Two years ago, Theo Epstein promised the social-media outrage over Clark the Cub would go away, that the new mascot introduced during the middle of a do-nothing offseason would eventually become “a blip instead of a cacophony, or Clark-ophony.”
This franchise needed Epstein’s image as a rock-star executive during all those Cubs Convention rollouts, slick presentations to season-ticket holders and fuzzy features on national TV.
The squirm factor, awkward silences and venting at the microphone just won’t be the same now during all those Q-and-A sessions this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.
Epstein has already built the Cubs into a World Series contender, assembling arguably the game’s best collection of young blue-chip talent, hiring star manager Joe Maddon and upgrading a 97-win team with a $272 million investment in Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and veteran pitcher John Lackey.
All that makes a new contract for Epstein – who’s now in the fifth and final season of his $18.5 million deal – feel inevitable. Except the Cubs haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Chairman Tom Ricketts – who takes a long-range view and allows Epstein to run his department – has described an extension for the president of baseball operations as just a matter of time. Just not as the surprise announcement on stage this weekend at Cubs Convention.
“Status quo in that we are completely on the same page,” Epstein said before Friday’s opening ceremony. “We just haven’t gotten around to like hammering out an actual contract. But, again, I only really think about it when you guys (in the media) ask. I see myself as staying in the exact same role for a long time – and I think Tom sees it the same way.”
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By leaving the Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman not only triggered Maddon’s opt-out clause after the 2014 season, he also reset the market for the industry’s top executives with that five-year, $35 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The meter for Epstein could keep running from there.
“At some point, we’ll get around to doing a contract extension,” Epstein said. “But I actually think players deserve contracts first before front-office guys. And we’re not done with our players yet. Jake (Arrieta) probably deserves a contract before I do. In fact, I know he deserves a contract before I do, so we’ll take care of that first. And at the right time, I’m sure we’ll address my situation.”
Do you anticipate signing a new deal before spring training?
“I haven’t thought about that,” Epstein said. “Honestly, I want to get the players taken care of first, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Epstein creatively worked with ownership and business operations to make this spending spree happen, and pretty much does his job without interference from above within those financial limits.
That’s a dramatic change from the gorilla-suit exit from Fenway Park and the power struggles in Boston that led to Epstein’s resignation after the 2011 season.
And Epstein clearly wants to be the executive in charge who helps finally end the century-and-counting drought and raises the World Series trophy at Wrigley Field.
“We’re ready to roll,” Epstein said. “We’re ready to go into spring training and compete. It didn’t used to be a story when the GM was under contract for a year – I guess it is now – and I haven’t been very good at it in the past with some of the stuff in Boston. But it’s seriously not a concern at all. It’s going to take care of itself. Tom and I could not have a better relationship.”
The Cubs might not need Epstein’s brand name for the same PR purposes anymore, and he doesn’t like being the center of attention anyway. But Theo’s still their biggest upcoming free agent. Imagine the cacophony – or Clark-ophony – if this doesn’t get done.