At the outset of his tenure with the Cubs, Theo Epstein mentioned that 10 years with one team felt like the right amount of time. Well, the conclusion of the 2020 season marked his ninth year in Chicago, and the Cubs have Epstein under contract for just one more season. So, yes, I’d say the writing’s on the wall. Theo Epstein will soon leave the Cubs, and we will thank him with tear-filled eyes on his way out.
But what is he going to do next? And will the timing of that departure (this offseason or next?) depend on his other options?
I don’t think it’s safe to assume Epstein will just leave the Cubs for another team in baseball, though that does feel more likely than visions of him taking on an NFL Franchise (Bearrssssssss) or becoming the MLB Commissioner (he’d be a really good one).
Still, it isn’t all that simple. While Epstein is easily considered one of the top executives in MLB, perhaps of all-time, some key markets already have “their guy” in place. For example, the Dodgers aren’t replacing Andrew Friedman, the Yankees aren’t replacing Brian Cashman, the Red Sox aren’t replacing Chaim Bloom, the Giants aren’t replacing Farhan Zaidi (and they already have Theo-spinoff, Scott Harris, as their GM), the Mets aren’t replacing Sandy Alderson (and would Epstein become the top baseball guy, but under Alderson?), and so on. And even though Epstein is worth every penny he’ll cost, you have to remember that every time this guy gets a new contract, it’s usually record-breaking (or close to it). Only so many team can afford that, especially now.
Enter: The Phillies
Phillies GM Matt Klentak has stepped down from his post as atop the baseball ops department after a third straight September collapse kept the Phillies out of the playoffs for the ninth straight season. Technically, he’s still with the organization in some other role, but assistant GM Ned Rice is serving as the interim GM until someone else is found.
Clearly, then, the Phillies have a vacancy at the top of their organization and they are plenty big-market enough to afford Epstein – at least, in normal financial times. I’m not quite sure how the pandemic would affect a decision this fundamental to the team.
However, the Phillies already have a “President of Baseball Operations,” in old friend Andy McPhail, though it’s not quite clear how directly involved he is. Buster Olney says he is “long past the days when he’s the primary deal-maker and roster architect ….” He’s also recently said that he does not intend to return after his contract expires next year.
And none of this is to mention that the Phillies have an opening right now, with no long-term GM or President in place, but Epstein has one more year of control with the Cubs. We do know that an early exit is possible – and, hey, maybe Tom Ricketts would be happy to avoid paying Epstein that final ~$10 million in 2021 – but it’s something to keep in mind before the rumors start rolling.
The Local Reports
Back on October 6th, Jim Salisbury (NBC Sports Philadelphia) discussed the possibility of adding Epstein after his contract expires, noting that owner John Middleton was comfortable keeping Rice in that interim role throughout the entire 2021 season, which just so happens to be when MacPhail’s contract is up as well, teasing the sort of requisite organizational restructure we discussed above:
It’s possible that Middleton could ultimately restructure the team’s baseball hierarchy and hire a president of baseball operations and let that person select his own general manager. By setting a flexible timetable, Middleton can buy some time, see where the COVID-19 pandemic goes, and wait for the right candidate to emerge for the Phillies’ position.
Would Epstein be worth waiting for? Absolutely. He’s won World Series in Boston and Chicago and is probably already a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame.
Salisbury concedes that a “president” title, a significant salary, and even possibly an ownership stake in the organization could be needed to lure Epstein to Philly, but it certainly didn’t sound like any of that was off the table.
The National Reports
And then this morning, Buster Olney (ESPN) tapped back into this discussion, citing all the problems and restructuring needs above, before going into this Epstein-specific monologue (emphasis mine):
But the simple fact is that as of today, the Phillies’ front office is operating without the long-term vision of an Andrew Friedman, an Erik Neander, a Theo Epstein, a Brian Cashman. Rice might be the guy holding the steering wheel at the moment, but the Phillies are working without a map for player development, for scouting, and for how they might improve for 2021.
There are a lot of ways that Middleton could go in picking the next leader of his front office, whether it’s someone experienced like former GMs Brian Sabean or Jim Hendry, or someone younger from the analytics generation. Maybe Middleton will wait for Epstein’s deal to expire (and some in the industry expect that Epstein will move on from the Cubs before the start of the ’21 season).
With no long-term GM (or vision) in place, a lame-duck president on his way out, plenty of money to spend, and a nearly-identical time frame for both parties, the Phillies might just want to wait to do everything in their power to lure Epstein to Philadelphia whenever they can.
Perhaps he doesn’t have anything left to prove, but Epstein is still only 46(!) years old. If he can grab an ownership stake in a big market team like Philadelphia, you can’t rule out that he might have interest in that opportunity. And, hey, he’d finally get Bryce Harper.