MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs need Theo Epstein to be the face of their rebuilding franchise. No one else could have overseen a total teardown and made the same arguments for patience.
The Cubs bought the brand name and the Boston Red Sox pedigree. Instead of following the money, the fans and the media would be blinded by those two World Series rings.
That sets up a fascinating dynamic within this multiyear project, because Epstein is a natural introvert who understands the worst decisions are made with public relations in mind. When he became the youngest general manager in baseball history, he believed the Red Sox had for too many years worried about what The Boston Globe sports section might look like the next morning.
With the self-imposed Opening Day deadline to complete the Wrigley Field renovation deal fast approaching, here are the two bookends for this spring: Chairman Tom Ricketts calling the last-call Tribune Co. payrolls “unsustainable” and Forbes assessing the franchise value at $1 billion, with the Cubs leading the league in operating income ($32.1 million) last year.
Even if the Forbes numbers are just projections – and not to be taken as gospel – there are questions around the highly leveraged $845 million deal the Ricketts family finalized in October 2009. (The purchase also included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.)
This isn’t a total accounting either. But beginning with Alfonso Soriano’s megadeal, the USA TODAY salary database takes this payroll snapshot from 2007 through 2011: $100 million; $118 million; $135 million; $146 million; $125 million.
A solid estimate for this year’s payroll would be just under $110 million, or about what a mid-market team would spend in an $8 billion industry.
In a recent interview – before Forbes released the valuations – Epstein acknowledged there are some challenges he didn’t fully anticipate when he took the job almost 18 months ago.
“Our ability to leverage our market size into financial advantages is more difficult than I expected,” Epstein said. “I thought that would have been something that was easier for us to do – and do now. Instead, it’s something that is out of necessity probably several years away. But given the timeline we’re on, that’s not the worst thing in the world as long as we get there.”
That won’t stop Epstein’s baseball operations department from building the team they envision.
Epstein pointed to potential “watershed events,” like the option to end the undervalued WGN television deal after the 2014 season and the revenues pouring in from a renovated Wrigley Field. (Forget the O’Hare Cubs – he didn’t buy a North Side home so he could commute to Rosemont every day.)
Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney made the home-run hire when they handed Epstein the keys to the kingdom and promised no interference.
A Mike Rizzo (Washington Nationals) or a Josh Byrnes (San Diego Padres) or a Rick Hahn (White Sox) or the next Ivy League hotshot wouldn’t have enjoyed the same grace period.
As Tim Wilken said: “You could have brought some of the other names that were mentioned back then, and I don’t think they would have had the affordability given to them by the media base and the fan base. Without a doubt.”
Wilken grew up with Jim Hendry in Dunedin, Fla., and stayed on through the regime change after his good friend was fired. He has sat with Ricketts in Boise, Idaho, watching prospects in a Class-A game. He spent 25 seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, helping Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick build two World Series winners.
Wilken’s excited about the wide-open possibilities. He says it reminds him of when the Blue Jays were an expansion team in Toronto’s baseball-naïve market.
Before Epstein toppled the Evil Empire, the Blue Jays took great pride in beating the New York Yankees, finishing ahead of them in the American League East in nine out of 10 years, capping that run with back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
Wilken got a new contract last summer when he was promoted from amateur scouting director to Epstein’s special assistant. He sees the similarities between his new boss and old mentor, how they’re both so thorough and analyze each deal from every possible angle.
“They were innovative in their own ways,” Wilken said. “They’re always shooting for high-end talent. They’re both kind of shy.
“Gillick’s got three World Series, Theo’s got two. So one more and…if the prerequisite is three World Series, then Theo’s going to be going to the Hall of Fame.”
At the age of 39, Epstein cringes at the idea of his legacy. But he has enough self-awareness to recognize that shyness and realize he keeps his inner circle tight and sometimes gets uncomfortable in bigger-group situations. Don’t mistake that for lack of confidence or conviction.
“I can turn it on,” Epstein said. “It’s a requirement of the job to do it. But it’s work and I actively hate it as I do it. I can go into situations – like a cocktail party or things like that – where I need to schmooze and I have to set my soul aside. It’s not something I can pull off on a daily basis. I loathe it.
“But it can be an important part of the job and I need to challenge myself to be better at it and maybe not take myself so seriously. If they’re going to suffer this fool, then maybe I can suffer fools as well.”
Epstein was smiling and laughing at that point. But he genuinely does not want to be the center of attention.
There’s the story about how Epstein declined the marketing department’s request to write a letter to season-ticket holders, because he didn’t want to simply put his name to advertising copy, knowing that winning is the only thing that sells the product.
Team Marketing Report crunched the numbers last year and found the Cubs charged the third-highest average ticket price in baseball ($46.30). They’re expected to keep that ranking in 2013, trailing only the Red Sox and Yankees.
Even during a 101-loss season, the Cubs still sold 2,882,756 tickets, which was the first time they didn’t hit the three-million mark since 2003.
No one is saying the Cubs should have signed Albert Pujols to a monster contract through his age-41 season. But what if the Big Three – Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza – had Yu Darvish at the top of the rotation? What if Yoenis Cespedes was hitting behind Anthony Rizzo?
[RELATED: Jeff Samardzija can't wait for Opening Day]
It was certainly curious at the 2010 winter meetings when Hendry structured Carlos Pena’s $10 million “pillow contract” in such a way that the payments were spread out across 13 months and three fiscal years.
When a Los Angeles Times report in June 2011 identified the Cubs as one of nine teams in violation of Major League Baseball’s debt service rules, a team spokesman was forced to issue a statement saying they were on “solid financial footing” with a “strong credit rating” after a complicated, unique sale.
Even with that smoke, the smart baseball play is still growing from within. The Red Sox were the talk of those winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., by landing Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, two big-ticket items that were part of an epic September 2011 collapse that forced the entire organization to hit the reset button.
The plans on the North Side also line up with the fantasy Epstein and his Red Sox staffers used to kick around the Yawkey Way offices: How cool would it be to channel Branch Rickey and roll out a starting nine of all homegrown players?
Associates also say Ricketts has a sincere interest in player development and has impressed baseball people within the organization by taking the time to visit minor-league affiliates and learn the business from the ground floor.
And it could be perfect timing if top prospects Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora live up to the hype. Major League Baseball’s new national television contracts should give each team roughly $25 million more beginning next season. By then, maybe someone else’s name will be in lights on the marquee.
“I definitely don’t like being out front,” Epstein said. “I have a core belief that the players are the most important people in the organization. That’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s what will ultimately define our success. They have the hardest jobs in the organization. They’re the ones the fans pay to see.
“I’m naturally uncomfortable when the focus is on the front office, (where) I’m also just one of many. I happen to be in a leadership position and I’ve kind of moved up through the years to get there. (But) I’m not the one who by myself will dictate the success or failure of the front office. It’s this group of people that put in the sacrifice together and work hard together in order to accomplish a common goal.”
At their first Cubs Convention, general manager Jed Hoyer found a life-size cutout of Epstein and put it on prominent display inside their Clark Street offices. (In response, Epstein had one of Hoyer’s old yearbook photos blown up.)
After tough losses, Epstein tends to throw things at his cutout. It hasn’t fallen apart yet. But the Cubs still need to put something else in its place.