October 19, 2015

SHATZMAN | Epstein’s Eye For Talent

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On Nov. 25, 2002, the Boston Red Sox hired 28-year-old Theo Epstein as general manager. The young man who had lived in New England for much of his life — he grew up in Brookline and graduated from Yale University, where he was the sports editor for the Yale Daily News — was the youngest G.M. in baseball history.

The last time the Red Sox had won the World Series before Epstein was hired, the season was cut short because of World War I. That was 1918. The next eight decades became a nightmare for Sox fans. Vin Scully’s “It gets through Buckner” was to Boston fans what “His name was Robert Paulsen” was to Edward Norton. The Curse of the Bambino felt eternal. When Theo Epstein was named G.M., it all changed.

From 1969 — the year that the league adopted divisions — until 2002, the Red Sox made the playoffs just seven times. However, in Epstein’s second season in Boston, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals for their first World Series title in 86 years. Under Epstein, the Red Sox made the post-season in six of nine seasons, adding another title in 2007. The success didn’t just come from good fortune. Sure, the Red Sox were decent before Epstein came to town. Guys like Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez were notable players, and the team was competitive, but Epstein made moves that elevated Boston from competitive to elite with a decade-long span of dominance that is still felt in post-Epstein Boston.

Two months into Epstein’s tenure, the Red Sox signed a power hitter named David Ortiz. The Twins had tried to trade Ortiz after injury problems and mediocre production, but released him instead, unable to find a trade suitor. In Boston’s two championship seasons under Epstein, Ortiz hit .301 with 41 HR and .332 with 35 HR. With the Red Sox, Ortiz has won three World Series titles, made nine All-Star Games, and just last month, he became the 27th member of the 500 HR club.

Epstein also acquired Cy-Young candidate Curt Schilling in exchange for four players who went on to make a combined zero All-Star games. Schilling helped lead the Sox to two titles, winning three games in four starts in both the ’04 and ’07 post-seasons. Ep­stein hired Terry Francona and drafted both ’08 MVP Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, among others. The hometown kid brought baseball glory back to Beantown.

The 86-year drought was the second-longest titleless streak in baseball when it ended in ’04, second to the Chicago Cubs.The Cubs last won the Fall Classic in 1908, when their ace was Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Yikes. The Cubs haven’t won a title in 107 years and haven’t appeared in a World Series since 1945. There’s the Curse of the Billy Goat. There’s Steve Bartman. There’s Steve Bartman’s turtleneck. It’s been a tough century for the Cubbies.

But in October of 2011, Theo Epstein resigned from the Red Sox and became the President of Baseball Operations for — yes — the Chicago Cubs. What Epstein has done in Chicago may ultimately top his achievements in Boston.

Epstein has transformed the Cubs from a team of declining veterans like Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, to a team full of so many young stars that nine spots on the diamond isn’t enough for them all. Not to mention that they’re in the NLCS right now playing the Mets, fighting for a trip to the Fall Classic.

Nearly every single player on the Cubs post-season roster was either signed, traded for or drafted under Epstein in the last couple of years. It’s remarkable. The Cubs traded practically nothing — Scott Feldman and Steve Clev­inger — for the best starting pitcher in the league today, Jake Arrieta. Like David Ortiz with the Twins, Epstein acquired Arrieta when he was a struggling arm with potential in Baltimore. The Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, Austin Jackson and others. They signed both Jon Lester and Jason Hammel in the offseason. Chi­cago drafted Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, 23 years old and 22 years old, respectively, who are two of the best young hitters in the league. You know their shutdown closer Hector Rondon? The Cubs signed him off of waivers in 2012.

Epstein’s eye for talent is impeccable. Not only do his teams continue to acquire top players, but they do so while giving away next-to-nothing. Epstein has a knack for determining player value and finding players who can contribute to a winning team.
When the Red Sox hired Epstein at age 28, he said he wanted to “turn the Red Sox into a scouting and player-development machine.” He succeeded in Boston, and now he is flourishing in Chicago.

At 41, Epstein has established himself as among the most influential executives in professional sports and his success is a testament to the idea that executives can have a significant effect on team success. A brilliant mind like Epstein can be the key to a winning franchise. There is more to sports than what we see on television. Theo Epstein brought winning baseball back to Boston. It’s only a matter of time until the Cubs raise the long-awaited banner, too.