In October of 2011, Theo Epstein took the reins as the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs - a last place team which had not won a World Series for 100+ years. With the support of the Ricketts family, just two years into their ownership of the Cubs, Epstein tanked the team. They scored five Top 10 draft picks in five years, and in 2016, the club won its World Series.
With that Championship came a crescendo of exaltation for Epstein himself, topped by Fortune Magazine naming him the World’s Greatest Leader. He finished ahead of The Pope and Jeff Bezos.
Just four years later, Cubs ownership has ordered a fire sale and The Greatest Leader in the World has left his underlings to clean up his mess.
To be clear, the greatest villains in this story - as always - are the owners. The Ricketts family are high in the running for The Worst People in America, the spoiled children of a racist, conspiracy theorist. Todd Ricketts served as chief fundraiser for the Trump Victory Committee, and the parallels between the two families are quite obvious.
But whether you venerated the Cubs, Theo Epstein, or (God forbid) the Ricketts, it doesn’t matter. The way they succeeded and the way they now collapse are inextricably linked, and frankly all part of the same problem.
As for Epstein, I’ll admit, that Greatest Leader in the World nonsense always stuck in my craw. Is it really so impressive to win a single championship with the 4th richest franchise in baseball and 5-years worth of Top 10 draft picks earned through losing on purpose?
Some, even now, want to cast Epstein as the heroic figure who refused to follow ownership directives to sink the ship. Maybe I was raised with a too-traditional view of what a good Captain does, but it does not strike me as Greatest Leader behavior to depart on the first lifeboat.
Even so, Theo looks likely to come out of this whole situation smelling like a rose. Just before Christmas, the Chicago media was still speculating that he might take over the Chicago Bears and lead them to glory. What can’t this young wunderkind accomplish? If only we could touch the hem of his garment!
Or maybe Theo will eventually be held culpable in this mess. But even if that’s the case, the madding crowd will just move on to their new Favorite Executive, the Padres A.J. Preller.
Preller aided in the Cubs tear-down by taking Cy Young Finalist Yu Darvish off their hands, not to mention catcher Victor Caratini, in exchange for a handful of players who could best be described as “salary relief.”
This is what a salary dump in a pandemic looks like. The Cubs aimed to transfer debt.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 29, 2020
Through the lens of the 2020 offseason, the Cubs are clearly the villains and the Padres could seem like the heroes. Several pieces have already been published lauding Preller and the Padres for aiming to actually win, doing what every MLB franchise has the financial tools to do, etc.
Here’s the problem with that: The same thing was written about the Cubs early in the Theo Epstein era.
Tanking and rebuilding is the blueprint for the vast majority of Major League franchises and it’s nothing worth praising. If you want to focus on it strictly as a competitive maneuver, yes, it can provide brief windows where a club has a shot at a title, but it guarantees long stretches where teams aren’t even trying to win.
But even if tanking might provide a shot at a title, owners don’t think about their teams in terms of competitiveness. They are all capitalist ghouls who treat their franchise as just another piece of their multi-billion dollar portfolio. Tanking and rebuilding often has more to do with inflating and deflating the value of their baseball asset than it does with winning “a piece of metal.”
Let’s pump the brakes on praising Preller and the Padres until we see that they are anything more than just the Cubs on the opposite swing of the tanking pendulum. I hope they are. But in a few years, when Fernando Tatis, Jr. and other pieces of their young core are demanding high arbitration salaries on the brink of free agency, and the veterans like Darvish are underperforming at the tail end of long-term deals... I’d be willing to bet the Padres hold a fire sale of their own.
That brings me to John Mozeliak and the St. Louis Cardinals. Mo was once everybody’s favorite GM himself, but his national profile and standing among Cardinal fans in general has faded a bit as the team has refused to pursue high-priced free agents or just generally make the kind of “all-in” moves that the Padres are making now, and the Cubs were making 4-years-ago.
Like every executive, Mo serves at the direction of an owner - and all those bad things I said about owners apply to the DeWitts as well. But where the Cardinals, the DeWitts, and Mo are different is this: They are one of the very few franchises that has placed a premium on being competitive every single year. And frankly, they are the only franchise to succeed at this goal over the long term beyond the Yankees, and of late, the Dodgers.
Do the Cardinals dump salary? Of course they do, and it’s a bummer. So far this offseason, they’ve let Kolten Wong go to save a measly $12 million. But the Cardinals make a move like that because they also have a Tommy Edman on-hand who is likely to be - though not as good as Wong - good enough for the team to remain competitive.
The Cardinals and the Cubs will both likely have cut payroll by Opening Day. But whereas the Cardinals will still be competitive - if not division favorites - the Cubs will be trying to revive their “lovable losers” image and their fans will be left to dream about 2025.
Baseball is very sick. That sickness comes from baseball ownership - the ones really pulling the strings. But as long as we focus on baseball executives - and we always will - the ones we should be praising are the ones that do the job the way John Mozeliak does.