8 Culture Changes Theo Epstein Can Bring The Cubs

25 Oct
Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Epstein introduced as Cubs Baseball President

Even before former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was formally introduced as the new Cubs President of Baseball Operations, writers gave their opinions of what he should do with the Cubs. It was the typical assortment of obvious suggestions, like “get rid of Soriano & Zambrano” and “go after free agent Prince Fielder b/c you’ll both help your team while weakening your division rival.”

I don’t like being Captain Obvious but I do like giving opinions. Epstein in his introductory press conference today mentioned several times about changing the culture within the Cubs. So aside from making the culture focus on winning, here are some of my thoughts on what else Epstein can do about changing the Cubs culture.

1. Fire Mike Quade. Okay, so this suggestion was also voiced by some of those Captain Obvious writers, but here’s my spin on this one. Nothing says culture change than firing the manager who brought a losing culture (91 losses) to the Cubs, even while trying to win a few extra games down the stretch of the lost season by playing veterans instead of developing youngsters. Quade also was clueless when asked about Starlin Castro‘s focus issues on the field. Clearly, Quade has no managerial vision. A nice guy who loves to give strange nicknames probably can stay in the organization as a coach of some sort at some level, but managing is over his head.

Some writers argue that Epstein retained manager Grady Little when Epstein took over as Boston GM in Nov 2002 and didn’t hire a new manager until the following season. But Little and Quade share no similarities. Little had just finished a 95-win season in Boston; Quade has just finished a 71-win season.

If Epstein doesn’t fire Quade, Epstein will lose almost immediately all the goodwill built up by his arrival.

2. No long-term contracts unless they are front-loaded, performance-based, or both. In Epstein’s press conference today, he alluded to the fact that he learned from his mistakes (apparently in reference to John Lackey‘s 5-year, $82 million contract and Carl Crawford‘s 7-year, $142-million contract), and that contracts will be based on future performance, not past performance. To have Epstein recognize and declare this is music to Cubs fans’ ears.

Worthless long-term contracts is also a sensitive topic among the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano‘s 8-year, $136 million contract still has three years left. Carlos Zambrano has one year remaining on his five-year, $91.5 million contract. Ryan Dempster is expected to exercise his $14 million player option to return to the Cubs for 2012.

Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry often gave escalating salaries in long-term deals, which is short-sighted. If you’re signing a free agent because he is perceived to be valuable now, why would you then pay that player more money later in his career when his skills are likely to have diminished, rather than earlier in his career?

3. No long-term contracts to people past their prime, or even to players currently in their prime. Epstein also addressed this in his press conference, saying that a player’s prime is roughly between 26-32 years of age. Studies done by Bill James and other analysts confirm that baseball players generally peak in their mid- to late twenties. Lackey was already 32 when Epstein signed him to that five-year mega-contract. Soriano was 30 when Hendry signed him to that eight-year mega-deal. Dempster was 31 when Hendry signed him to a four-year, $52 million deal. See the pattern? Big bucks given to players who are at the tail end of their prime, and then the length of those contracts keep those aging players  chained to their teams for many years past their prime.

Prince Fielder at 27 is in his prime right now. Albert Pujols is 31. Both will seek long-term contracts in the neighborhood of $200 million. Is it a wise investment to pay for a guy whose value can only go down from here?

Consider the strategy that fellow noted sabermetrics GM, Tampa Bay’s Andrew Friedman, employs as described in the book The Extra 2%. Friedman gives long-term contracts to young players, not aging players. Thus, the contracts end when the player is nearing the end of his prime years, capturing those players’ “best seasons without breaking the bank.” For example, when Carl Crawford was 23, he was given a 4-year, $15.25 million contract with two team options (discussed in next point below). Over the duration of that contract, baseball analysis web site FanGraphs showed that Crawford produced $108.9 million worth of value, far outpacing his salary. Once Crawford hit the free agent market for 2010, his prime years were nearly all behind him and it ironically was the Red Sox who overpaid for a long duration of Crawford’s post-prime years.

Another example was the Rays giving 23-year-old rookie Evan Longoria a six-year, $17.5 million contract. This would give the Rays control over Longoria until he was 29 (in 2013). Already, Longoria has far outplayed his contract.

Of course, if Crawford and Longoria didn’t pan out, the Rays would still be on the hook with two long-term contracts, but the risks are much lower when compared to the risk of older players with mega-contracts who don’t pan out, like Lackey and Soriano.

Signing Fielder or Pujols to a long-term contract will be a mistake as soon as the ink is dry. It will be like Soriano redux, trust me…great for everybody during the first year or two, but make you want to bang your head on the wall all the remaining years of the deal.

4. The only “goodie” given out in long-term contracts should be the team option. Hendry was infamous for giving out no-trade clauses in contract negotiations, as well as player options. Carlos Zambrano has a no-trade clause. Derrek Lee had one too. So does Aramis Ramirez. And Alfonso Soriano. If you dealt with Hendry, you probably got one too.

No-trade clauses make trading an unproductive player difficult. The Cubs need to get out of the business of doling out no-trade clauses. They also need to end the practice of giving “player options” in contracts, which gives the player the right to choose whether to stay with the team for an extra season at a pre-determined salary or to enter free agency. Instead, the Cubs need to give “team options” instead, which gives the team the right to choose whether to keep the player or let him leave. Remember Dempster? He has a player option that is expensive for his team (at his age, odds are pretty good he won’t be performing like a $14 million starter in 2012).

Meanwhile, no one embraces team options (aka club options) like Friedman and the Rays. Friedman tacked on two team options to Crawford’s original contract, thus effectively controlling him for six years. The Rays also signed starting pitcher James Shields to a four-year, $11.25 million contract…with not one, not two, but three team options that could extend the deal to seven years but only if the Rays see that Shields continues to pitch effectively for each of those three  years after age 30. Less than halfway through Shields’ deal, the Rays have already made their money back.

Team options are excellent ways to offset the risk/reward of managing players who may or may not be at the cusp of diminishing skills.

5. Let free agents walk. What is a Type A free agent anyway? Does that mean they are go-getters? Um, no. According to about.com, if a team offers its player salary arbitration and the player refuses to accept the offer in order to become a free agent, the Elias Sports Bureau determines whether the free agent is “Type A”, “Type B”, or neither. Type A free agents are those who are in the top 20% in their positional group. Type B free agents are those who are in the top 21-40% of their positional group. All other free agents are neither type. If another team signs your free agent and he is “Type A”, then you get two draft picks: either a 1st round pick or a second round pick (depending on other factors), and a “sandwich” pick between the 1st and 2nd rounds. If your free agent is a “Type B” free agent, you only get a “sandwich” pick. The idea behind such compensation draft picks for signing free agents is to help a team who is losing its top free agent(s) restock its talent.

Let’s go back to the interesting case study of Carl Crawford. As you recall, he left the Rays to sign a long-term deal with Boston…not a good idea as we already discussed. But in addition, Crawford was a Type A free agent. Therefore, when he signed with the Red Sox, the Rays got a first-round draft pick and a sandwich pick, the 24th and 38th overall picks in the 2011 draft. In fact, in that 2011 draft, the Rays got an amazing nine compensation draft picks…that’s 10 of the top 60 players in the draft when you include their normal first-round draft pick! Combine that with the Rays’ top scouting/sabermetrics department and you can be assured the Rays will continue to successfully compete in the cutthroat AL East for years to come.

Epstein talked several times in his introductory press conference about building a “scouting and development machine” with the Cubs”. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pile up high draft picks. After all, it’s much easier to build your farm system with cheap, homegrown talent when you have two fistfuls of picks before the second round of the draft even starts, rather than just the traditional one pick among the top 60 players.

6. Stress defense when evaluating players. According to The Extra 2%, the Red Sox, A’s and a handful of other teams locked onto on-base percentage when using sabermetrics to mine for undervalued baseball players. The idea was that batters can knew how to draw walks would help you score more runs and wear down opposing pitchers faster.

The problem was that defense was ignored when evaluating such players. Teams like the Chicago White Sox highly valued sluggers like Adam Dunn b/c he had at least 100 walks in 7 of his 10 seasons before 2011, in addition to his nearly 40 homer average. Yet Dunn would give much of that value back on the defensive end, and this year, when his batting average was lower than his weight, White Sox fans openly called for his release.

As mentioned in a prior sports post, defense isn’t necessarily more important than offense. But it shouldn’t be entirely shoved aside during player evaluation either.

7. Stress young pitching. Cubs fans know that Jed Hoyer is widely assumed to take over the official role of Cubs GM after the 2011 World Series ends. Hoyer is a fan of Friedman’s moves, so hopefully, Hoyer and Epstein are already aware of the importance of young pitching.

In 2007, Friedman traded young outfield star Delmon Young, subpar infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza, slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan. Hoyer, watching from the Red Sox offices, was quite upset b/c he liked Garza and Bartlett as well and was impressed with Friedman’s ability to make a deal.

In 2011, Hendry made a deal with Friedman for Garza but the Cubs farm system paid for it. The Cubs sent their #1 prospect, starting pitcher Chris Archer, along with outfielder Brandon Guyer, catcher Robinson Chirinos and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, along with major-league outfielder Sam Fuld. The Rays made the playoffs in 2011 without Garza anyway, while the Cubs with Garza sputtered along to a 71-win season. Sure, without Garza, maybe the Cubs only win 66 games. But smart GMs know that the difference between 66 wins and 71 wins is meaningless.

Footnote: Garza is going to be 28 in a month and has two years of arbitration remaining, so his window of prime years is closing soon. Remember (going back to point #5 above), when Garza becomes a free agent, don’t sign him to a long-term deal; let him walk.

8. Stress value. Despite being “annoyed” by the Rays’ Young-for-Garza/Bartlett deal, Hoyer didn’t think the Rays would be a threat in the AL East before the 2009 season because Hoyer “didn’t think the bullpen was good enough.” And indeed it wasn’t. But Friedman would take care of that.

Back in 2006, Tampa Bay dealt outfielder Joey Gathright to Kansas City for left-handed starting pitcher J.P. Howell, a former first-round pick who had difficulties in the majors. Howell continued to struggle into 2007 but the Rays remained patient. Howell’s big curve fulfilled the crucial requirement that a pitcher have an out pitch against opposite-handed batters, and Howell flashed excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios, a sign of good command. In 2008, the Rays shifted him to the bullpen, where he flourished and by 2009 was the team’s nominal but effective closer.

What’s more, Friedman made a deal at the 2007 trade deadline, sending big right-handed pitcher Seth McClung and his blazing fastball to Milwaukee for reliever Grant Balfour, who was almost 30 at the time of the deal. While Balfour was outside the typical age range for a Rays player under Friedman, some of those years were spent on the disabled list, so Balfour wasn’t 30 years old in baseball mileage. Plus, Friedman trusted his scouts who pointed to Balfour’s long record of success in the minor leagues and his dormant skills, and knew that Balfour’s upside far exceeded the minimal risk of a contract for just over the league minimum. He posted a 1.54 ERA in 2008, striking out 82 batters in 58.1 innings, joining Howell to form a devastating bullpen.

The White Sox kind of had their own value find in picking up Philip Humber, also a former first-round pick, who jumped out to an 8-3 record and a 3.52 ERA in 2011. However, Humber slumped to 1-5 and a 6.15 ERA in his last 10 starts. Still, for sabermetric fans, he had a WAR (wins above replacement) value of 3.5, where average starting pitchers are worth 2.0. So for only $500,000 this year and an above-average WAR, that’s good value.

The bottom line

As you can tell, I’m a fan of Andrew Friedman. But I’m also a fan of Theo Epstein. A big fan. You can’t win more World Series titles than the Yankees over the past ten years and not be impressed. I’m personally very excited that he’s joining the Cubs to lead them over the next 5-10 years. He has a plan. He’s learned from his Red Sox mistakes. And it sounds like he’s already a believer in some of the concepts I’ve described in this post, which would already be a substantial improvement over Jim Hendry. Whether or not Epstein embraces all of the suggestions posted here is not my concern. After all, he’s the one with the resume, not me. I just thought it would be fun to post some of my minor insights.

Your turn

What do you think? Am I off the wall? Do the Cubs need to sign a premium free agent to a long-term contract? Did I miss something on what the Cubs can do to change their culture of losing?

3 Responses to “8 Culture Changes Theo Epstein Can Bring The Cubs”

  1. ethanathome October 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Mike Quade should be long gone!


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