He looms over the Red Sox general manager search like a mothership, his shadow creeping towards Fenway Park.
He made his name here as the original boy wonder general manager nearly 20 years ago, and until the Red Sox hire someone else, we'll be left to wonder -- could Theo Epstein come home?
Eight years into a Chicago Cubs tenure that has yielded one World Series and what's looking like a fifth straight postseason appearance amidst unease over the franchise's future, Epstein faces unfinished business. The Cubs are approaching a reckoning in two years, when stalwarts such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber reach free agency.
At that point, Epstein will have been on the job for 10 seasons, or one more than he completed in Boston. He has always viewed such projects as roughly decade-long commitments, which means he could be seeking a new challenge in a couple of years.
Life doesn't always follow a rigid schedule, however, and the Red Sox have an opening right now. And if I were them, before casting their net far and wide to find Dave Dombrowski's successor, I'd make every effort to see if Epstein can be lured back to Boston.
It'll take more than a title such as President of Baseball Operations. It'll take a piece of ownership, and that's no small thing. Forbes recently valued the Red Sox at $3.2 billion, making a 1 percent stake in the franchise worth more than $30 million.
Epstein is worth it. He has turned two supposedly cursed franchises into World Series winners since 2004, and his imprints remain all over a Red Sox organization that seeks a return to the long view after Dombrowski delivered on his mandate and sacrificed the future in service of three straight postseason appearances, culminating in the 2018 juggernaut that romped to 108 wins and a World Series title.
The next GM is going to need time, because the Red Sox are not ideally positioned for the future, not with more than $400 million tied up in three pitchers -- Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi -- who aren't exactly portraits in reliability. The new guy's first order of business may very well be to trade defending MVP Mookie Betts and drop the team below the $208 million luxury tax threshold, which means he'll deserve a longer leash than those afforded either Dombrowski or predecessor Ben Cherington.
Wooing Epstein might be a fool's errand -- he has given no indication he's focused on anything other than navigating the Cubs through their own approaching minefield -- but that's why John Henry, Sam Kennedy and Co. should place that call first.
The win-now culture of Boston can make working for the Red Sox a somewhat grim pursuit even when times are going well, because there's always worry about what comes next. Epstein not only recognizes this dynamic, he'd have a chance to impact it at an ownership level.
He'd also represent a do-over for Henry, who regrets not only the way Epstein's exit unfolded, but that he wasn't able to better mediate the personality clash between Epstein and former CEO Larry Lucchino that factionalized the front office.
In considering possibilities for the new GM role earlier in the week, I suggested that Henry start with the Epstein tree, whether it's Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, Arizona's Mike Hazen, or various assistants across the game like Amiel Sawdaye, Jared Porter, or Jared Banner, because they could seamlessly lead a baseball operations department filled with their peers and restore a measure of continuity.
Two issues with this theory. One, there's no guarantee Henry really knows who they are. Owners don't generally familiarize themselves with every assistant in baseball ops. Two, those candidates have eyes. They see how things ended for Dombrowski and Cherington despite freshly minted championship banners, and rightfully wonder what kind of job security they could reasonably expect.
Neither would be an issue for Epstein, who worked closely with Henry for nearly a decade and whose presence atop the baseball side would encourage stability. Lucchino may have eventually been pushed out, but you can't fire an owner.
So instead of the branches on the Epstein tree, perhaps the Red Sox should target the trunk. After all, they've reached a crossroads and the Cubs are nearing one. The intersection may not be perfect, but it has left an opening for Theo Epstein to come home, and this time maybe even for good.
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