Theo Epstein is leaving the Boston Red Sox after a remarkable run that included two World Series championships. He’s joining the Chicago Cubs to see if he can bring success to another team steeped in history and starved for a title.
The 37-year-old Epstein became the president of baseball operations for the Cubs on Friday night after resigning with a year left on his contract as general manager of the Red Sox.
With Epstein at the helm, the Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series championship drought in 2004 and won the title again in 2007.
Cubs fans can only hope he will do the same thing on the North Side where the Cubs are looking for their first title since 1908. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts fired GM Jim Hendry in July after another disappointing season, although Hendry stayed on the job for an extra month.
The teams negotiated for more than a week over compensation the Red Sox would receive for letting Epstein out of his contract. In the end, they decided to put off that issue, saying it would be resolved in the near term.
The Red Sox are expected to announce assistant GM Ben Cherington as Epstein’s replacement. Boston, which collapsed in September and missed the playoffs for a second straight year, must also find a new manager to replace Terry Francona.
One of the first chores in Chicago is the future of manager Mike Quade, who led the team to a 71-91 record in his first full season. He has another year left on his deal.
Various reports say the Cubs are also interested in hiring San Diego Padres general manager Jed Hoyer for that position where he would be reunited with Epstein. They worked together in Boston.
Epstein will reportedly receive a five-year deal worth about $18.5 million to overhaul the baseball side of the Cubs’ front office.
In a joint statement, the teams said they would hold news conferences on Tuesday with the Cubs introducing Epstein and with the Red Sox announcing his successor — likely Cherington.
Major League Baseball generally prohibits announcements during the World Series, but Friday’s late one came on a day off for the Cardinals and Rangers.
The Cubs and Red Sox said they would not comment until Tuesday, another travel day for the World Series if it goes beyond five games.
Epstein brings a sparkling resume with him. He was hired as the youngest GM in major league history in 2002 at the age of 28 and, two years later, was the youngest GM to win it all as the Red Sox broke a long championship drought of their own — 86 years, not unlike the misery Cubs fans have famously endured.
Under Epstein’s guidance, Boston went 839-619 (.575) in the regular season and 34-23 in the playoffs, winning more than 90 games in all but two seasons.
He acquired stars such as David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Jason Bay and Adrian Gonzalez, though he also will be remembered for bringing in high-priced players who fell short, including Edgar Renteria, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey. This season it was Carl Crawford who didn’t meet expectations after signing a fat contract.
He was also the guy who traded fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in a four-team deal in 2004 — sending him to Hendry, who watched Chicago blow the wild-card lead in the final week that season.
Epstein himself presided over two of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history, the 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees and last month’s disaster in which the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in 25 days and failed to make the playoffs. No team had ever done that before.
While the Red Sox pick up the pieces of a collapse that includes reports of locker room disharmony and the departure of Francona, Epstein will have a long list of things to do in Chicago.
Ricketts wanted to make sure he got the right guy, someone who will build through a farm system and combine scouting with baseball’s new formulas and math for statistical analysis.
As they try to build for the future a big question for Ricketts and Epstein: do they also go out and spend another big amount on a marquee free agent such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder who could make the Cubs instant contenders to snap the championship drought dating to 1908?
Epstein has a history of smart draft moves (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz) and he has spent freely.
Matsuzaka cost $103 million, Renteria got $40 million for four years but lasted only one and J.D. Drew got a five-year, $70 million deal most thought was too much. Everyone is waiting to see if Crawford is worth his seven-year, $142 million deal.
When it worked, the Red Sox were the best team money could buy; when it didn’t, like this season, they were overpaid malcontents who couldn’t hold a clubhouse together.
There are similarities in Chicago.
Hendry went on a $300 million spree before the 2007 season and the Cubs won two straight division titles under manager Lou Piniella before being swept in the first round both seasons.
The past two seasons have bottomed out — Piniella abruptly retired in August 2010 — and the Cubs have been stuck with big contracts like the ones for Carlos Zambrano (five years, $91.5 million) and Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million).
Zambrano is likely gone, even with a year left on his contract. Known increasingly for his outbursts, he gave up five homers to Atlanta in August and cleared out his locker, winding up with a 30-day suspension and never pitching another game before the end of the season.
Epstein has a potential ace in Matt Garza, who went 10-10 this season and was especially effective against the Red Sox while pitching for Tampa Bay. Young Andrew Cashner won a spot in the rotation but missed most of last season with an arm problem and veterans Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells are expected to return.
The Cubs have a struggling closer in Carlos Marmol, who after signing a three-year, $20 million contract in spring training, blew 10 saves in 44 chances.
First baseman Carlos Pena, a free agent who hit 28 homers with 80 RBIs and a .225 average, would like to come back. Aramis Ramirez, who hit .306 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs, said he plans to explore the free agent market, though there is a mutual $16 million option on the table. Soriano, who has three years remaining on his deal, batted .244 but did hit 26 homers with 88 RBIs.
Chicago does have plenty of promise up the middle with 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, who had 207 hits in his first full major league season, and second baseman Darwin Barney.
Still, the Cubs finished the year a dismal 71-91 and once Hendry was gone, talked turned to someone — anyone — who might be able to bring the team back to the postseason and erase the endless talk of the purported Billy Goat curse of 1945 and the Steve Bartman foul ball debacle in Game 6 of the NLCS in 2003.
A native of Brookline, Mass., who grew up down the street from Fenway Park, Epstein left the team once before, in 2005, fleeing Fenway Park in a gorilla suit on Halloween after a tiff over his contract extension went public. He resigned and stayed away from the team for several months before returning to his old job.