It appears as though Theo Epstein has officially signed on to become the new General Manager with the Chicago Cubs, leaving behind a Boston Red Sox club he lead to two World Series championships during his tenure. Epstein has been viewed as a genius by helping the Red Sox get over “the curse” that prevented the club from winning a championship for almost a century, and now he is voluntarily throwing himself into a similarly challenging situation in Chicago with the Cubs. Whether Epstein will perform the same magic in Chicago remains to be seen, but my question is how much “magic” Epstein has in the first place?
In professional sports, many factors go into whether a team wins or loses. Of course, the GM is largely responsible for all of these things, but most savvy sports people will tell you that they often get too much credit for their success, and too much blame for their failures. Looking back at Boston, while one could argue that it was more than coincidence that the Sox won the World Series with Epstein at the helm, critics will point to the fact that he annually had one of the top 2-3 payrolls in baseball to work with in assembly his championship teams.
While it is true that having a massive payroll doesn’t guarantee championships, we do know that not having money to spend greatly reduces the chances of winning championships. Sure, we do usually see a small market team or two occasionally succeed each year (this year the D-Rays and Brewers), but we always see major market teams compete annually (like the Yankees and Red Sox). Epstein is going to Chicago, a team known for opening the bank account to spend on players — which is one big piece to the liklihood for Epstein’s future success.
Having money to spend is the first piece, but attracting players can be equally challenging (just ask some of the less desirable cities). When free agents become available, they often receive many offers and end up going to attractive cities. With Chicago being a popular city with lots of great sports history, Epstein should not have many problems getting the guys he wants. That makes him 2-2 so far.
It’s after the money and free agent pursuits where things get interesting, and GM’s really earn their keep. How do you develop your players? What things do you put around them to keep them happy? Who do you select as a manager to oversee the team and instill a winning club atmosphere? How do you and the team deal with “big market” media, especially during losing times?
Of course, aside from all those things, the last piece to success is simply luck. In research we call this error variance – the part of a research question that simply cannot be explained and occurs as a product of sheer chance. Was Epstein just plain lucky in Boston, or did he really play an instrumental part in their success? In Chicago he will have a chance to replicate his success, thereby dismissing the luck variable. On the other hand, if Chicago fails to win a championship under his guidance, the golden boy moniker may soon become a thing of the past – as will Epstein’s future in Chicago.