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Bernstein: New MLB Rules To Test Epstein

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Theo Epstein meets the media as Chairman Tom Ricketts looks on. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Theo Epstein meets the media as Chairman Tom Ricketts looks on. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Dan-Bernstein Dan Bernstein
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since...
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By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist

(CBS) When Theo Epstein was introduced as the man in charge of Cubs baseball, he made clear his common-sense philosophy behind player contracts.

“The key is to pay for future performance,” he explained, “not past performance.”

Though it should go without saying, he said it. No tweak at previous management intended, I’m sure.

The very same principle applies to the gilded contract Tom Ricketts gave Epstein, no matter how much his plan is for him to replicate the success he had in Boston.

It helps to remember that the Red Sox gave Epstein their GM job only after an unsuccessful effort to lure Billy Beane away from Oakland, chasing the sabermetric wave that was taking advantage of a market inequity that allowed some teams to find value in players that others could not.

What happened soon after, though, is often overlooked. The rest of baseball closed that gap fairly quickly, incorporating metrics enough to effectively level the field. Far from simply aping Beane, he found yet another inequity and worked to exploit it, using the Red Sox’ deep pockets.

The arcane MLB rules behind drafting gave some the chance to invest large sums of money on picks to ensure that they’d sign, as there was no enforcement of the desires to “slot” draftees in some reasonable order. Even consistently good teams could stockpile high picks by offering arbitration to departing free agents, whose compensation value was assessed by some inscrutable Elias system.

(In fact, he mentioned that his Red Sox front office knew Ricketts and the Cubs were beginning to “get it” when they noticed them spending beyond slot in the most recent draft.)

Epstein was smart enough to identify the next thing then, and baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement means he’ll need to do it again, now.

Slotting will be enforced, with a luxury tax functioning as a de facto salary-cap. Teams that overspend in the draft and international market will be fined, and could forfeit high picks. Free agent compensation rules will be changed, not allowing successful teams to load up on higher picks.

Ricketts planned to invest millions in the draft and in the Cubs’ scouting and development mechanisms to give Epstein’s Army every chance to build as they did in Boston.

Time to change plans, at least in part.

The initial reaction from some corners is that the ballyhooed acquisition of Epstein means less, now that he can’t follow the latest blueprint, and that the differences between front offices have been lessened by the new CBA, as has the importance of financial resources for building from the bottom up.

I disagree, pointing again to Epstein’s own words.

It’s in just these times that a team should want someone with proven smarts and adaptability. He has found ways to work ahead of competitors before, even as they were catching up the first time.

As I write this, be assured that he is already poring over the new agreement, working to identify the next thing he can exploit, if he hadn’t already in anticipation of the sweeping new rules.

Ricketts paid for future performance. The real future may just have arrived earlier than expected.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein:  New MLB Rules To Test EpsteinDan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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