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The Unresolved Theo Epstein Compensation Issue

February 15, 2012

This past October, the Boston Red Sox unsurprisingly granted the Chicago Cubs permission to speak with then-GM Theo Epstein about a possible opportunity within their front office. Their reasons for allowing such discussions to take place were two fold – there was a growing belief that the Red Sox and Epstein both knew that their relationship was rapidly coming to an end anyways and the Cubs agreed to compensate the Red Sox should they end up hiring Epstein. By month’s end, Epstein had accepted an offer to become the Cubs’ new Team President of Baseball Operations, leaving the Red Sox and the final year on his contract with the team behind in Boston.

Since October, Epstein has settled in with the Cubs. He hired Jed Hoyer (a former Assistant GM under Epstein in Boston) away from the San Diego Padres to be his GM (yet another compensation matter that has yet to be resolved, by the way). The pair have since begun what looks to be a lengthy, but methodical, rebuilding process that the Cubs organization severely needs.

Meanwhile, Boston turned the reigns of their front office over to Ben Cherington (another former Epstein Assistant GM). The team has made marginal improvements this winter as they’ve found themselves somewhat handicapped by a number of immovable contracts. The Red Sox will head into the 2012 season facing a number of big questions, but should still find themselves in a better position to compete than the Cubs.

Now, four months later and on the verge of the start of Spring Training, there still is no resolution to the compensation issue between the two teams. And we don’t seem any closer to there being an end to this issue.

This all begs the question: why hasn’t this been resolved?

For obvious reasons, the bulk of the discussions that have taken place between the two sides have remained hidden from the public. There have been, of course, a number of items leaked to the public over the course of this process, with a likelihood that sources of this information have come from both sides of the discussions. These sources have provided details on some of the frustrations each side has encountered and even some of the names that have been brought up throughout the process.

Two of the more frequently mentioned names that the Red Sox have allegedly asked for are Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt. Jackson split the 2011 season between the Cubs’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. Upon reaching Triple-A in the latter half of the season, he impressed at the plate, batting .297/.388/.551 over 215 plate appearances. The center fielder was a 1st Round pick in the 2009 Draft and has twice been named to Baseball America’s preseason Top 100 lists, was recently named the #89 best prospect by ESPN’s Keith Law, and is the top prospect in the Cubs’ organization heading into the 2012 season by most accounts.

McNutt, meanwhile, was taken in the 32nd Round of the 2009 Draft. The right-hander spent the 2011 season in Double-A, where he made 22 starts and pitched 95.0 innings. He finished the season 5-6 with a 4.55 ERA and an uncharacteristically high 1.674 WHIP. The season was largely a disappointment for McNutt and the Cubs, as he seemed to stall in his development with a full season at Double-A. Baseball America still thinks highly enough of McNutt that he was ranked as the 4th best prospect in the team’s minor league system heading into the 2012 season. He profiles as a future mid-rotation option.

At one point in time there was a belief that Boston had brought up Matt Garza in discussions. Garza, whom the Cubs had acquired from Tampa Bay 13 months ago, went 10-10 in his first season outside the AL East. In 198.0 innings he pitched to a 3.32 ERA, 1.258 WHIP, and a career high 9.0 K/9. The Red Sox were expected to pursue starting pitching depth this winter. In a surprising move, the Cubs reportedly were willing to deal Garza throughout much of the winter months, yet they never seemed to commit to such an idea by formally putting him on the trade market. It is believed that at one point Boston approached the idea of a trade for Garza in which they’d surrender a lesser package of players – essentially taking advantage of the outstanding compensation concern in order to acquire a high quality starting pitcher. As expected, the Cubs quickly shot down such an idea.

Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe shared some interesting quotes from Cherington at the very end of January. Most were your general run-of-the-mill “we can’t really comment on specifics but here’s an overly generalized answer” variety responses. But one certainly illustrates the lack of progress the situation has seen to this point:

There was an expectation when Theo left that the Red Sox would receive significant compensation for allowing the Cubs to hire him and we haven’t been able to agree on what ‘significant compensation’ means.

Now I can’t speak with any degree of certainty as to what Cherington, Epstein, the Red Sox, or the Cubs would consider “significant compensation”. But there is somewhat of a precedent here which we can use as sort of a baseline to work from. The situations were much different in each of these cases, but there is still a certain degree of relevance to each case.

Most recently, the Miami Marlins sent a pair of minor leaguers to the Chicago White Sox in late September in order for Chicago to let Manager Ozzie Guillen out of the final year of his contract. Miami then signed Guillen to a four year deal. The White Sox received right-hander Jhan Marinez and shortstop Ozzie Martinez as compensation in the agreement. Though neither player has made a significant name for themselves in their minor league careers to date Baseball America recently ranked the pair as the 7th and 10th best prospects in Chicago’s minor league system, though it’s worth noting that the White Sox have the worst overall farm system in all of Major League Baseball by many accounts. We won’t know how this agreement turns out for some time, as neither Marinez or Martinez are considered near-MLB ready.

After the 2002 season the Tampa Bay Devil Rays wanted to hire Lou Piniella to be their manager, but Piniella was still under contract with the Seattle Mariners for at least one more season. As a result, the Rays agreed to compensate the Mariners for allowing Piniella out of his contract. Seattle would receive outfielder Randy Winn while Tampa Bay would be allowed to sign Piniella and received infielder Antonio Perez. Winn would spent two and a half seasons in Seattle, batting a combined .287/.345/.417 with 31 HR and 193 RBI in 1,799 total plate appearances before being traded to San Francisco at the 2005 Trade Deadline. Perez spent one season in Tampa Bay and hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2006. In 557 career plate appearances over four seasons he holds a .244/.320/.347 line.

Each of these situations centered on a manager moving from one organization to another, as opposed to a member of the team’s front office. Again, the circumstances are different here – a factor we cannot overlook. However, in each situation the compensation surrendered would not fall under “significant” by any means. None of the players involved in these two situations contributed in a significant enough manner that it drastically affected the future of their respective organization.

While rarer, there have been situations in the past where a team has agreed to compensate another organization for a member of the front office. When the Cubs originally hired Andy MacPhail away from the Minnesota Twins after the 1994 season, the organization agreed to send the Twins a minor league prospect as compensation. Minnesota received right-hander Hector Trinidad. He’d never reach the Major Leagues.

Just what do these situations mean for the Epstein situation? In short, not much aside from serving as a baseline giving the Cubs ample reason to stand pat. Players such as Jackson, McNutt, and Garza are just simply too valuable to be considered as compensation for Epstein.

ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote about the unresolved issue back on February 1st. Even he, someone more “in the know” than I am, can’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that this matter remains in such a state of flux, even after both sides have asked MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to settle the matter for them – something Selig does not want to have to do. Olney, however, did suggest a partial solution which actually sounds reasonable:

One way Selig could stay out of it is insisting the Cubs and Red Sox finish the compensation issue, while imposing fines on both organizations for each day that the thing remains unresolved.

Olney’s idea would certainly provide additional incentive for each side to come to an agreement on this compensation matter. However, if the two sides haven’t been able to reach an agreement after four months of discussions, would the threat of a fine really expedite the process at this point? There’s really no way to know. With Spring Training just a few days away – at least the official start, as players have been trickling into camps across Florida and Arizona for much of the past week – it seems safe to assume that both the Cubs and Red Sox would prefer to find a resolution to this entire issue sooner rather than later.

Should the Red Sox continue with their insistence that the Cubs give them a player from their minor league system as compensation, they need to understand that this player will not be coming from the team’s Major League roster. It’s also highly unlikely the player comes from the Cubs’ upper minor league teams. Once again, the Andy MacPhail situation serves as a precedent here. It is worth noting that the original agreement took place 18 years ago. There is some degree of inflation that should be taken into account, considering the differences in Major League salaries between then and now.

That said, Trinidad was a right-handed starting pitcher who had posted respectable, though not spectacular numbers through his first four seasons as a professional. He had made it up to Double-A during the 1993 campaign, though that was only for four late season starts after jumping directly from Class A. He struggled in those four outings, going 1-3 with a 6.57 ERA and 1.662 WHIP. His last season in the Chicago organization, 1994, was spent back down at High-A. In 27 starts he posted an 11-9 record with a 3.23 ERA and 1.201 WHIP in 175.1 innings.

Once he joined the Twins organization, Trinidad started out with their Double-A affiliate. He’d spend the better part of the next three seasons there, never posting an ERA lower than 3.84 but also never winning more than 6 games. By the end of the 1997 season, Trinidad was out of baseball altogether.

While this is merely the tale of one individual, it still one worth noting as it’s a reminder that not every prospect ultimately works out. In fact, more of them fail to live up to their potential than not. These discussions between the Red Sox and Cubs have continued now for nearly four months without any progress towards a resolution. Boston has continued their insistence that they receive “significant compensation” from the Cubs for allowing them to hire Epstein. To the Red Sox, “significant compensation” seems to mean a player who could eventually help their Major League club down the road but those expectations are just simply too high. In the end, the two sides should have agreed to specific parameters regarding compensation well before the Cubs made Epstein’s hiring official. By not having this agreement in place in advance, the Red Sox surrendered every piece of leverage that they held in these negotiations.

Spring Training begins in just a few days and we appear to be just as far from a resolution to this issue as we were back in October. There seems to be no urgency from either side to work out a resolution, despite the seemingly obvious reasons to get this completed sooner rather than later. Boston needs to remember that their relationship with Epstein was coming to an end anyways and, in a way, the Cubs actually did them a favor by hiring him away from the Red Sox before his contract was completed. And with the unpredictable nature of how minor leaguers will develop, maybe the Red Sox need to finally back off their demands.

Realistically, what would be better at this point, some minor leaguer who may or may not develop into a valuable piece of the organization’s future or a check for $1 Million? Maybe it’s just me, but at this point if I were the Red Sox I’d settle for the check so that once and for all we could all move on from this mess of a situation.

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