Few executives in baseball history can claim to have accomplished what Theo Epstein has done during his career. Epstein’s legacy already was set for life when he built the 2004 Red Sox roster that snapped the “Curse of the Bambino” and brought Boston its first World Series title in 86 years. Then he one-upped himself and built the 2016 Cubs roster that snapped the “Billy Goat Curse” and brought the north side of Chicago its first World Series title in 108 years.
So when Epstein announced Monday he’s resigning from the Cubs with one year left on his contract and will take the 2021 season off before hopefully joining another organization in more of an ownership capacity, the baseball world was caught off-guard.
Thing is, what Epstein did isn’t all that unusual. Not the part where he ended two of sports’ longest championship droughts. The part where he left one franchise and began to make plans to join another.
Nine years in Boston, then nine years in Chicago? Those are long stints in this industry. You have to be awfully successful to merit that kind of job security, and only a handful of general managers have it.
Now take a moment to appreciate that Mike Rizzo is about to enter his 13th season as Nationals GM, and his latest contract extension ensures he’ll still be here through at least his 15th season at the helm.
It’s easy to take that for granted, but we shouldn’t. The Nats are incredibly fortunate to have that kind of stability in their front office.
Only three heads of baseball operations have been in their current positions longer than Rizzo. Dayton Moore has been with the Royals since 2006. Jon Daniels was hired by the Rangers after the 2005 season. And Brian Cashman became GM of the Yankees in 1998 and hasn’t gone anywhere since, making him the dean of the industry.
That’s some select company for Rizzo, who (lest we forget) often had been rumored to be in danger of leaving town but has never reached a point where he was without a contract and could have interviewed anywhere else.
No, the Lerner family hasn’t always handled Rizzo’s contract status in an ideal manner. Every few years, when his current deal is set to expire, he finds himself in a bit of limbo, waiting for ownership to offer him an extension. You know the drill by now, though: The Lerners always come through in the end and lock him up.
Rizzo himself is far from perfect at his job. He has assembled a few rosters that have severely underachieved. He almost always finds himself desperate for bullpen help at the July 31 trade deadline. He hasn’t developed nearly as many quality big league arms as you’d expect from a franchise that always claims to prioritize the development of young pitchers. He hired Matt Williams to be his manager, acquired Jonathan Papelbon to be his closer, and in recent years traded away Lucas Giolito and Jesús Luzardo.
But Rizzo’s batting average is as high as any GM in baseball. His big-ticket purchases (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jayson Werth) have paid off. He’s bamboozled more than a few of his counterparts in shrewd trades that brought Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Sean Burnett and Tanner Rainey to Washington.
Who’s the worst free agent Rizzo has signed in 12 years on the job? Dan Haren? Trevor Rosenthal? Nate McLouth? Sure, they were all busts, but none of them had long-lasting negative ramifications on the Nationals. Rizzo has never found himself desperate to dump a high-salary, past-his-prime player on someone else. Most GMs are stuck in that no-win situation at least once over the years.
He hasn’t done it alone, but Rizzo is more responsible than anybody else in the entire organization for building the Nationals from a 100-loss laughingstock into a consistent contender with one pennant flying above the ballpark and the potential for more to join it.
And while his counterparts around the league bounce around from one franchise to another, he has both earned the right to stay here and shown the desire not to look for greener pastures elsewhere.
“It’s my home,” Rizzo said in September after signing his latest extension. “It’s the longest place I’ve ever worked at. … I’m most proud that I’m here 14 years later. I think it’s a better organization and franchise than I inherited.”
It sure is. And on a day when the Mets and Phillies are still searching for new GMs and the Cubs and Marlins are handing over their reins to someone new, don’t forget how fortunate the Nationals are to have the kind of front office stability so many others can only dream they had, too.