When we think of the Cubs organization, we think of special talents. Players like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell are considered all but untouchable. In a game of replaceable players, they are about as irreplaceable as it gets when it comes to their combination of skill and value.
Perhaps we can say the same of their current President Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein.
In a world where the term gets thrown around so loosely, we tend to take genius for granted. And I am not talking about the kind of genius label you can get by paying a fee and then taking a test. I am talking about individuals who are exceptionally intelligent and creative in their particular field. I am talking about innovators; people with vision; people who can see the big picture in the smallest things; people who can see change before it happens and act on it before the rest of the world catches on.
The speed and accessibility of information today has blurred the line between those who innovate and those who simply co-opt. It can be done so quickly and cleverly that it becomes difficult to distinguish original ideas from the multitudes of facsimiles. With the continuous changes we see in baseball, the Cubs need someone to lead. They need someone to stay ahead of the game.
An executive of a rival team once talked to me about the value of Epstein that goes beyond the use of existing data and process; beyond the instant credibility that comes with two World Series titles and the foundation for a 3rd. That is undoubtedly important, but there is more to Epstein than that.
The Cubs have yet to reach their ultimate goal of winning a World Series, but the impact of Epstein is clear. He took over the Cubs under a certain set of rules that he had already learned to exploit well. When those rules were changed, there was some apprehension — could Epstein still work his magic even as the game closed some of the loopholes he used to build a juggernaut in Boston?
It turns out that the magic wasn’t all in Epstein’s existing knowledge. It was in his ability to adapt and stay ahead of the game. When the draft put limitations on past creative measures, Epstein found new ways to procure high level talent. When IFA pools restricted his ability to outspend, yet still get tremendous value, Epstein quickly calculated that it would still profit to blow through those limits and that the reward would easily outdistance the penalties. When he saw a shortage of RH power hitters (and power hitters in general) in the post-steroid era, Epstein was again ahead of the game. He stocked up and built a surplus which gives the Cubs huge reserves of what is perhaps the game’s greatest currency.
Sure, every organization is doing those things now, but the point is that Epstein was doing it then. There is a certain level of comfort knowing that Epstein can adapt to any environment under any set of rules. We’ve often said here that if the game is going to continue to change (and it will), the Cubs are fortunate to have Epstein at the helm to find a way to beat the new system, whatever that may be.
This is not to take anything away from Jed Hoyer or Jason McLeod, who are tremendous talents in their own right. They do what they do exceptionally well. They too are among the best in baseball.
But that is part of the equation. Having Epstein around to do what he does allows Hoyer and McLeod to excel at what they do. There are few people who are put in the position to succeed that they are. As good as they are individually, having the three of them together allows them all to best utilize their own area of expertise.
They are smart and confident. They are not Epstein clones; they are unquestionably their own person. That is more than enough to challenge Epstein and in some cases, win the day. Like any intelligent person, Epstein is smart enough to know he doesn’t know everything. He is smart enough to defer to the expertise around him.
While there are many who can follow Epstein’s lead, to think that Epstein is replaceable is a mistake. It’s a mistake to think that just any PBO would bring the same things to the organization when we don’t know the challenges and changes that lie ahead.
We do feel pretty good about Epstein’s ability to innovate, create, and adapt because he has done it as the head of two elite, but very different organizations already. We already know he’s the real deal and not a close approximation. We have seen it first hand.
So, let’s not blur that line. Cubs fans have suffered through too many bad owners and front offices to let any of it go. We have no real reason to feel everything will still be OK if we break up what might be the best group of minds in baseball — and certainly among those that work together best.
Ricketts cannot afford to take this kind of innovation and creativity for granted. He needs to extend Epstein. And the sooner the better.
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