Theo Epstein a haunting example of exactly what is missing in Philadelphia
by Scott Butler 5/7/15

Theo Epstein

Sam Donnellon posted an article yesterday in which he wrote about Theo Epstein's rebuilding efforts with the Cubs.

Donnellon does not once compare Epstein to Ruben Amaro, Jr., but he didn't have to.

As Todd Zolecki told me, "Readers can draw their own conclusions without saying, 'This guy is an absolute embarrassment to the game of baseball.'"

Donnellon allowed readers to do exactly that.

He painted a portrait of a man in Epstein who was worth the three prospects and $18.5 million commitment required for the Cubs to steal him from Boston.

Without mentioning a word, his point was clear:

Man, is Ruben Amaro overmatched.

To truly understand how, we need to look at Epstein's work in both Chicago and Boston.

Epstein modeled his Chicago rebuild after, get this, "the Phillies," he said. "They built what really is the envy of every organization. Which is a sustained run of success."

He is trying to create that sustained run in Chicago in a very different way from his start with the Red Sox. As Donnellon wrote:

Epstein arrived in Boston in 2002 with what he called "A Hall-of-Fame caliber core."

The Red Sox won the World Series two seasons later in 2004.

That 2004 championship team that broke the Babe's curse started just two homegrown stars, Trot Nixon and and Kevin Youkilis.

Epstein could have continually added to his championship roster as Amaro did in Philadelphia, but he took a different approach.

"That first championship bought us time to rebuild the farm system," Epstein said.

Imagine that, the Red Sox had just won their first World Series in a billion years and Epstein was talking rebuild.

Ruben Amaro inherited a very different World Series winner. His roster was filled with young, inexpensive, home grown players with a healthy farm system. But the thought process should have been identical.

That championship bought Amaro time. Not time to rebuild a farm system, but time to tweek his current roster in hopes of sustaining success longer and avoiding the necessary rebuild he now finds himself in.

Amaro's mandate should not have been to add piece after piece and push all of the chips to the middle of the table. Instead, he should have been shuffling those pieces.

Following the 2008 season, the Phillies core was set to dismantle itself in rapid fashion. Jayson Werth was eligible for free agency in 2010; Howard, Rollins, and Victorino in 2012; Hamels and Ruiz in 2013; and Utley in 2014. Seven players to hit free agency within five years and five players within just two years.

The Phillies simply could not afford to keep their core together. At least one player had to be moved at some point and that time should have started the moment he took over from Pat Gillick after the 2008 season.

Maybe, for example, they could have traded Ryan Howard, who hit 48 home runs that season and averaged 51 homers and 144 RBI over the previous three seasons. He was still under team control, enabling the Phillies to sign him to a hugely team friendly three year/$54 million contract - just $18 million per year.

For the best slugger in baseball at a cheap price? Amaro would have received a King's ransom.

Trading Howard immediately after a championship? Amaro would have been slaughtered by fans. But he would have avoided signing Howard to a gargantuan contract while refueling the farm system and hopefully maintaining their superiority down the road.

It didn't have to be Howard, though. It could have been Utley or Rollins or Hamels or Victorino.

They could have traded Jayson Werth after the 2009 season rather than having him walk in free agency. That is what a bold GM like Epstein with an eye on the long term health of the franchise would have done.

One step back and hopefully two steps forward.

Instead, Amaro lost Werth to free agency with no return and re-signed everyone else, while at the same time signing aging players like Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco, and trading away the entire farm for Halladay, Oswalt, and Pence.

Amaro was desperate for another championship while he should have been desperate to avoid what eventually happened: four straight seasons at .500 or worse following the 2011 season.

When Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago, he had the right desperation for a "sustained run of success" and the vision to make it last.

That vision is missing in Philadelphia and goes well beyond Ruben Amaro, extending into an ownership lacking the guts to upset fans and an unwillingness to admit to themselves and the world that it was time to move on.

Chicago's rebuild has been much different.

"Being transparent with what you're doing is a good thing," Epstein said. "We were open with the fans that we were really focusing on young talent acquisition - sometime at the expense of the big-league team. And that I think that bought us a little bit of goodwill with them where they were more open to it and more patient and following along."

The Phillies have been anything but transparent. In 2012, they shrugged off injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. With last year's team, the Phillies tried to sell the fans on AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd being the missing pieces.

The Phillies are unofficially in year four of their rebuild, but they realized it three years to late, similar to the Cubs, who lost 87 games and 91 games before grabbing Epstein in 2012.

After losses of 101, 96, and 89 games in his three seasons with the Cubs, Epstein is exactly where he wants to be.

"What's nice about it, and why I say it feels like a beginning, is that this group of players is going to be together until 2020, 2021. Our young players who just came up are under control until 2021. Rizzo and [Starlin] Castro are on long-term deals and we have options for 2020, 2021. We're one of the youngest teams in the league. So I like where we are now but it's really exciting to think of where we can be as we continue to go forward."

It's a situation reminiscent of Philadelphia in 2007 with six players under team control for at least four years and the beginning of a five year reign of supremacy in the National League East.

Can the Phillies, given their current ownership arrangement and failed general manager, reasonably expect to be in a similar situation as Epstein two years from now?

It is a question that should haunt Phillies fans for years to come.

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