Thirteen months ago the Chicago Cubs were in a frenzy to sign Theo Epstein to head their baseball operations. After all, Epstein had been the general manager of the Boston Red Sox when they won two World Series in four years after not having won one in 86 years. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, more than a century ago.
The new owners of the Cubs were so eager to get Epstein that they gave him a 5-year, $18.5 million contract and told him he could bring along a former aide (Jed Hoyer), who would be general manager in name while Epstein was president of baseball operations.
Not that the owner Ricketts family and fans expected miracles, but at the minimum would a few more victories than the Cubs had in 2011 been too much to ask? In 2011 the Cubs won 71 games and lost 91. In the first year of the Epstein-Hoyer tandem, the Cubs slid backward, wining 61 and losing 101, the franchise’s worst record since 59-103 in 1966.
Epstein-Hoyer was one of seven new general managers in their jobs this year. Of the other six, only Houston’s Jeff Luhnow fared more miserably. The Astros, who in 2011 lost 106 games for a last-place finish, ended up in last again this year, this time with 107 losses.
Dan Duquette of Baltimore enjoyed the greatest success, putting together a team saddled with 14 successive losing seasons that won 93 games, battled the Yankees down to the final day, went to the playoffs as a wild card and won the American League wild-card game before losing a tight five-game division series to the Yankees.
The Orioles’ 93-69 record was the exact opposite of their 69-93 record the season before Duquette arrived following a 10-year absence from Major League Baseball. Of the 11 general managerial changes in the past three years, Duquette executed the second most stunning reversal from the previous season to his first.
Kevin Towers assumed front-office command of the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2011 season, and the team responded by winning the National League West title with a 94-68 record compared with 65-79 the year before.
The Diamondbacks’ circumstances were somewhat messed up. When Jeff Moorad, a former player agent, was the team’s managing partner, he signed Josh Byrnes to an eight-year contract as general manager. However, Moorad left to become, he thought, the lead owner of the San Diego Padres.
Byrnes was fired in Arizona in July 2010 and followed Moorad to San Diego, where he replaced Hoyer as general manager in October 2011 when Hoyer joined Epstein with the Cubs. Hoyer had replaced Towers in San Diego.
Moorad didn’t mind losing Hoyer because he had and preferred Byrnes, but Moorad no longer has the Padres because his deal to buy the team from John Moores collapsed earlier this year.
Towers, who served the Padres as general manager from 1996 to 2009, seems to be settling in for a long run with the Diamondbacks.The first-year division title was a good start.
“I inherited a pretty good core of players,” he said. “Josh Byrnes had some good pieces in place. The team was underachieving at the time.”
What did Towers do to turn it around? “It started with leadership,” he said and cited manager Kirk Gibson and coaches, including Don Baylor and Charles Nagy.
“Guys believed they could win. It was a mindset, not just in the big leagues but throughout the organization. We had guys like Miley and Goldschmidt” – pitcher Wade Miley and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt – “who came up from the minors and knew what was expected of them, what they needed to do to be successful.”
Seven weeks after he became the general manager, Towers made a move he needed to make for the Diamondbacks to be successful. He signed a free agent reliever, J.J. Putz, to be the team’s closer.
“We improved the bullpen,” Towers said. “Having J.J. at the backend was important. We didn’t give away games. In the past they gave them away in the seventh, eighth, ninth.”
In addition, he said, “We had a big horse in the rotation, Ian Kennedy; Justin Upton had a good year and we did a better job of controlling the running game.” Towers refered to catcher Miguel Montero, whose success rate of throwing out basestealers was 47.2 percent (28 of 60), best in the league and best in club history.
Towers’ only problem came this past season. The Diamondbacks regressed to an 81-81 record and third-place finish.
“It was more a case of losing starting pitching,” Towers said, citing the elbow injury that limited Daniel Hudson (23 wins the previous season and a third) to nine starts, Kennedy’s 15-12 record compared with 21-4 the previous season and “rushing prospects who hadn’t had a full season in Triple A.”
“The power was still strong,” Towers said. “We just weren’t good late and close. We scored more runs” – actually only three more –“but we had trouble after the seventh inning. We need to cut down on strikeouts. We relied on home runs like the Yankees. We need better contact, a higher on-base percentage. We have to find ways to score on more than just home runs. We need a better running game if we’re not going to hit home runs, we need to do a better job baserunning.”
Towers also said he didn’t think “I provided Gibby with a good enough bench last year,” adding, “I have to do a better job this year.”
What, then, do Epstein and Hoyer have to do at Wrigley Field? The Cubs have a long way to go from 101 losses.
“We did accomplish some things we think will be helpful as we go forward,” Epstein said. “We’re starting to get a feel for what the nucleus will be for the next great Cubs team.”
The words Cubs and great seldom belong in the same sentence, but Epstein continues to live off the reputation he gained in Boston, and the famished fans have no choice but to believe he will be right. Of course, the Wrigley fans have been fooled once or twice before.
“We’re being transparent about the amount of work we have to do,” Epstein said, “but there’s no timetable.”
Cubs fans have become accustomed to having no timetable. Despite the team’s dreadful season, the Cubs’ 2.88 million attendance was fifth highest in the league and only 135,000 off the 2011 total.
With 32 home runs and 108 runs batted in this year, Alfonso Soriano remains the Cubs’ most dangerous hitter, but at age 37 before next season, he is not their future. Epstein and Hoyer will build around their infield: shortstop Starlin Castro, second baseman Dwight Barney and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Jeff Samardzija, whose nine victories led the pitching staff this year, is also part of that nucleus.
“There are areas we need to address,” Epstein said. “We need two starting pitchers, we have to upgrade the bullpen, get at least one outfielder and a third baseman. We’re looking for players.”
Given the outcome of their first season, the only move of significance Epstein and Hoyer made was the acquisition of Rizzo in what at the time appeared to be a minor trade with San Diego.
Should the Cubs have won more games instead of sliding backward under a new front-office force?
“You always like to win more,” Epstein said. “There were some areas where we were sloppy. When we called up Rizzo June 25, we had a good stretch, but we were so far out of it, we traded Paul Maholm and lost Matt Garza” – in July after an 18-start season. “Had our priority been to win 66 games instead of 61, we probably could have gotten there. We’re realistic.”
It sounds like there’s a lot of work to be done, I suggested to Epstein. “That’s what makes it fun,” he said.
Of the 11 new general managers who have assumed their positions in the past three years, counting the Epstein-Hoyer tandem as one, seven have improved their teams’ records, however slightly, their first season.
Joining Epstein among the four whose records were worse was his successor, Ben Cherington. The rookie Red Sox general manager, saddled with a manager who wasn’t his idea, saw the team plummet from 90-72 to 69-83, the most precipitous plunge of all.
WINNING 20 STILL COUNTS
For a statistic that is supposedly meaningless in this enlightened age of statistical baseball, the number 20 has been prominent in the days leading up to the announcement of the Cy Young award winners this week.
For all of the decades I have watched baseball and for the many decades other people have watched baseball, we thought wins actually meant something:
- Warren Spahn won 20 games 13 times, including 6 successive seasons.
- Jim Palmer pitched 4 straight 20-win seasons twice for 8 times in 9 years.
- Bob Lemon won 20 in 6 of 7 seasons and 7 of 9.
- Ferguson Jenkins won 20 for 6 straight seasons and 7 of 8.
- Robin Roberts had 6 successive 20-win seasons.
- Juan Marichal did it 6 times in 7 years.
- Steve Carlton and Rogers Clemens each won 20 games 6 times.
- Jim (Catfish) Hunter had 5 straight 20-game seasons.
- Bob Gibson, Gaylord Perry and Tom Glavine each won 20 games 5 times.
All of these pitchers are in the Hall of Fame or on their way there. Today, however, new-age statisticians make it seem almost sinful to talk about 20-game winners.
Pitchers, they argue, have no control over the games they win. They can hold the other team scoreless for eight innings in a 0-0 game and give up a run in the ninth and lose. They can leave a game with a lead, and a relief pitcher or two or three can lose the lead for him.
In 1963, Spahn and Marichal matched shutouts for 15 innings. Alvin Dark, the Giants’ manager, wanted to take Marichal out at various points, but the 25-year-old Marichal was said to have told him, “If that old man can keep pitching, so can I.” Spahn was 42.
A Willie Mays homer run with one out in the 16th inning ended the game with a loss for Spahn and the Braves.
My point here, though it’s an extreme example, is pitchers can find ways to win games, doing whatever they have to do. In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Jack Morris refused to leave the game against the Braves until the Twins won, which they did, 1-0, in 10 innings.
Four pitchers emerged from this season with 20 wins, and all four are among the six finalists for the two Cy Young awards. It’s possible that the award winners will be the two pitchers who didn’t win 20 – Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander, who won last year with 24 wins, but the voting writers apparently took those 20 wins into account when they made their selections.
SALUTING AN HONEST BASEBALL OFFICIAL
At some point during the 1981 baseball labor negotiations, Ray Grebey, the owners’ chief labor negotiator, stopped talking to me and refused to answer my questions. He was reacting to an unflattering profile I had written about him.
After a while, it became apparent to the club owners that they were not getting their story told in The New York Times, the newspaper that mattered to them most.
One day Lee MacPhail called me. MacPhail, whom I had known for 10 years or so, was president of the American League and a member of the owners’ negotiating committee. He told me he was aware that Grebey wasn’t talking to me and offered to answer any questions I might have.
I actually gained in that substitution. Grebey wasn’t – how can I put this kindly? – the most honest negotiator at the bargaining table. Marvin Miller, the players’ union leader, found the same problem and wound up dealing with MacPhail instead of Grebey.
I recall those moments in baseball’s labor history because MacPhail died at his home in Florida Nov. 8, two weeks after his 95th birthday. Miller reached his 95th seven months earlier.
Because he was honest, a claim I cannot make for many management people, MacPhail was one of my favorite people to cover. I knew him as general manager of the Yankees, president of the American League, head of the Player Relations committee and, best of all, a fellow lover of classical music. Never did I encounter another baseball person at a concert as I did MacPhail at a Philadelphia Orchestra performance during the 1980 World Series.
Two other recollections:
MacPhail ruling against the Yankees in the pine tar incident in 1983, provoking an outraged George Steinbrenner to tell MacPhail through the newspapers that he should go look for a place to live in Kansas City, which some observers viewed as a thinly veiled threat inviting someone to do physical harm to MacPhail.
The other recollection is of what I would guess was the most uncomfortable, most embarrassing moment of MacPhail’s career.
This occurred during spring training in 1973 when MacPhail summoned reporters to a briefing in manager Ralph Houk’s office at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
It was there that MacPhail, as proper and conservative a gentleman as I had ever met, informed reporters that two Yankees’ pitchers, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, had swapped wives and were living with each other’s family.
It was a pretty sensational story at the time and nothing the Yankees wanted to have to deal with. But MacPhail knew it was something they had to confront and acknowledge, and he did it in his customarily honest, candid way.
Major League Baseball has never had an abundance of honest, candid people, and now there is one less.