Just a couple of years ago, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy put out a seemingly typical sports biography, Francona: The Red Sox Years. While the guts of the publication obviously centered around its titular character, manager mensch Terry Francona, the baseball world would latch onto something else. In one passage, former Boston GM Theo Epstein blew the whistle on Red Sox brass and the extent to which owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president Larry Lucchino meddled in baseball operations.
One quote attributed to Epstein stood out far beyond any other:
They told us we didn’t have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle. We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We’d become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.
The overt interference in baseball ops would be the nail in the coffin for the Epstein era in Boston. Bridges were burned by the forced mega-acquisitions, and so were the Sox. The team’s shift into overdrive backfired spectacularly, and the rest was history.
Fast forward to Thursday morning, when cubs owner Tom Ricketts joined WSCR 670 AM’s Mully and Hanley Show to discuss some of the major steps of evolution taking place within the organization, from the hiring of manager Joe Maddon to the renovation of Wrigley field to the ongoing war of attrition with the rooftop parasites.
Ricketts’ answers were fairly predictable: The organization is elated with the hiring of Maddon, relieved to be finally in the process of modernizing the ballpark, and cautiously optimistic that business with the now-desperate rooftoppers has taken a decided turn for the pragmatic and civil.
But then came the topic of TV deals, and it was on that note that Ricketts would offer up a particularly illuminating comment:
The next big financial change to the Cubs will be the new television contract. What you’ve seen in baseball over the past handful of years is that the teams that are most aggressive in signing free agents, or teams that are spending more, are teams that have recently renewed their television deals.
There’s a very important and convenient confluence of events coming together on the North Side. Three years of drafting, flipping and outright sucking on purpose have infused the Cubs organization with a deep base of young, cost-controlled talent. Three years of trimming payroll fat has produced tremendous financial flexibility. And, as importantly as anything else, breaking the shackles of the WGN contract has spurred the long-awaited push toward 21st century revenue from 21st century TV money.
So when report after report implicates the Cubs in virtually every available player, from Jon Lester to Russell Martin to guys like Cole Hamels who aren’t even free agents, there are two concurrent factors at play. On the baseball side, the Cubs are ready to compete, or, at the very least, to stop sucking on purpose.
In a typically thorough piece over the summer, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and Fox Sports (read it here) highlighted that by BaseRuns expected record, the Cubs had significantly outplayed their record last year, and the teams that do that tend to see a substantial positive correction the following year. Those are your “breakout” teams. Cubs baseball ops knows this, and it’s ready to step on the gas.
But it’s the business side that benefits from rumor after rumor after rumor that the Cubs are in hot pursuit of every free agent. Every big name that enters the mix could mean TV suitor Y just topped the offer of TV suitor X. And every big name that signs with the team could mean TV suitor Z just edged ahead of TV suitor Y.
So is Epstein having post-traumatic flashbacks? Is his stomach churning is disgust from the thought of meddlesome ownership once again putting in a not-so-optional request to go after some of that sizzle? Not this time. Everything just happens to be coming together, with baseball and business dovetailing, and it’s about to get wild.