Even though the expiration date on Theo Epstein’s Cubs tenure read “Best by 10/2021,” the milk was starting to curdle and it had become abundantly clear that the time had come to move on. Beyond the reports that he was still mulling his future with the team, there was the obvious quandary created by the need to remain somewhat competitive while at the same time undergoing what appears to be a drastic reduction in payroll.
So after frequently citing the late Bill Walsh’s concept that 10 years in one place is the limit, Epstein is stepping down a year early.
He certainly could have presided over a fire sale or whatever less pejorative term you’d like to apply to whatever this winter’s strategic moves will entail, but he would have done so as a lame duck with no long-term investment in the team’s direction. That would have effectively neutered him as an exec since his only real task would be to slash salary, something I’ve said for a while now would likely lead to his departure.
Sure enough, he laid those realities out in a letter he sent to colleagues explaining his decision to step down. The Athletic obtained a copy of the note, which it printed in full, but we’re just going to focus on the three reasons Epstein listed.
First, the organization faces many decisions this winter that carry long-term consequences; those types of decisions are best made by someone who will be here for a long period rather than for just one more year. Second, as we know all too well, COVID-19 has brought serious threats and impacts to our business and our people — and to every sports franchise in the country — and we must face the immediate challenge of how to allocate our temporarily reduced resources in a way that allows us to move forward and to succeed. In a way my presence in 2021 would actually make that challenge more difficult.
This is all a very diplomatic way of saying that the budget handed down to baseball operations is much lower than in the past and, for lack of a better term, the front office is f*#&ed this winter. This seems to lend a great deal of credence to Buster Olney’s report that the Cubs are making it known they’re willing to listen to offers on anyone and everyone in an effort to retool and, more importantly, cut costs.
The idea that the Cubs have “temporarily reduced resources” is far from novel, particularly after two previous winters of discontent when it comes to free agent additions. More important than avoiding the competitive balance tax threshold for the first time in three years, which they can do easily given the salaries falling off the books, is respecting the balance of ownership’s checkbook.
So while it may be purely coincidental that Epstein’s $10 million annual salary is identical to the buyout the Cubs will have to pay Jon Lester for 2021, you have to believe Tom Ricketts is more than pleased to have those sums balance out. The baseball ops leader said during his presser that Ricketts did not bring up money when they discussed the decision, though he implied heavily that the surplus can be “allocated” elsewhere. I can totally imagine the owner going all Willy Wonka with a half-hearted, “Wait…come back,” when Epstein decided to leave.
More than anything, Epstein simply realized that the next phase for the organization is going to take longer than a year to play out. If he’s not going to be around to shepherd the Cubs through the changes, it only makes sense to hand the reins off and then peace the F out.
Last, Jed Hoyer is more than ready to lead the Cubs into their next chapter. Well respected in all corners of the organization and the industry — and with experience as a Baseball Operations “number one” already on his resume — Jed offers continuity that will preserve our areas of strength. At the same time, Jed is realistic about the areas where we need to improve and is unafraid to make necessary changes, as evidenced by his role in 2019’s restructuring and re-modernization of our amateur scouting and player development departments.
Listen, Epstein was always going to say the right thing about all of this and no one expected him to throw anyone under the bus. That said, there’s got to be an element of “Take this job and shove it” going on here as those wheelbarrows of cash never showed up. Just as ownership was banking on big returns from investments in the Wrigleyville infrastructure and Marquee Sports Network, Epstein and Hoyer had undoubtedly done the same with their budget projections.
We were all told, after all, that the new broadcast network would produce much larger revenues that would be available immediately for player payroll. Except that those expectations were walked back immediately, well before the pandemic set in and accelerated a shift away from regional sports networks that had already begun well before Marquee was established. There’s also the notion that the front office was actually very well aware of the potential for budgetary backlash several years ago.
Epstein is clearly not without blame for the Cubs’ disappointing results over the last few seasons, so I’m not going to sit here and build a case for his immediate beatification. However, the promise of near-unlimited financial resources simply never came to pass as massive investments in Wrigley Field’s renovation and the (over)development of the surrounding area turned revenue streams into little rivulets that quickly dried up once the pandemic struck.
Again, Epstein is far too diplomatic to say any of this aloud in public. Instead, he gushed about how “Crane Kenney and our talented partners in the business operation are poised to resume their track record of outstanding revenue growth when we move past the current crisis.” Probably because I’m a cynic who doesn’t care much for the Cubs’ biz ops practices, I read that last little section of the letter as being at least a little facetious.
When you really get down to it, I’m sure Epstein was just tired. After nearly three decades in baseball, most of which has been spent heading up two of the most storied franchises in two of the most high-pressure environments imaginable, it’s time for a break. With more than enough money to enjoy himself for as long as he wants, Epstein can now relax with his family while exploring new interests or indulging in those he’s only been able to piddle with in the past.
And who knows, maybe the lure of chasing another title in another city will eventually prove too much to resist. Bruce Levine tweeted shortly after Epstein’s announcement that the Phillies were planning an aggressive pursuit, and many believed the Mets would come calling after new owner Steve Cohen cleaned house. It should not be lost on anyone that Philly’s John Middleton previously talked about spending “stupid money” while Cohen has pledged to run his club without regard for profit margins.
That’s quite a departure from Epstein’s now-former boss warning about how baseball teams really don’t make much money. Those words don’t carry weight when they come from a man whose sparkling new office building sits across the street from a $500-a-night boutique hotel and overlooks a ballpark upgraded by nearly $1 billion of renovations. Regardless of how much veracity you ascribe to Ricketts’ claims, it’s been clear for quite some time that the budget was going to keep shrinking.
So Epstein did the right thing, exiting stage left to let his buddy get his own hands dirty on a new roster renovation. By so doing, he leaves a legacy that will be best remembered for the long-awaited title the Cubs finally delivered in 2016. Add that to his success in Boston and you’ve got a man with unimpeachable Hall of Fame credentials. The blemishes, while very real and very present, will fade away completely over time.
I only hope the same can be said for the growing vitriol toward ownership, though not because I’m concerned with how the Ricketts family is perceived. Rather, a return to even grudging acceptance would signal that the team is being run more like a major-market organization valued north of $3 billion should be. Epstein may actually have a hand in that going forward, as he quipped that he’s likely to become a Cubs season ticket holder in the future. That’ll make up for the two this site didn’t renew for 2021.
In the meantime, you may want to go ahead and gird your loins for what promises to be a very interesting offseason.