Theo Epstein’s Magic Displayed in Two of MLB’s Best Teams
The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs feature two of the most potent offenses in baseball. What else do the two first-place teams have in common — other than their infamous championship droughts (the Cubs are still seeking to end theirs) and fervent fanbases? Their rosters are in large part the doing of Theo Epstein, the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs who served in the same capacity for the Red Sox from 2003–11.
Epstein’s lasting impact in Boston is arrayed in the Red Sox’s intractable offensive attack. 10 (seven hitters) of the 25 players on the Red Sox’s current 25-man roster are from the Epstein regime. Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the league’s best defensive outfielders who just registered a 29-game hit streak, was one of four first-round picks (40th overall) from the 2011 MLB Draft — Epstein’s final draft with the Red Sox. Boston’s other first-round picks included reliever Matt Barnes (19th), catcher/outfielder Blake Swihart (26th) and Henry Owens (36th). Mookie Betts was selected in the fifth-round of that draft, while third baseman Travis Shaw was taken in the ninth round.
Bradley Jr. ranks sixth in the American League in batting (.321) and posts a .400 on-base percentage with nine home runs and 38 RBIs.
Barnes has emerged as one of Boston’s most reliable arms in the bullpen. The right-hander sits with a 2.93 ERA, a 1.41 WHIP and 27 strikeouts on the season.
Swihart serves as a platoon player, backing up Christian Vázquez behind the plate and making spot starts in left field.
Lefty-hurler Owens — the only of the aforementioned players from the ’11 Draft not currently on the Red Sox’s 25-man roster — has spent most of 2016 in the minors with Pawtucket, but did start three contests, recording a 5.11 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched.
Another defensive whiz in Boston’s talented outfield, the leadoff hitter Betts — the talk of MLB after smacking five home runs in a seven at-bat span — posts a .285 average with 14 homers and 45 RBIs from his perch atop the lineup.
A former ninth-round selection, Shaw could make the the American League All-Star squad. He ranks first among AL third basemen in doubles (19). Shaw, batting .284, has knocked in 36 RBIs and mashed seven home runs.
Ranking second in the AL in batting, Xander Bogaerts (.345 average) is also from Epstein’s tenure. The talented shortstop was signed as an amateur free agent in 2009. A year earlier, Epstein selected Vázquez, currently manning the Red Sox’s backstop, in the ninth round of the 2008 MLB Draft.
Epstein signed reliever Junichi Tazawa in December 2008. The right-hander made his MLB debut in 2009, then spent the next season in Triple-A, before growing into a mainstay in the bullpen. Tazawa served as the Red Sox’s setup man for their 2013 World Series Champion team and has recorded a 3.27 ERA this season.
The now-maligned right-hander Clay Buchholz was a first-round draft selection in 2005. Shifted to a relief role after enduring some abysmal starts, the two-time All-Star Buchholz was once a critical part of Boston’s on-field success. He debuted in 2007, throwing a no-hitter in September of that season, and was the third-best starter on the 2013 title team — recording an otherworldly 1.74 ERA in the regular season to go along with a 4.37 ERA in the postseason.
The 2007 AL Rookie of the Year and 2008 AL MVP, Dustin Pedroia was picked in the second round of the 2004 MLB Draft. One of Epstein’s first moves as Boston’s GM was signing designated hitter David Ortiz to a meager one-year, $1.2 million contract before the start of the 2003 season. The rest, they say, is history.
Now spearheading the Cubs’ front office, Epstein has built a dominant, youthful roster through the draft and trades, while adding accomplished veterans via free agency in each of the past two offseasons. Sporting a MLB-best 39–16 (.709) record, the Cubs’ turnaround from the cellar of the National League Central to World Series favorites began when Epstein traded Andrew Cashner to the San Diego Padres in 2012 in exchange for Anthony Rizzo, now one of MLB’s elite first basemen.
Less than two years later in separate deals made just before the 2013 trade deadline, Epstein acquired shortstop Addison Russell and Jake Arietta. Arietta transformed from a backend starter on the Baltimore Orioles into arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
Epstein’s rejuvenation of Chicago’s roster can also be traced to the draft with star third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber — first round picks in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Epstein has bolstered the Cubs’ starting rotation the past two offseasons by signing lefty ace Jon Lester and the right-handed Jason Hammel (who was originally signed in 2014, traded later that season in the deal that netted Russell, and then signed back with Chicago in 2015), and adding two-time World Series champion John Lackey this past winter.
The batting order was retooled in free agency by signing Dexter Fowler before the start of the 2015 season, and inking two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist and one-time All-Star Jason Heyward (who is struggling mightily) to contracts this past offseason.
Rizzo, Arietta, Bryant, Lester, Hammel, Fowler and Zobrist are all expected to represent the National League in the upcoming All-Star game. Likely joining them in the festivities will be closer Hector Rondon, who Epstein selected in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft. Rondon has been nearly unhittable this season, as evidenced by his incredulous 0.98 ERA.
And oh by the way, Epstein brought Joe Madden, one of MLB’s most respected managers, to the North Side of Chicago.
Not only is Epstein — the owner of two World Series rings (2004 and 2007) from his Boston days — responsible for Chicago’s current roster and the heart of Boston’s batting lineup, a tip of the cap should also go his way for his role in the Red Sox’s 2013 title. 13 of the 25 players on the Red Sox’s 25-man roster for the ’13 World Series were from the Epstein-era. Of course, Ben Cherrington — Boston’s general manager from 2012–15 — deserves just as much praise for signing Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara and Jonny Gomes, all free agent additions who excelled in their first seasons (2013) with the Red Sox en route to their unheralded championship run. Still, Epstein’s mark on that roster should not go unnoticed.
An Epstein-centric World Series of Cubs vs. Red Sox this October is a real possibility, and would further demonstrate the immense impact he has had on each of these franchises. The headlines would be off the charts with Epstein trying to break the curse of the Billy Goat in Chicago, just 12 years after reversing the curse of the Bambino. The attention geared towards Epstein, coupled with bringing the Cubs to their World Series since 1945, could solidify his status as the best executive in baseball. Not bad for a guy who once left Fenway Park in a gorilla suit to avoid reporters.
*Stats accurate as of 6/6/16