UPDATE, November 17: Theo Epstein is indeed stepping down. Original post follows.
There’s a report to discuss on Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office, but there’s a lot of context around it that I think is necessary to tee up for us to have a full and nuanced understanding of what might be going on.
So, when I saw a line in The Athletic’s grim state of the state on the Cubs yesterday about Theo Epstein’s future, I mentally tucked it away into a space I already had available in my head: sure, it’s possible Epstein transitions out from the Cubs sooner than the end of his contract, but both he and Tom Ricketts have said their current expectation is that Epstein leads for one more year. We know Epstein is under contract for one more year, we know he’s likely to depart after that (10 years with the organization), and we know everyone in the org is teed up to work through that transition over the next year.
That is to say, any mentions of Epstein’s future felt secondary to me in The Athletic article, relative to the discussion of budgetary concerns.
But then I see this reported now by Gordon Wittenmyer, and I start furrowing my brow a bit more (emphasis added):
The Cubs’ offseason remains in more limbo than usual at this point in the offseason, with team president Theo Epstein still said to be mulling whether to step down from the final, $10 million year of his contract during a time of deep cuts across all departments in the organization — including more than 100 layoffs in business and baseball operations at a time of steep pandemic-related financial losses.
To be very clear, Wittenmyer’s piece at NBC is more about possible transitions on the coaching staff, but that’s an explicit mention that Epstein leaving early is still on the table. That, you’ll recall, was the report from Dave Kaplan a couple weeks ago, because Epstein and Ricketts offered their expectations. Not that those expectations absolutely closed the door, though.
Seeing the mention from Wittenmyer, then, my brain circled back to The Athletic piece from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney. There, they wrote this, among other things, which reads very differently to me if you accept that Epstein departing this offseason is still being mulled (emphasis added):
The exact nature and timing of the transition is still to be determined, but Epstein expects to be on board for a pivotal 2021 season.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts essentially told Marquee Sports Network the same thing on Oct. 5 during an interview with Bruce Levine: “(Theo) will continue to be the president of baseball operations and do the right things for the best interest of the ballclub through the end of his contract.”
There also appears to be some wiggle room here. The Cubs are determined to have a smooth transfer between Epstein and the new regime, which may look similar to the old one, albeit smaller after rounds of layoffs cut 100-plus employees from the business and baseball sides of the organization ….
The Cubs are trying to put together another competitive team next year without experiencing a huge drop-off after the 2021 season, when Epstein, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber could all become free agents.
Unless Epstein leaves early and the Cubs non-tender a talented player first?
In hindsight, Sharma and Mooney were clearly leaving this possibility open, and I kinda mentally elided over it as merely a placeholder just-in-case type of thing. Now, I think it was probably designed to be slightly more than that.
Moreover, now the sections of their article devoted to front office transitions that took place at this time last year, and to discussions of Jed Hoyer as a guy who is equal partners with Epstein and plans to stay in Chicago much longer … well, I’m just saying, that all reads a little differently now, too.
To be quite clear: I am not saying these reports are indicating Epstein is going to leave this offseason, nor are they even necessarily winking at it. Instead, I am just saying only that, reading these reports together with the original Kaplan report tells me that nothing is actually finalized with respect to this offseason’s role in this front office transition. It remains possible, apparently, that Epstein and/or the organization decide to move on one year early, and Hoyer takes the reins right away. Likely? Probably not. But still being mulled.