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Theo Epstein on his hope for a different view of 2011, building the Cubs in a market starved for talent and a ‘magical run’ by the Red Sox

02.06.14 at 6:46 pm ET
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Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, now the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, described his perspective on the Red Sox‘ run to a title in 2013 in an interview on WEEI’s Hot Stove Show on Thursday night.

“First of all, it was a lot of fun to watch it. I’m in contact with a lot of guys from the baseball ops department and cheering them on,” said Epstein. “It was a magical run. It was probably fun even for non-Red Sox fans to watch that team build momentum through the season, go on the run they went on in the postseason. The chemistry they had was incredible. But it was probably particularly fun for me, being this familiar with a lot of players’ backgrounds, a lot of guys have come up through the system, it was just a magical run and really fun to watch. Just really happy for [Red Sox GM Ben Cherington] and [assistant GMs Mike Hazen and Brian O'Halloran] and the guys in the office. Fans don’t think about this, but the year before that, with the difficult way the 2012 season went, people start thinking about their job security, how they turned around, things like that. To have their fortunes turn around in 12 months like that for a group that’s so good at what they do and so deserving, I saw them first-hand work diligently and make tremendous life sacrifices for the Red Sox over the course of a decade. It was really gratifying to watch that come to pass. Happy for the players too, and Red Sox Nation, but the people on my mind first and foremost were the baseball ops staff I worked with for such a long time.”

The 2013 season marked the Red Sox’ third title in a 10-season span, the first two of which were won with Epstein as the architect. Epstein suggested that his efforts to build a franchise capable of achieving similar success over a sustained period of time remain a work in progress with the Cubs, where he has not been able to replicate the approach that he took in Boston to building the team’s infrastructure.

Epstein noted that he is now operating under a different set of rules with the Cubs than the one he faced in Boston. Specifically, the spending limits on the draft and the reduction of the number of compensatory draft picks that can be gleaned that have been implemented under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (which came into place in 2012, Epstein’s first year in Chicago) have altered the strategy for organization-building.

“I think the biggest challenge is just the changes with the CBA, you can’t really choose how much you want to emphasize the draft anymore. In Boston, we decided that it was going to be fundamental to our approach, that in order to win a World Series, we needed to develop homegrown players, in order to develop homegrown players, we wanted to shift as many of our resources as we could to the draft,” said Epstein. “So we let free agents walk after the ’04 World Series. We let [Pedro Martinez] and [Derek Lowe] and [Orlando Cabrera] walk, and we used those picks to sign the [Jacoby] Ellsburys and [Clay] Buchholzes of the world. We made the trade for Victor Martinez knowing, yeah, you’re going to get a year and a half of production from him and help us get to the postseason and then we’re going to let him walk. I think we got Henry Owens and Matt Barnes for Victor. That was just a fundamental part of the approach. It was a strategy and it was really important to how we built the organization.

“And now,” Epstein continued, “you can’t really develop a strategy around draft picks. Sure, you might have someone that in a given year you can make a qualifying offer to, in the case of the Red Sox and Yankees maybe a couple, multiple players you can make qualifying offers to and get picks that way, but you only get one pick. You don’t get two anymore. The scope of players who receive compensation is much more limited and most mid-market teams and below will very rarely if ever have compensatory picks for free agents leaving now. That’s just something that you can’t factor in. And you can’t overpay players in later rounds anymore unless you really go for a bargain in your first-round pick. That’s just really changed the game. You can still quote-unquote dominate the draft, make an impact in the draft, the way we tried to, but it’s on a much smaller scale. I think the days of getting Barnes, [Blake] Swihart, Owens, [Jackie] Bradley with your first four picks in 2011, those days are probably gone. You just have to make due with one or two picks like that in a given year instead of going for the whole bounty.”

In the absence of a full complement of homegrown players, the challenge of building a competitive roster is substantial. Epstein’s Cubs were widely connected to Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. But Chicago was outbid for the 25-year-old by the Yankees, who committed $175 million — a $20 million posting fee and a seven-year, $155 million deal — to add Tanaka.

“I think it’s actually probably in practical terms an even bigger contract [than $175 million] because when you factor in the impact of the CBT tax that the Yankees will have to pay going forward now, if indeed Tanaka was the player to push them over this year and therefore the higher rate in subsequent years,” said Epstein. “I can’t say I’m surprised. To answer your question, it reflects the dynamic that there are many, many teams with lots and lots of dollars to spend and very few places to spend them, very few players who represent sound investments for the dollars. I think anytime in this market that you find a player who will be in his prime years or pre-prime years or close to his prime years and has been healthy and has recognized tools and has a track record, in this case not even a track record in the major leagues, but a track record that points to that player is going to draw significant interest, probably more than expected, just because the supply/demand dynamic dictates it.

“There are lots of teams demanding talented, prime-age players, and supply is really a trickle. Fewer and fewer players of that ilk are reaching free agency. It’s pretty rare that you find a player — maybe one player a year like that through the posting system, maybe one through Cuban free agency with a player who qualifies outside the international spending pool, and that’s about it. You’re going to see these prices that cause people to shake heads. You still have to justify it. The guy still has to fit with your long-term plans. But because of the TV deals, the teams that have them have a lot of money and not a lot of attractive players to spend the money on.”

That being the case, Epstein suggested that the Red Sox — with a mix of a talented big league roster and a loaded farm system that is headlined by Xander Bogaerts and a handful of players (Barnes, Swihart, Owens, Bradley and Mookie Betts) who were taken in his last draft with the Sox — are primed for considerable success over the long haul. Epstein suggested that he continues to follow the Sox system closely, and expressed his hope that the group will one day become part of the legacy of his final year (2011) in Boston, perhaps even overtaking the major league team’s year-ending collapse.

“I follow [the Sox prospects] really closely, probably with equal parts admiration, pride and jealousy. I am really proud of what we built. As far as GMs go, I think I was pretty hands-on as far as building our scouting department, went out and saw the players. It was just a great decade,” said Epstein. “I’m proud of those players, and that last draft, there was enough that went wrong in 2011. I think in time, it would be a wonderful thing for everybody if, maybe we’ll reach that day when people think of 2011, they think of that draft class, my last draft with the Red Sox. That would be nice, because it would mean great things for the Red Sox and it would mean those players went on to have great careers that would maybe wipe some of the memory of September 2011 away for everybody and for myself, as if that hasn’t happened enough already with a lot of those same players helping to win a championship in ’13. It was a great decade in the draft there, and that was a great last draft. Those players are performing really well and we see them up at the top of prospect rankings. I definitely root for them. I covet them here with the Cubs at times. But I wish them well.

“I think the Red Sox are just really well positioned because Ben has done a phenomenal job with the clubhouse mix and the talent that he’s brought in. It’s probably the deepest system in baseball on the way with plenty of impact talent. They should be good for a long, long time. I think of the 50 players on the World Series rosters, I think there were something like 35 or 38 homegrown players on the Cardinals and the Red Sox. Those two franchises are going to continue to excel. That’s really our model with the Cubs. We’re starting from the bottom of the well but we’re digging our way up. That’s where we want to be. We want to have a team with young players — pre-prime and prime age players, mainly homegrown, not that we won’t use players in trades and bring in talent from the outside, not that we won’t complement them with free agent signings from time to time, but we want to get to a point where we feel great about the roster, great about our farm system, great about our salary structure, great about the five- and 10-year outlook, and then you can have offseasons like the Cardinals and Red Sox have had where you just operate from a position of strength and pick and choose what you want to do because you have depth and redundancy at a lot of positions. The players you reference are going to be a big part of making that a reality for the Red Sox. They have great scouts and great leadership so they should continue that dynamic for a long time.”

To listen to the complete interview with Epstein, click here.

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