NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ten years ago, Theo Epstein showed up here for his first winter meetings as a general manager, the wonder boy who grew up near Fenway Park now running the Boston Red Sox.
Five years ago, Epstein returned here in the afterglow of his second World Series title, a curse-busting legacy that appeared to make him a legend throughout New England forever.
On Sunday night, Epstein landed in Nashville, Tenn., and headed toward the Gaylord Opryland, knowing that he probably won’t leave the hotel or feel any sunlight again until Thursday. The Cubs president of baseball operations makes ballplayer money now and hangs out with Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, but he won’t be the star of these winter meetings.
Before the lobby even started buzzing, the Cubs had already reached an agreement with Kyuji Fujikawa. An industry source confirmed that a deal was made late Saturday night – all that’s left is the Japanese closer taking a physical. The reported terms – two years at $9.5 million, plus an option – show the type of commitments the front office is willing to make this offseason.
Insiders were left shaking their heads at the idea the Cubs are going after Michael Bourn. Yes, there’s a need for an outfielder, but there aren’t any megadeals in the works. Epstein isn’t going to waver from his plan just because the Cubs lost 101 games.
“He’s got conviction,” Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. “He’s got zero fear. He’s a great friend, but he would step on my neck, slice my throat to win. That’s just who he is.”
Towers warned his friend Brian Cashman, the New York Yankees general manager, when Epstein went to Boston: Look out, this kid’s good.
Epstein had just graduated from Yale University in 1995 when he went to work for the San Diego Padres, first in the communications department and then baseball operations. Towers was the general manager there when he had Epstein handling the radar guns and learning how to evaluate players up close. Epstein also graduated from University of San Diego’s law school during that time, though he didn’t spend much time in the actual classroom.
“I’d give Theo a project, it would take some interns two to three weeks,” Towers said, snapping his fingers. “It would be on my desk the next day.
“Incredible listener, incredible recall. He’d listen to the veteran scouts and show respect. He wouldn’t talk out of turn. He would listen and take things in and really learned that side of the game.”
Towers is convinced that Epstein has broken down all the teams in the National League Central, analyzing their contract situations and windows for contention, preparing for his chance to attack. And then the Cubs will be in total go-for-it mode.
But in the meantime, the Cubs will be looking for value and making under-the-radar moves. Like when Epstein noticed the Red Sox put David Eckstein on waivers in 2000.
“He came running in, saying we got to claim this guy,” Towers recalled. “I got the STATS Inc. book out at the time…I say: ‘No way.’ He says: ‘I’m telling you, man, there’s some indicators. This guy’s going to hit. He’s an on-base machine.’
“Could have just claimed him for 20 grand. He’s MVP of the World Series (a couple years later). I said: ‘I may want to start listening to this guy. He’s got some pretty good ideas.’”
The Cubs have already added two starters to their rotation on one-year deals. It only took a few minutes before Scott Baker and Scott Feldman were asked about the possibility of being flipped at the trade deadline. The clubhouse knows they need a strong start next April and May, or else risk Epstein pulling the plug on next season.
“As soon as you get to spring training and Opening Day starts, you’re in it to win it, until you’re not,” Epstein said. “Nothing would make me happier than being solidly in contention in June and July and adding pieces for next year. We’ll build the team and leave a little bit of a cushion, so that if things break our way and we get off to a good start, we can add pieces. With the second wild card, that’s never total fantasy.
“If we find ourselves in that position, we’ll be thrilled and we’ll go for it. If we’re not in that position, we’ll make the hard call that we made this year and do it in the best interests of the Cubs and look to move shorter-term assets for longer-term assets.
“We’ll look to move veteran players for younger players and use that as a way to improve our long-term prospects and build our foundation. But it’s not like we build the team hoping we go down that path. I hope we’re in a position to add, but we’ll be prepared for either scenario.”
Of course the Cubs are going to look at trade possibilities for Alfonso Soriano. And Fujikawa could make Carlos Marmol a trade chip again. But there’s probably not enough inventory to pull off a blockbuster deal.
Profiles of Towers have mentioned how the general manager used “gunslinger” as part of his personal e-mail address.
So Towers admired how Epstein pulled the trigger on a four-team trade on July 31, 2004, sending franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs and getting key pieces in return that helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years.
In Epstein’s world, no one is untouchable. Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija will be core players – until they’re not anymore. They’re all assets in the rebuilding project on the North Side.
"Moving Garciaparra couldn’t have been easy,” Towers said. “He don’t care. He doesn’t fall in love with people. He’ll slice your throat and step on you