In David Kaplan's book "The Plan," the CSN Chicago and ESPN 1000 personality chronicles the Cubs' journey from Lovable Losers to World Series Champs thanks to the blueprint of Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff.
The book includes a forward by Anthony Rizzo, the face of the franchise since coming over in Epstein's first major trade with the Cubs in January 2012.
This excerpt is from Chapter 5 entitled "Getting Theo" and explains Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts' thought process as he went out and hired Epstein to be the president of baseball operations on Chicago's North Side:
It was late in the 2010 season and the Chicago Cubs were struggling on the field. Manager Lou Piniella had resigned to spend time with his family and his ailing mother. With the Cubs business plan starting to take shape, it was time for Tom Ricketts to take a much closer look at the state of his entire baseball operations department.
At the major league level he saw a team headed in the wrong direction with an aging roster and very few long-term assets that could be part of a championship-caliber team. He also found a crumbling foundation throughout his minor league system. There were very few impact-caliber prospects and the Cubs most recent drafts had produced very little in the way of future stars.
In fact, the Cubs’ first round draft picks dating back to 1998 would all struggle to be major contributors at the big league level for various reasons. From injuries to potential stars Mark Prior and Corey Patterson to picks that were complete busts, the Cubs’ minor league system was one of the game’s worst. This despite the fact that the team had picked in the top six of the draft an astounding five times in 11 draft classes.
Tom Ricketts commissioned a study of every franchise’s minor league system and their draft records to find out who in Major League Baseball was making the most of acquiring young, controllable talent. He found several teams that had done a very good job but one team stood out above the rest in his evaluations.
The Boston Red Sox had built a perennial contender through multiple avenues of player acquisition including the draft, international free agency, trades, and major league free agency. In the same period where the Cubs had struggled, the Red Sox had hit pay dirt throughout the draft, which is as big a hit or miss proposition as there is in the sport.
To evaluate a player aged 18–21 (depending on if they were a high school prospect or a college player) and to project his level of success against the very best players in the world is at best an inexact science. However, the Red Sox had landed All-Stars at that time like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and future all stars like Anthony Rizzo, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and several others who were making a major impact throughout baseball.
A productive farm system is the key to building a successful franchise because not only does it provide a pipeline of young talent but it is talent that is extremely inexpensive. MLB players are not allowed to test free agency until they have completed six full seasons in the big leagues. This system keeps them relatively cost-controlled, which allows franchises to spend bigger money on veterans who are free agents.
However, free agency is fraught with risks because teams are paying top dollar for a player who is almost always near or older than 30 or 31, which is when most players start to see a decline in their productivity. Players older than 30 are a big risk to sign to deals that are longer than three or four years because of the cost to acquire them and the chance that the back end of the deals will not see the productivity of the player to justify the large salary that they are almost always receiving.
Taking all of this into account, Tom Ricketts knew that he needed to hire a general manager who could rebuild the Cubs’ substandard farm system. For far too long the Cubs had swung and missed in the upper rounds of the draft despite picking in the top ten on several occasions. Missing on a high pick can set a franchise back for years. Missing on multiple high picks can keep a team near the bottom of the standings for an extended period, which is just where the Cubs found themselves on multiple occasions including the 2010–14 seasons, after a poor draft record from 2000 to 2010.
“I knew what I was looking for after I made the decision to part ways with Jim Hendry. We needed to rebuild our farm system and start producing young talent that could make an impact at the major league level. I commissioned two of our front office guys to study every team in Major League Baseball and to see who was doing the best job in the draft and in each of the various ways that a team goes about acquiring talent.
“Every study that we did kept coming back to Theo and to the Red Sox. They did the best job at drafting and developing players who were making a big impact at the major league level. But until we made the decision to change our baseball operations hierarchy I had no idea who we were going to hire. In fact, until Jim’s departure was announced in August I had not made one call or conducted one interview,” Ricketts said.
However, all of that was about to change. There were rumblings in the industry that Epstein was unhappy in Boston and that his differences with Boston’s ownership group could pave the way for his departure from the franchise possibly as soon as that fall.
Ricketts quietly went about his business talking with different baseball people who all gave him advice on what he should do with his suddenly vacant baseball operations post. He spoke with Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, former Dodgers GM Dan Evans, and White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, among other qualified baseball men in the industry.
However, according to Ricketts, the only man that he ever formally interviewed for the post as the head of the Cubs baseball operations department was Theo Epstein. And the first person to recommend Theo Epstein to Tom Ricketts? That was none other than baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who knew that Epstein was looking for a fresh start and that the Red Sox were okay with him departing Boston.
“I knew the Cubs were making a change and I knew that Theo wanted out of Boston. That relationship had run its course and as the season was winding [down] I talked with Tom about what he was looking for in a new GM and I knew that Theo would be a perfect fit in Chicago. The Cubs got permission from the Red Sox to talk with Theo once the regular season ended and I knew that once they met it would be a perfect fit,” Selig told me.
This excerpt from The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty by David Kaplan is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/ThePlan.