Joe Maddon was stumped.
Maddon knows them well. As the manager of the Chicago Cubs, he reports to Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations. When Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays, he worked alongside Friedman, now Epstein’s counterpart on the Dodgers.
Maddon didn’t state the obvious, which was that the brainiac in Chicago has World Series rings.
“I don’t know,” Maddon said.
“Theo can play guitar,” Maddon said. “Andrew would run away from that.”
The audience laughed.
“Theo likes to …” Maddon started.
“Andrew likes to compete, too,” he said. “Andrew likes to compete on the golf course.”
Maddon shook his head.
“They really are similar, man, I’m telling you,” he said.
More than you think.
A cursory look at the their rosters points to a significant chasm in philosophy, the Cubs built around a group of players in their mid-20s while the Dodgers have more of a veteran-laden team that counts Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner as foundational parts.
But this is a function of timing. Epstein is entering his seventh season with the Cubs, Friedman only his third with the Dodgers.
Their franchises are on parallel tracks, the Dodgers behind the Cubs but nonetheless headed in the same direction.
Epstein and Friedman were hired to more or less do the same thing, which was to rebuild their franchises from top to bottom. This meant not only increasing the role sabermetrics played in decisions, but also revamping the team’s player-development system.
“I’m certain that’s where Andrew is working from,” Maddon said.
The ring ceremony offered an idealized version of the Dodgers future. The Cubs won the World Series last year and are positioned to win several more championships, as their nucleus is made up of the likes of 27-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, 25-year-old third baseman Kris Bryant, 24-year-old outfielder Kyle Schwarber and 23-year-old shortstop Addison Russell.
Epstein won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox. If he had an advantage when taking over the Cubs before the 2012 season, it was that he inherited a team that finished in last place in each of the last two seasons. Free of expectations to compete immediately, he was able to sacrifice the present for the future.
The Cubs remained in last place in each of Epstein’s first three seasons, allowing them to stockpile high draft picks. Epstein didn’t want to gamble on pitchers, who were more susceptible to injuries. So he instead used his top picks on position players. They drafted Bryant with the second overall pick in 2013 and Schwarber with the fourth pick in 2014.
Russell was acquired as part of a package in trade for established pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Friedman never had the option of trading front-line pitchers for prospects. He inherited a team that won back-to-back division championships.
“We were at different points of the success cycle,” Epstein said. “They’ve done a really nice job of winning while establishing something new at the same time.”
Friedman had more to work with. The team’s former scouting director, Logan White, had found players that were already viewed as stars in the making, including Corey Seager, Julio Urias, Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger.
Still, the Dodgers looked to add. Knowing their options in the draft would be limited by where they were picking, they focused on the international market. In the 2015-16 signing period, the franchise invested about $90 million on amateur players from Latin America. The star of that class, right-hander Yadier Alvarez, is ranked the No. 2 prospect in the Dodgers farm system by Baseball America. Outfielder Yusniel Diaz is No. 7.
Alvarez, Diaz and the other prospects who were signed then are still in the lower levels of the minor leagues. If they develop how the Dodgers project, the construction of the team’s future major league rosters will likely resemble that of the present-day Cubs.
However, the strength of the Dodgers roster will spare them from doing what the Cubs did in 2014, when they fielded a young team that finished last in National League Central.
“It’s always challenging to introduce too many young players all at the same time,” Friedman said. “If you look back at the last couple years, we’ve been able to slowly integrate two to three guys a year. That way it doesn’t put any undue pressure on the young player.”
At the same time, the relatively low cost of homegrown players would permit the Dodgers to venture into the high end of the free-agent market to round out their roster, as the Cubs did when they signed starting pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155-million contract before the 2015 season.
In the hours leading up to the Cubs ring ceremony, Friedman acknowledged he has imagined what it would be like if the Dodgers win the World Series.
“It gives me goosebumps thinking about the excitement and the parade and how long our fans have waited for us to bring a championship back to L.A.,” Friedman said.
He saw a preview on this night. Wrigley Field erupted when Epstein was called to receive his ring. The fans chanted Epstein’s name.
The fan base’s suspicions of analytics, the wisecracks about computers and calculators, the fears that old traditions are being abandoned, none of that exists here. The Cubs are World Series champions. This could happen in Los Angeles, too.