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October 2011 Archives

Call it a Theo-cracy

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Finally, officially, Theo Epstein is joining the Cubs, not as GM, but president of baseball operations. It might be the ideal position for a proven winner with a proven system, but who might need others on his management team to balance his recent willingness to risk big deals on big free agents.

You see, the best part of this deal might be the deals to come--the likelihood that Epstein cohorts Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod could be joining the Cubs, too, as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

Hoyer would have been a good choice for Cubs GM with or without Theo, as he has recently overseen San Diego's emphasis on player development and getting top prospects in exchange for big names like Adrian Gonzalez Hoyer may have robbed his buddy in the A-Gon deal--we'll find it over the next few years, as the former Boston prospects rise in San Diego, and Gonzalez toils to help Boston return to prominence. In losing Gonzalez, San Diego had to live with a losing season this year, but the youth movement there is similar to what brought Arizona a division title this year.

In any case, having a three-headed Team Theo is the best possible outcome for the Cubs, and could help Ricketts make up for the debacle of Jim Hendry's departure--though of course Team Theo has to clean up the Hendry mess, which among other things includes a contract commitment to a feast-or-famine first baseman at a time when the two best first basemen of the current era becoming available on the free agent market.

I think Team Theo could bring a more balanced attack than Theo would alone, decisive and aggressive, willing to take selective risks and recognizing that player development is the biggest need before getting the Cubs back in post-season shape.

It's still not clear who the Cubs will have to give up for Theo, let alone for Hoyer and McLeod, but at least we know there is new sheriff in town.

Blame it on Theo

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Theo Epstein appears set to join the Cubs with the title of GM or something better, and like the signing of Andre Dawson, the hirings of Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, and the trade for Nomar Garciaparra, the notion has many Cubs fans feeling like they have gone to heaven.

Let's just hope this thing with Theo is not like the others. In those cases, heaven turned out to be purgatory.

When Theo appeared to be on the outs in Boston, it made Tom Ricketts' job easy. How do you argue against two World Series titles? How do you argue against the combination of youthful energy and years of experience in one package? How do you argue against this: In eight seasons with Boston, Theo's teams never had fewer than 86 wins, and only three times had fewer than 95 wins.?

How do you argue against a miracle-working curse-breaker?

If Ricketts had not tried to hire Theo, and Theo had landed elsewhere, Ricketts would have been vilified. Theo's accomplisments are that hard to argue, so let's not argue them. Let's just look at a few reasons we should perhaps temper our optimism:

--He has handed out long-term, bloated contracts to free agents with little even short-term value. Examples: Daisuke Matsuzaka (which is Japanese for "Mark Prior"), John Lackey, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo. Carl Crawford may end up on this list, too, if he has another off year. Jim Hendry's Alfonso Soriano contract would fit right in here. (Check out this super-helpful spreadsheet analysis at Steal of Home for more on Theo's signings, trades, and draft choices.)

--He has made bad decisions about pitching, which is the Cubs' top need. All I really need to say is that when the White Sox were done with Bobby Jenks, Theo is the one who hired him, and on a multi-year contract. But, the Daisuke fiasco, the Lackey signing, moves for past-his-prime Eric Gagne, eternally-injured Eric Bedard and elderly John Smoltz. Meanwhile, he has traded away young top talent, or let it walk as compensation for free agent signings (Example: Casey Kelly, No. 1-ranked prospect for Boston, who left as part of the Adrian Gonzalez deal).

--On the latter point, much has been made of Theo's drafting capabilities and the role of the Carmine software prorgam in helping the club evaluate talent. But, the Cubs aren't hiring Carmine, are they? Theo has the statistical analysis chops that the Cubs want, but how much of his ability to draft and nurture young talent is his own, and how much of it is Carmine's or Boston's scouts' and minor league coaches'?

--Theo was not entirely the architect of the 2004 World Series winner. He did trade for Curt Schilling, but others like Manny Ramirez, who factored heavily in both the 2004 and 2007 championships, was brought in by a previous GM. So were Boston veterans Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek. Credit Theo with unloading Manny before his steroids scandal, though that also makes you wonder how much Boston should thank the wonders of science for its titles.

All of this is not to say I'm not excited by this hiring. If you go by accomplishments, Theo is the best baseball executive of the last decade. I didn't think Ricketts had the guts, the brains or the decisiveness to go after him, but I was wrong. Theo should be a better GM than Hendry was the last few years in particular, and the Cubs are about to be set to work on all their other needs with the World Series not even having started yet (Your plane is waiting, Mike Quade...)

In many ways, this is a no-brainer, which of course could be taken two ways--either the brain wasn't needed to make this decision, or it wasn't properly used.

Yes, the Cubs have their man. He is ready to take credit for another miracle. Does he have another one left in him?

Kenny's big surprise

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White Sox GM Kenny Williams is out to prove he can win a World Series without some annoying manager taking all the credit. So, he hired someone aboslutely no one expected, who has no record as a manager to be analyzed, and who personality-wise seems like someone who would never try to put himself at center stage by, say, heavily promoting himself through Twitter posts or saying outrageous things to back up his opinionated reputation.

Robin Ventura has an impressive body of work as a player, and except for that fight with Nolan Ryan (though most "fights" are two-sided), he has demonstrated strong character going all the way back to his career as one of the great college players, and through a gruesome ankle injury that may have affected his range as a fielder. He played in a World Series and had some big hits during postseason and in critical late regular season games, With 10 grand slams, he was pretty clutch with the bases loaded.

Still, he has no coaching experience, let alone experience as a manager. He has been in the organization advising on player development, something the Sox definitely could use help on, but he came back only a few months ago.

His hiring could be seen in one sense as a an effort to inject a really fresh perspectivbe into a team that seemed immune to motivation this season and vastly under-achieved. He is a well-liked member of the White Sox family who many current players probably will respect, and that makes the move curious enough that it could change things for the Sox the way the equally-surprising Kirk Gibson hiring changed things in Arizona (though Gibson had coaching experience).

But, let's not kid ourselves. The most important thing here is that Ventura is one of Kenny's guys, someone who is very unlikely to disagree with Kenny in public, and also someone who can easily be blamed if the Sox fall flat in 2012. Hiring experienced coaches like Dave Martinez or Sandy Alomar would have been easier to understand as moves to put the Sox back on course to win over the next few years. Going after Terry Francona, or waiting to talk to Tony LaRussa, would have put fan expectations immediately back at a high level to win it all next year.

I'm not sure what the Ventura hiring says, except that Kenny wants to feel comfortable, and that he is willing to wait longer for a winner that he thinks can be found in Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez and Chris Sale than in Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle and Adam Dunn. Are Sox fans willing to wait that long?

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