The Theology of Theo

STLCardsCards – I didn’t write this. Justin Striebel (@JStriebel22) wrote this. I also didn’t read this. Justin won’t either. He doesn’t read blogs. But I’m confident you should read it because when Justin talks about the Cubs it’s guaranteed to make Cubs fans angry. He does this a lot. So it’s probably pretty good. Enjoy.

Theo Epstiein’s entire approach to roster construction was built on a foundation of low expectations.

When Theo started with the Cubs, he didn’t make lofty promises. He let his own history and Cubs fans unprecedented longing for the ultimate success create the promises.

Instead, Epstein did the opposite. He promised losing. And lots of it. He made sure everyone knew just how bad things might get it. And they got really bad. He lost 101, 96, and 89 games his first three seasons and still had job security few in sports could match.

Not to worry, though; it was all part of “the plan.” As the Cubs lost and lost big, you weren’t supposed to get mad at him because it was going to be worth it.

To his credit, Theo’s plan has worked exactly as he’d hoped. Better even. But it isn’t deserving of praise, and it isn’t a display of skill.

By ensuring there would be no pressure on himself to put forth anything resembling a competitive roster for multiple years, Epstein had ultimate freedom and unlimited opportunities.

The obvious part to tanking is securing ultra high draft picks. The Cubs did this, and a few have payed off and are contributing. More are on the way.

⁰Cubs fans will be quick to point out, however, that most of their roster is not made up of high draft picks. They’re right. A lot of players on the roster were acquired by trade and others were high priced free agents. Doesn’t Theo deserve credit for those decisions?

A bit. When you make a good trade, you deserve credit for identifying the right talent. But trades are about two things:

1. What can you give up?
2. What is the risk if you’re wrong?

The roster Epstein inherited wasn’t a good one, but it did have valuable players. The types of players other teams desire to help supplement their own roster. None of these players, though, were to be a part of Theo’s ultimate vision. And because Epstein had made sure that nobody should expect a competitive effort out of his club, there was no reason whatsoever to retain any players of value.

Theo had created so much freedom for himself to operate and to fail, that he faced no risk whatsoever with any trade he made. He didn’t have to worry about losing talented players. And he also didn’t need to be right about the return. If a player panned out—great. If not, well, losing was all part of the plan anyways.

This meant that Epstein could gamble on players that teams with actual expectations couldn’t. I’m sure plenty of teams would have taken a flyer on the potential of Jake Arrieta, but no GM who has expectations of putting a competitive product on the field could afford to take a risk like Arrieta as return in a trade of valuable players.

No issue for Epstein though. He could take all the high risk, high reward players in the game because for him, it was actually no risk whatsoever.

With the Cubs finally primed for real success, he and the organization began spending money. First with a massive contract to John Lester in 2015. Then a big (if short) deal to John Lackey and a huge deal to Jason Heyward in 2016. Lester and Lackey have both been good. Each deal is likely to be at least a moderate success by the end, but they were still both above market deals and risks few teams in baseball would feel comfortable taking.

The same goes for Jason Heyward and his contract. With built-in opt-outs, the Cubs gave him the best earning potential of any contract offer he received. He may wind up being one of the few players to ever refuse an opt-out, though, as the first year results from Heyward have been atrocious.

The issue with free agent signings, though, goes beyond whether they’re all good or bad (every team struggles with this) or whether they’re just a result of a big market team (it’s a factor, but that isn’t a new discussion). The issue is the timing of the spending. And it again goes back to the losing expectations that Theo created from day one.

The Chicago Cubs had money to spend. They could have put a decent product on the field for their fans while Theo went about skillfully re-building the franchise. They could have signed free agents a couple of seasons ago to deals that certainly would have had them still playing with this successful Cubs roster today.

But to do so would have been to create expectations. And expectations come with a need to skillfully manage risk. If the Cubs had signed enough decent players in 2014 to be competitive, maybe the Wild Card feels reachable, and if the Wild Card feels reachable, fan and media pressure would make it a lot harder to trade Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell. Every single move would be dissected because expectations come with a microscope.

Theo Epstein didn’t want that. He wanted complete freedom. A complete absence of expectations, and with them a complete absence of risk. It was the easiest way to build a winner.

And he did it. Theo Epstein turned a hapless organization into a major winner.

Just don’t try to convince me it was a stunningly skillful exercise.

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