Last night at dinner, my wife and I were discussing the prospect of Theo Epstein going to the Cubs, and what precisely the value of a General Manager is. (She is as great as she sounds.) As my wife put it, “It’s just like putting money into player development, no?”
Well, this morning over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron had a follow-up piece to what my wife said, but he came to a different conclusion than the two of us did. Writes Cameron:
“To a large degree, the price of a thing is set by how hard it is to get a similar thing somewhere else. While water may be the single most important resource on earth, in that we all need it to survive, it’s also remarkably cheap for most people in developed countries because we have access to an awful lot of it. In order to justify spending a lot of money luring Epstein to Boston – and compensating the Red Sox for letting him out of his contract – the bar wouldn’t just be initiating cost savings for the Cubs and improving the organizational efficiency of their baseball operations department, but it would be doing so at a level significantly beyond what the Cubs could have gotten by hiring any one of a number of whip-smart folks across the game.”
The whole Cameron piece is worth a read, and it isn’t so much that I disagree with his point (lots of people could take a similar approach to Theo Epstein’s) as much as I think he’s missing a human element here.
Simply put: Theo Epstein’s approach is worth a fair amount of money, but perhaps others would run a team similarly. What is worth a great deal of money is the amount of rope Theo Epstein would have upon getting hired.
With two championships on his resume, and a commensurate contract, the Cubs wouldn’t be likely to give him just two years, the way the Dodgers did with Paul DePodesta. And make no mistake, any Moneyball-inspired GM is still facing an anti-stats clique in the media that is significant- precisely what helped to bring DePodesta down. To the extent that any owner hires said Moneyball GM without a full understanding or belief in the methods, on-field results can change his mind. A single season isn’t nearly enough time to change a franchise, but 162 games can seem like an eternity just the same.
Unlike the Red Sox team he took over in 2002, the Cubs have far less for Epstein to work with. He, or any other GM, needs some time, just as surely as Sandy Alderson needs more than a year to get the Mets into contention. (Imagine if the Alderson approach had just one more year to run! The horror.) But like Epstein, Alderson has a track record, a four-year contract, and the latitude to institute long-term changes in how the Mets operate.
And that’s the other part missing from Cameron’s piece, I think. Yes, by not hiring Epstein, and buying instead the generic drug equivalent of Epstein, a team can save money. However, given the precarious place an Epstein approach still holds within baseball, along with the often illogical capriciousness of ownership around the game, a high-priced, long-term contract for the GM isn’t wasted money. It’s insurance.