Taking a Pull from Theo Epstein’s Saintly Patience

Inside what was an otherwise depressing Major League Baseball preview issue that properly pegged the Cubs to finish dead last, ESPN the Magazine carried a feature on Cubs president Theo Epstein that crapped muted, cheerful hope as only America’s most-watched sports network can.

Tim Keown’s March 31 article from spring camp in Mesa, Ariz., hit on the usual high points sung by Cubs diehards: Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant; the juxtaposition of Epstein’s 21st century business method against Jim Hendry’s archaic “he’s a physical specimen” style of decision making; and, of course, the plans to renovate Wrigley Field.

Overall, the crux of the piece took its cue from one important Epstein quote:

A lot of local beat writers ask us all these pessimistic questions. … There’s definitely a dichotomy with how we’re perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization. There’s a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable. We all feed off that and enjoy coming to work each day, so those questions stand out as being a bit disconnected.

I’m often very suspicious of anyone that uses the word “vibe” and “palpable” seriously, but the negativity that Epstein references toward beat writers is the same pessimism I’ve witnessed from many Cubs fans, even in the Theo years.

And don’t think I’m judging here. While I’m an optimist in all things real life, I’ve spent the last four seasons as backup singer to the band of North Side misanthropes.

Theo Epstein jams out during a concert that also (apparently) featured music legend Peter Gammons. Photo by Flickr user 64Jazzbass

I blame my own impatience for that. As a fan, I’ve always hated sports preseasons, including spring training, as well as developmental leagues.

I covered single-A baseball for five years as a sportswriter, and on some of those summer nights, the seats were packed. While I loved that beat, I was also realistic: More than 90 percent of those butts in the seats were there for baseball’s outdoor experience, not to soak up the excitement of bearing witness to an ambiguous “future of baseball.”

I don’t blame them. As fans, these things mean nothing. I want the real thing. Bring me a World Series. Now.

But if you can manage to strip out that emotion and look at things objectively, you do begin to see that Epstein is doing some pretty amazing things.

Want proof? Set aside an hour to read this long but deeply reported piece by Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation. Among other things, he describes a remarkably tangled Cubs sale from the Tribune Company to the Ricketts family. In the end, there might not be as much money for Epstein to play with as we think.

Also, as Keown aptly points out in the ESPN the Magazine article, the MLB shored up one of the key strategies Epstein utilized in Boston: the more free agents you lost, the more draft pick you got, and you had a better chance of landing the big one by flashing big bonus cash. But the bonus cap killed that.

Yet, Epstein is still reeling in young talent. In one of Keown’s best line of the piece, he writes:

“…Beneath the surface, Epstein is buying and flipping veteran free agents the way investors buy and flip run-down houses with good bones” (see Matt Garza trade).

I know some fans are still hungover from “In Dusty we trusty,” but perhaps there’s time yet for “In Theo we trust.”

I’m willing to be patient.

But I do hope they hurry.

Matt Veto

Matt Veto is a former sportswriter and columnist from Moline, Ill. Today, he’s a journalism professor in northeastern Pennsylvania. Once comfortable wearing his Cubs hat in public, he now feels the stink-eyed gazes of perplexed East Coast gawkers.

About Matt Veto

10 comments
DougGreen1
DougGreen1

What we want is long-term success. The best way to get there is to establish a pipeline throughout the minor league system. Will they all be superstars? Nope. Will they all make it to the Majors? Nuh uh. BUT, if you're scouting department is strong enough and you're minor league coaching sound enough, you can regularly send quality players to the big league club, replenishing talent, and keeping your payroll from becoming (Yankees) bloated. You see, other teams have this crazy idea of actually hanging on to their good players. If one does happen to move on, chances are good that you are going to have to pay more than the market rate (Soriano) to secure their services. Growing your own is really the way to go. 

Jobber8742
Jobber8742

I've never had a problem with Epstein. He has something to prove and he's going about doing it. What I have had a problem with is the ownership. It is quite obvious to me what they are doing. Everything they are doing is in attempt to cut costs and increase profits. They are in over their heads and the Cubs are paying the price for it. They are relying on Epstein to build a team on a skeleton budget and hoping it's enough. But what do you get when you do that, you get prospects who may or may not turn out to be what you think they will be, and even if they do, you sell them off at their peak because you can't afford to keep them. The only chance you have is hoping they are good enough as they are hitting their prime. I've always felt they need to do both. So many can't miss prospects do miss. A player can absolutely dominate the minor leagues, but then never figure out the major leagues. Say two or three of these prospects turn out, great, but odds are, several won't. Then what? We wait 5 more years and hope the next group is better. If you don't have the money to spend, you can't supplement with high quality free agents. And then you're the Pirates and finally 20 years later, you are decent. I can't say that I have any excitement for the future. I hope you all are right, but I reserve judgment until I actually see it.

CoreyFineran
CoreyFineran

@DougGreen1  Good points, Doug.  I think Cubs fans can always point to failed prospects as a reason to not trust prospects.  It's scouting AND development, and my hunch is the Cubs were not good in years past with developing talent.  

Kurtis Tucker
Kurtis Tucker

Some pretty good muscle flexing in the comments too.

CoreyFineran
CoreyFineran

@Jobber8742  Also, I understand the reservations you have, but I think spending large amounts of money on aging players past their peak years is more detrimental to the future of an organization.  That's the situation where if it doesn't work out, you have to wait 5 years to "try it again", because you've got these long, bad contracts to wait out.  

The Cubs have been able to set up a pipeline of highly touted prospects?  Will all of them work out?  No, of course not.  But it's easy to dismiss prospects in favor of big money free agents....which were at one time prospects. 

CoreyFineran
CoreyFineran

@Jobber8742  I would strongly suggest reading the comprehensive piece that Brett from Bleacher Nation wrote and Veto links in this post.  

DougGreen1
DougGreen1

@CoreyFineran @DougGreen1  I think they weren't so hot in the scouting department either. I think they gambled too much on "upside" instead of finding guys who would have solid, steady careers. Couple that with minor league managers that weren't really teachers and you have several years (decades) of frustration.