In Appreciation of Theo

It’s been nearly 24 hours since the news broke that Theo Epstein would be stepping down from his position as President of Baseball Operations. That news, which I first saw break via a Sahadev Sharma tweet, felt impossibly shocking — yet, somehow, entirely unsurprising.

We all knew that Theo would not be staying with the Cubs after 2021. From his endless insistence that a decade is an appropriate time frame as the leading Exec in a baseball front office, to the understanding that, at just 47, he has a lot of flexibility and creativity to explore in his career, the expectation of his departure felt reassuring. Never was Theo cryptic about his intentions, and that he has decided to step away now — rather than operate one last year in a lame duck, transitory fashion — is laudable.

The fallout from the news was, of course, swift and varied. Many pundits celebrated Theo endlessly; others proclaimed he was fleeing a bad situation. I’d like to think we can nestle somewhere in between: recognizing his vast accomplishments, criticizing his missteps, but, most of all, expressing immense gratitude for giving Cubs fans a decade of pure joy.

The criticism that Theo is leaving after dismantling the Cubs is absurd. Theo took a pay cut in 2020, and is walking away from $10 million. It would be much easier to check-out mentally and ‘perform’ his role as President in the last year of his contract, cash his checks, and peace out in 2021. Clearly, that’s not Theo’s style, and whatever one’s feelings ultimately are about his tenure, his honesty in departure should be acknowledged.

There’s also a certain appreciation for the reality that Theo isn’t stepping down only to immediately take over another squad:

The rebuild was, at times, painful, but for those of us that watched every game, learned about every prospect we could, and witnessed the unfolding of future promise into current success, we knew this era was different. Unlike the short-term power status of the 2007-2008 squads, there was depth and style. Unlike 2003-2004, there wasn’t an anticipation things would inevitably go south. Unlike 1998, this wasn’t a surprise. Theo built this team with purpose, with deliberation, and with an approach that was both patient and transparent.

That transparency was evident in his press conference in the aftermath of the announcement yesterday, and it was certainly evident in his letter to Cubs fans:

The best part of this journey with the Cubs has been the feeling of togetherness: the friendships, trust, camaraderie, and collaboration inside the organization as well as the deep connection with the fans. Nine years ago, after I laid out some lofty goals at my introductory press conference — a pledge to create a foundation for sustained success that would mean playing baseball regularly in October as well as a promise, over time and together, to build a team that would ultimately win the World Series — our first act as a baseball department was to set out a collective vision for how we could meet those goals and make our fans proud. Even in the darkest days of the three-year rebuild, we never felt alone.

Theo Epstein’s letter to Cubs fans, as obtained by The Athletic

Of course, the Theo era wasn’t perfect. The Edwin Jackson signing was bad, the DJ LeMahieu trade continues to sting, and watching Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease on the Southside will be a years-long annoyance. But for each of those glaring mistakes there’s obvious wins: the trades for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, Kyle Hendricks, and Dexter Fowler were integral in building a sustained window of success. Calculated free agency signings in Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist, the overall value that Jason Heyward brings, Yu Darvish suddenly looking like a bargain. The Cubs certainly need to work on developing home grown pitching, but Adbert Alzolay and Brailyn Marquez might be just the beginning — even if it comes at the end of Theo’s tenure.

The list goes on and on, yet how the Cubs went about their business under Theo, while not always perfect, felt different than any era in Cubs history. That the next era will be defined by his right-hand man, Jed Hoyer, is only appropriate.

Theo isn’t leaving the Cubs in perfect shape. The farm system is top-heavy and ranked in the bottom third of the league. The budget is being slashed after two years of exceeding the Luxury Tax, and the baseball operations department has been gutted by ownership in the wake of Covid-19. But this is still a first-place team entering 2021, and by all accounts Jed Hoyer is the perfect figure to take the baton without missing a step.

Whatever Theo’s next steps, he’s a Hall of Fame Exec that brought joy to a city and fanbase that never knew that joy before. Whereas Cubs fans have become exceedingly entitled since 2016, that feeling was borne out of Theo’s leadership, vision, and creation of success. Taking for granted the past nine years would be downright tragic.

It’s been the best decade of baseball the Cubs have ever had.

For that we should all be grateful.

Featured Photo: Getty Images


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