic free agent signings, Theo has been very aggressive and very successful with his international free agent signings. Last year, Theo inked the top two international free agents, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and shortstop Gleyber Torres. While most 16 year old free agent signings take a year or two to play in MLB-regulated leagues in the Dominican, Torres and Jimenez have been playing stateside with the Cubs affiliate in Boise this year, and they have been holding their own as 17 year-olds in rookie league hitting .211 and .255 respectively (Fangraphs). Expect these two to climb prospect rankings over the next few years, and look forward to their entrance to the majors in 2018.

Another pseudo-international signing is Cuban-defector Jorge Soler. Soler has been incredible, posting better numbers that Kris Bryant while at AA (read about that here). It's a very small sample size, yes, but still impressive nonetheless. Now that he's injury free, Soler has the look of a future all-star.

Jen-Ho Tseng has been the fastest rising Cubs prospect
The final international signing of importance is Taiwanese flame-throwing sensation Jen-Ho Tseng. The now 19 year-old Tseng has been absolutely shutting down opposing hitters in Class A Kane County. He has incredible poise and command of his arsenal for a 19 year-old, and he already has the look of a front-of-the-rotation stud. Originally listed outside of most everybody's top-20 prospect lists, Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report currently lists him at #9 in the Cubs' system. I personally have him listed at #14 on my list, but at the beginning of the year, he would have been nowhere near my top-20. Tseng has been dominate and will continue to rise through the minors and a brisk pace, assuming of course that he stays healthy. Needless to say, Epstein struck gold in this Taiwanese phenom.


I basically just summarized all of the acquisitions the Cubs made in the last 3 years under the Theo regime. Swinging pitchers like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman for top prospects takes a manipulative genius, and that's exactly what Theo is. His thrifty handling of the Ricketts' money and his shrewd trading of MLB journeymen has placed the Cubs in an incredible position to compete for the next decade and beyond.

So next time you hear someone complain about Theo Epstein, just smile to yourself, because soon, very soon, the Cubs will have incredible talent playing in Wrigley Field on a daily basis.

And that's thanks to the genius of Theo Epstein.

No comments:

Post a Comment