“If not now, when?”
—Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein on the hefty price the team paid for closer Aroldis Chapman
In 2003, when Theo Epstein was 29 years old and the Boston Red Sox general manager, he embraced the idea of a “closer-by-committee.” The experiment failed miserably and was the ultimate undoing of the 2003 Red Sox, who subsequently exhausted resources to overhaul their bullpen during that season.
And then the Red Sox, after losing to the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, at least in part because manager Grady Little lacked confidence in the bullpen, made a series of maneuvers that involved changing managers and acquiring right-hander Curt Schilling.
Oh, and they signed closer Keith Foulke, who allowed one earned run in 14 innings during the 2004 postseason, helping the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years.
So here we are now, many years later, and a funny thing has happened on the way to October 2016: Theo just paid a hefty price, in season, for a closer. That is really not something he has ever done before. During a reign in Boston that produced two World titles, Epstein never paid what he just paid for Aroldis Chapman, the new anchor to the Chicago Cubs bullpen. After Foulke, the Red Sox handed closing responsibilities to Jonathan Papelbon, a former starter in their minor league system. Even then, there was an internal debate between then-manager Terry Francona and Epstein, the former wanting Papelbon to serve as a reliever, the latter wanting him to remain a starter.
Francona won out. And the Red Sox won another title, at least partly thanks to another closer who had a sterling postseason (0 runs in 10.2 innings in the 2007 postseason) and who has a 1.00 ERA in his playoff career.
So here’s the question: Has Theo changed?
Well, yes and no.
Let’s start with the obvious: The Cubs paid a significant price for any closer, especially considering that Chapman is eligible for free agency at the end of the year. The Giants have won three World Series in the last six postseasons with a cast of closers that has included Brian Wilson and and some combination or Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. The Royals won one with Wade Davis, who was a converted starter. The Red Sox won one with Koji Uehara, who was their third or fourth choice in 2013 after an array of mishaps and injuries. When the Cardinals won in 2011, they had one save — by Jason Motte.
So does that mean Epstein did something uncharacteristically foolish here?
Nope. Not by a long shot. It means that Epstein is adjusting to the situation, which is what any capable manager or GM should do. Some teams are worth making sizable investments in and others are not.
The 2016 Cubs are worth spending the money. In the last two off-seasons, Epstein has invested in Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey, among others. The Cubs have a fabulous young nucleus. Chicago didn’t come this far to go the way of the `90s Atlanta Braves or the Dave Dombrowski-era Detroit Tigers, teams that lost almost solely because they did not have a legitimate closer.
Does that mean the Cubs are a lock to win the World Series now? Definitely not. Chapman obviously comes with risks, not the least of which is his current tally of zero career postseason saves. We all know that Chapman has clipped 105 mph on the radar gun, but he also walked 4.5 batters per nine innings last year. An absence of command could be his undoing in the playoffs.
Still, Theo Epstein and the Cubs, who are aiming for their first world title in 108 years, have come way too far to leave themselves with a bullpen hole entering October.
Aroldis Chapman was absolutely worth the gamble. And, more importantly, he’s worth the price.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.