Theo Epstein’s not finished building his legacy
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There's little doubt that Theo Epstein will go down as one of the best baseball executives of the modern era should he lead the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908.
That would make three championships, with two storied franchises that were known for futility before Epstein arrived. If the Cubs break through, then what's left for the 42-year-old president of baseball operations? Well, he recently signed a new deal that keeps him in Chicago for the next five years at $50 million. Of course, he can walk away from that to pursue whatever new challenge he likes.
Those who have known Epstein a long time have suggested him as a future Democratic US Senator from Illinois or Massachusetts. Epstein has never publicly stated any political aspirations, but some Democrats have said that Epstein would make an outstanding politician, one who could even consider a presidential run at some point.
"There's no doubt that Theo probably has a few other things he'd like to do with his life other than baseball," said one longtime friend. "Baseball is very important to him, but there are other issues that are near and dear to him as well. Not saying he'll address those things soon, but let's just say he probably has a bucket list of things he'd like to do."
For now, Epstein will stick to baseball, and Chicagoans hope he serves the full term of his contract — though we know how fickle fans and media can be. After the Red Sox' debacle of September 2011, which cost Terry Francona his job and led Epstein to defect to Chicago, there wasn't much disappointment among the Boston fan base that Epstein had left.
There's more of it now that Epstein has rebuilt the Cubs from scratch. Epstein always thought that 10 years is a proper shelf life for anyone in his position, and he fell just short of a decade with the Red Sox.
Francona, whom Epstein had to fire before leaving for Chicago, said this about Epstein: "He's too smart and he's too driven not to succeed. I mean, if some people can see two or three things at once, he can see 10 or 12, and you need to keep up or he'll let you know. But I also knew when things got tough where I could go, and in Boston a lot of times, that's a feeling, and that was a good feeling. I mean, just the fact that I told these guys yesterday, eight years together there, I think, speaks volumes."
In Chicago, Epstein took former general manager Jim Hendry's competitive team and turned it into his own. He had the blessing of team owner Tom Ricketts . Imagine, a Hillary Clinton supporter (Epstein) and a Donald Trump supporter (Ricketts) working toward a common goal. If only politics worked that way.
Epstein carefully dissected the roster, shedding bad veteran contracts — Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Carlos Marmol, and Tyler Colvin among them. He's had many coups — acquiring Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop from the Orioles for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman really began to make this a very good team.
There were great drafts and other good deals, such as acquiring Anthony Rizzo and signing Jon Lester and then John Lackey. He re-signed Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young candidate this season. He traded for Aroldis Chapman, and brought in veterans such as David Ross, Ben Zobrist, and Dexter Fowler.
He brought along young players Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant, and made a great deal for shortstop Addison Russell.
One mistake was signing free agent outfielder Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million deal last winter. Heyward hit .230 with just seven home runs in 530 at-bats this season and has lost playing time in the postseason. But Epstein's misses have been few and far between.
It took a few years, but Epstein's vision became a reality when his Cubs won 97 games in 2015 and 103 games this year. And now they are on the precipice of the biggest thing to ever happen to Chicago.
The Cubs have become America's team. Everyone wants them to win — well, except those patient folks in Cleveland, whose Indians haven't won a championship since 1948. The sports world believes, without any scientific polling, that it is the Cubs' turn.
I've lost track of how may Red Sox fans I've met in recent days who are rooting for the Cubs because of Epstein and Lester and Ross and because of how great it would be for the Cubs to end an even longer futility streak than the Red Sox had. Red Sox fans understand how good that moment felt in 2004. And now Chicagoans and Cubs fans around the country want that same feeling.
The Cubs and Red Sox should be very good again next season and for many seasons to come. They are destined to compete for a World Series sometime, aren't they? Wouldn't it be a better story line if the Cubs were still lovable losers when that happened?
And if Epstein were to beat the Red Sox and the Cubs end their drought that way? Ah, stories like that come along once every 108 years or so.
Smith moving on from Padres
One of the more unique careers in baseball belongs to Randy Smith.
He was let go recently by the Padres after not meshing with GM A.J. Preller. Smith is 53, and has been in baseball for 33 years.
He's been the GM of the Padres (at age 29) and the Tigers (fired by Dave Dombrowski when he took over as team president). Smith now finds himself in pursuit of another job in baseball or a media career.
"I've enjoyed everything I've ever done in baseball and I've held every front office position in baseball," Smith said. "If I'm perceived as old school and if that means I respect the game and the people in it, then so be it. I've also been involved in the analytics aspect and certainly understand the importance of it in this game. My dad [former Houston Astros president Tal Smith] was probably the first baseball executive to hire an analytics person to his front office, so I'm very well versed in it."
The Padres also fired team president Mike Dee, but that was merely a coincidence, said Smith, who said he was fired days before Dee.
Smith has also worked in international scouting, has been a special assignment scout, and worked in player development.
Smith said he harbors no ill will toward Preller, who recently returned from a 30-day suspension imposed by the commissioner's office for withholding important medical information from the Red Sox in the Drew Pomeranz deal.
"It's A.J.'s prerogative as the general manager to have his own people in place. I understand that," Smith said. "There are no hard feelings from my end."
As for his relationship with Dombrowski, Smith said, "I always thought we had a good relationship before and after the Detroit situation. I've always respected Dave. He's had a great career and put together some great rosters over the years."
Apropos of nothing
1. With Eddie Romero now assistant GM with the Red Sox, the team should seriously consider hiring his father, former utility infielder Ed Romero Sr., who has been a top instructor and scout. The elder Romero was out of baseball last season, a victim of some of the emphasis baseball has placed on analytics personnel.
2. Commissioner Rob Manfred is encouraged by the preparation of the United States team that will compete in the World Baseball Classic next spring. "We had a very positive meeting with ownership two days ago about commitment to the WBC, and support for the event is absolutely unanimous among ownership," Manfred said. "We spent a lot of time drilling down on the details of that support, what the clubs need from us and what we need from the clubs in terms of support, and it was a really positive, positive meeting. Joe Torre, who is acting as the GM of the American team, and Jim Leyland, who is going to be our manager, are hard at work. Early indications are we're going to have the best US team ever. In terms of the teams from other countries, we know there are a number of them that are going to be really, really strong. So I think we're going to have the best WBC ever. And given the difficulties associated with playing major league players in the Olympics, I think it's important for baseball to continue to have a premier international event. We need to work hard to make sure that the WBC is that event."
3. Looks like there's going to be a neutral-site international game in spring training or during the 2017 regular season, besides the games in Montreal. "I think it is imperative that our sport continue to develop a broader international footprint," Manfred said. "It is the way that the media landscape is going to evolve, attracting international audiences is going to be absolutely crucial. I think it's an area where we need to continue to focus. Our players need to be prepared to go to different countries and play, because I think it's crucial to building the popularity of the game in other countries."
4. Cubs manager Joe Maddon spent years in the Angels organization and he remembers working with a young catcher named Mike Napoli on his base running and hitting in the lower fields at spring training. "He's always been a good baseball player. He's a very good catcher. The pitcher used to love to throw to him back then. He was really considered a very good receiver. I always thought he could be a first baseman. He's very athletic. This guy gets off his feet if he needs to jump. So it doesn't surprise me at all about him," Maddon said.
5. As David Ross winds down his career, he said that he's trying to commit every moment to memory. After he threw out Francisco Lindor trying to steal in Game 2 of the World Series, Ross said the Indians' Carlos Santana said to him, "You know, congrats on a great career. I really admire the way you carry yourself." Little things like that. "Those go a long ways when you're respected by your peers," Ross said. "The [Indians'] backup catcher said something to me during BP which was neat to me, how much he respected me. Those things go a long way."
Updates on nine
1. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Indians — Ramirez is 5 feet 9 inches, 180 pounds, and small is definitely in these days in major league baseball. "Ever since I was little, I've always been fascinated by baseball and watching the World Series on TV, and I would tell my mom, 'Wow, that's incredible. I really want to play in the World Series. I want to be a professional baseball player,' " Ramirez said. "And my mom would tell me, 'You're too little. You can't play at this level. You look at your dad, he's small too, and when you get older, you're going to be little as well.' But my dad would always tell me [about] all the other small guys that were in major league baseball." Yes, look at Jose Altuve, Dustin Pedroia, and Mookie Betts, to name three. There are many others.
2. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets — Cespedes intends to opt out of the $47.5 million remaining on his contract in hopes of landing a bigger deal. While there have been suggestions that the Red Sox might be interested based on his playing for Dave Dombrowski in Detroit, it seems that Cespedes didn't especially like it in Boston, and the Red Sox staff wasn't crazy about him, either.
3. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays — Even after an injury-filled season, don't expect Bautista to accept a $17.2 million qualifying offer from the Jays, according to a major league source. The feeling is Bautista, 36, will get multiyear offers in free agency. Boston could be a preferred destination, with Bautista having played for John Farrell and Brian Butterfield in Toronto. Bautista also loves Fenway Park.
4. Wilson Ramos, C, Nationals — Given his recent surgery for a torn ACL — his second procedure on his right knee — will the Nationals give Ramos a qualifying offer following his breakout season at age 29? Washington offered Ramos a three-year, $30 million deal this summer and he declined. Last offseason, the Orioles gave their injured catcher, Matt Wieters, a qualifying offer, and Wieters returned to have a strong year, though not as good as Ramos's.
5. Wladimir Balentien, OF, Yakult Swallows — Balentien, 32, is eyeing a return to the major leagues. The Curacao-born, righthanded slugger last appeared in the majors in 2009 but has rebuilt his career in Japan. He broke Sadaharu Oh's Japanese season home run record by hitting 60 in 2013, and has hit 31 homers four other times in Japan.
6. DeMarlo Hale, bench coach, Blue Jays — Hale could join Torey Lovullo and Gary DiSarcina as managerial candidates in Arizona. Hale worked with new Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen in the Red Sox system for many years and has always had Hazen's respect. Hale has interviewed for managerial jobs in the past but sometimes as a requirement for a minority candidate. But with Hazen at the helm in Arizona, it would appear interest in Hale could be legitimate, though Lovullo is seen as the front-runner for the job.
7. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox — Pedroia won the "Fielding Bible" award as the majors' top defensive second baseman. This is the fourth such award for Pedroia, who has also won four Gold Gloves and is a finalist this season. This is a far cry from last offseason, when there were concerns about Pedroia's defense. Mookie Betts was Fielding Bible's top right fielder.
8. Wade Davis, RHP, Royals — The Royals intend to pick up Davis's $10 million option but are open to dealing him. A Royals source indicated the team would like to get controllable starting pitching in return. Davis makes sense for a lot of teams, including Boston and Toronto.
9. Alex Cobb, RHP, Rays — Tampa Bay is open to dealing a starting pitcher. Cobb was shaky in five outings after returning from Tommy John surgery, but he's expected to be his old self in 2017. The Rays are looking to land a quality hitter or prospects in return for one of their starters not named Chris Archer.
From the Bill Chuck files: "Only 15 pitchers threw 200-plus innings in 2016, the fewest for any non-labor-dispute-shortened season. The previous record was 23 pitchers in the 1953 season." Also, "According to Fielding Bible guru John Dewan: SS Xander Bogaerts went from minus-1 in runs saved in 2015 to minus-10 in runs saved in 2016." . . . Happy birthday, Marco Scutaro (41), Andy Dominique (41), Mark Portugal (54), Dave Valle (56), and Tom Poquette (65).