Theo Epstein’s decision to resign this week as Cubs president might have seemed sudden, but it was a decision nine years in the making.
The only part of it that was actually anything close to sudden or unexpected for the executive who never planned to stay beyond 10 years was that he chose over the summer to move the timeline up by a year.
Epstein said the readiness of general manager Jed Hoyer to assume full control as well as the team’s heightened state of transition — both in terms of the roster and COVID-19-related factors — made this the right time.
But if that answers the question of why now, it still leaves a $10 million question in the background of one of the most significant departures in franchise history.
“I’m not going to be here in 2021, so I won’t be paid in 2021, which is appropriate and the right thing,” said Epstein, who at roughly $10 million per season became one of the top two highest-paid team executives in baseball when he signed a five-year extension at the end of the 2016 season.
“A small part of the equation as I looked at it is that some of the math is a little bit easier, is a little bit better position for the Cubs, with me not being here,” he added. “But the primary driver is we’re in a period of transition."
At a time of steep pandemic-related losses and on the heels of more than 100 employee layoffs company-wide, putting $10 million back in the Cubs’ coffers to use toward players or save some jobs in the organization was more than a small part of the thinking, NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan suggested when he reported the likelihood last month.
But whatever level of noble intentions on Epstein’s part — and whatever portion of the decision that represents — the impact will be up to a Cubs ownership group that already has mandated deep enough payroll cuts that former MVP and three-time All-Star Kris Bryant is showing up in some rumor circles as a non-tender candidate.
“From my standpoint, I would just say the money had nothing to do with it,” chairman Tom Ricketts said when asked how the team might reallocate Epstein’s recouped 2021 salary.
“Ultimately, those resources stay in the organization,” he said, without getting more specific than that.
Whether that means it stays in the pockets of billionaire owners who moaned over the summer about “biblical” revenue losses before initiating their first round of employee cuts and furloughs remains to be seen.
We may know more on that point at the Dec. 2 tender date, or when/if Yu Darvish is traded, or if another round of layoffs is implemented.
To be clear: Ricketts ownership has the financial girth to keep Bryant and Darvish, cover payroll additions and hire back all 100 laid off — and their mothers — and still eventually return to the top rungs of the profitability ladder in the game when fans are allowed back in stadiums.
It’s a matter of whether they’ll apply the short-term found money to job security for other employees and/or the quality of the product for the customers.
Epstein emphasized that Ricketts “never brought up money one time” during any of their discussions on how and when worked best for the inevitable transition and the departure that Epstein put into motion.
It was Epstein who saw that benefit of this move and initiated it after a process of cost-cutting and layoffs “that wears on all of us” already was well underway — among other considerations Epstein made to settle on this timing.
It will be ownership that makes that part of it mean something, or doesn’t.
Hoyer, a former Red Sox assistant to Epstein who left the Padres GM job after two years in 2011 to rejoin Epstein in Chicago, makes the logical ascension to replace Epstein, a move that becomes official at the end of the week.
And the promotion comes with a multiyear extension beyond 2021 that is expected to be announced in the next few days.
That extension is sure to include a raise that reduces some of the net gain from Epstein’s departure. If Hoyer hires from the outside to backfill his old position, that reduces it more.
The Cubs also could choose, say, to go a year without filling that position. Ricketts deferred to Hoyer on that point and highlighted the economic uncertainty overall that Hoyer and the club faces as the new boss takes over.
“I think Jed knows that these are going to be interesting and uniquely challenging years,” Ricketts said. “Obviously, this year was one, and next year will be very difficult. We don’t have a lot of information. We’re not sure if we’ll have fans in the ballpark. We’re not sure when the season’s going to start. There’s a lot of variables.”
Again, it’s $10 million in the context of a $3.2-billion franchise. But that’s a good player during a cash-dry year. Or 100 really good-paying jobs on the real-world side of the operation. Or just another entry in the biblical ledger.