When the reports of Theo Epstein signing with the Cubs began to trickle in this morning (or actually last night), I started thinking about what it means in the short-term for the Cubs. The truth is that I, and you, have literally no idea. I wrote this before reading Aisle 424’s most recent article so there may be some similarities.
We could look at Theo’s record in Boston to use as an example for what may happen in the near future, but the 2002 Red Sox were a really good team that missed the playoffs. The 2011 Cubs were a well below average team. When I’m talking about record, I’m not talking about the wins and losses. I’m speaking of the official transactions.
If we use that next year’s Red Sox team as an example, we don’t get anywhere. The starting 9 for the Sox in 2003 were an older bunch. David Ortiz was the spring chicken among them at the age of 27. That’s the age at which most Cubs fans think players can still be top prospects for some reason. Three were 29 years old: Nomar Gariaparra, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon. Todd Walker was 30. Jason Varitek, Kevin Millar and Manny Ramirez were 31. Bill Mueller was 32. There was no infusion of youth into this lineup, but again, the 2002 Red Sox were a far better team than the one Theo will be taking over in Chicago.
Casey Fossum was the youngest starting pitcher for the Sox in 2003. He was 25 years old. He’s also the only starter younger than 30. Derek Lowe was 30, Pedro Martinez 31, Tim Wakefield 36 and John Burkett was 38. They did get 5 starts from 24-year old Byung-Hyun Kim (44 relief appearances). They got another 5 from 31 year old Ramiro Mendoza and 10 starts by 28 year old Jeff Suppan.
Shea Hillenbrand, Tony Clark and Brian Daubach were gone. Not sure why. Not that important. Lowe, Pedro and Burkett were their top 3. Frank Castillo (yeah, you remember him!) was their 4th starter and they got some starts from next year’s starter Casey Fossum and some from Tim Wakefield as well. So there wasn’t much turnover from one roster to another.
There was some additional turnover after 2003, but nothing major. The Red Sox roster did not change much after Theo was signed. It probably changed as much or maybe even less than it would have with another GM.
But these 2011 Cubs are different than the group he took over in Boston. Most of the guys on the Sox you wanted to keep around. That 2003 team was going to contend. Those players were valuable and you weren’t getting rid of them. The 2012 Cubs won’t contend without an overhaul of the roster. Looking at what Theo did at first in Boston is pointless because the situations are entirely different.
We could talk about what he shoud do, or rather what we think he should do. We’re all better suited to run this organization than the guy who will be paid $20 million over the next 5 years. Actually we’re not. I don’t expect to agree with every decision the Cubs make from this point forward, but I will give Theo the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned that.
It’s a rather lazy approach, but I don’t really have any suggestions for what should be done. Someone far, far more qualified than I is now running the show. I’m anxious to see where he starts and am confident the Cubs are a better organization now than they have been in the past. I’m not as confident as a lot of fans who think the Cubs are going to win the World Series. Not just next year or the year after or even the year after that. I swear some of these people think the Cubs are going to win all of them from here out.
There’s a lot of work to do. It will require some good decisions, a lot of money, and a lot of luck. The Cubs may never win a World Series with Theo. It’s entirely possible. In fact, I’d probably bet money on the Cubs not winning one while he is the GM. This assumes he’s the GM no longer than 10 years. It’s difficult to win a championship. You have to be good, which I am confident the Cubs will be eventually. Even if you’re good, you still have to be lucky.
Who was the best team this year through 162 games? The easy answer is to look at wins and say the Phillies. Maybe you know the AL is the superior league so you’re adjusting for that and say the Yankees. Maybe you’re adjusting in some way that takes pre-season projections into consideration and also say the Yankees (or maybe even Red Sox). Maybe you’re a Rays fan and think it’s the Rays. Do any of these teams have a chance to win it all this year?
Entering the season I thought the Yankees were the best team in baseball. They had the best record in the AL. They’re eliminated already. A lot of people thought the Red Sox were the best. Some thought they were the best ever. They didn’t even reach the postseason. The Phillies? Gone. Beaten in the NLDS by the Wild Card team.
This happens often. Maybe even every single season depending on how you’re figuring who the best team was. It’s takes a lucky team to win it all. Notice what I didn’t say. Being good obviously helps. You put yourself in a better position more frequently. It’s unlikely you’ll be affected by luck in one direction several years in a row. The better you are the better chance you have to win. This is obvious, but it does not mean that you have to be good to win. Less than good teams have won it all before and will do so again. I’m sure it could be and has been argued that at one point or more a bad team won it all.
Betting on the Cubs to win it all in the next 5 years is foolish. Betting on them to do it in the next 10 is less foolish, but still not advisable. If you tell me that Theo will be GM for 20 years, I’d put my money on the Cubs winning it all, but in all honesty, I’d put my money on them winning it all regardless of who the GM is.
There’s been discussion about whether the Cubs need to rebuild or try to contend. Several years ago I saw things in that way. You could either rebuild or try to contend, but the reality is that you can do both. To prove this point, it’s best to look at college sports. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about football, baseball or basketball. Or volleyball. Whatever. Those programs are constantly working to contend now and build the program so that it can contend years down the road. They do both at the same time. They are rebuilding and contending. The same can and has been done in MLB. It’s also what we’re more than likely going to see the Cubs do.
It’s highly unlikely that Theo would take this job just to have a fire sale and lose a million games next year, have little shot at contending in 2013 and probably 2014. If you have a fire sale, maybe you are contending in the 4th year of his contract or maybe it’s the 5th. Maybe it’s not at all. A fire sale doesn’t guarantee success down the road.
It’s also important to consider the quality of players the Cubs would be trading in a fire sale. There are only two players who are close to becoming expensive that the Cubs could trade. Those are usually the guys you consider trading in a fire sale. Geovany Soto and Matt Garza both will becoming more expensive and are eligible for free agency within the next 2 years (Garza after 2012 and Soto after 2013). The Cubs could get something decent for both of them, but they’re not going to dramatically improve their farm system by trading either of them. Marlon Byrd and Ryan Dempster have some value. So does Sean Marshall and maybe even Carlos Marmol. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano have no value at all on the trade market. Randy Wells might bring a B prospect. Darwin Barney is still cheap, but even if you traded him you’d not get much in return. No chance the Cubs are trading Starlin Castro.
The Cubs won’t get much in return if they had a fire sale. The best and most reasonable plan of action for the Cubs at this point is to do both. Get rid of some of the bad contracts like Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Maybe you add Prince Fielder. You don’t have to contend in 2012. It’s not like you’re in a situation where you have to contend in 2012 or have a fire sale. You can begin to rebuild, but not have a fire sale. You can accept you probably won’t contend in 2012, but refuse to trade everything away thinking it’s more than possible to find yourself in contention in 2013. Maybe even in 2012 if you get lucky.
Regardless of what the Cubs do, there’s more reason to be optimistic about the team’s future than there has been in the 30 years I’ve been a fan. Sure, I’ve been more optimistic about an individual Cubs team (2008 Cubs as an example), but never before have I been this optimistic about the team’s future. I’m fairly sure if that’s not true for someone then it’s because they’re simply looking for reasons to not be.
This optimism brings up another point that’s worth talking about. Tom Ricketts has been made fun of on this blog. Much of the time it was for a good reason and some of the time it was more just because it was fun. He made a commitment this past summer to player development and then he acted on it. The Cubs spent a lot of money and went overslot several times to sign guys. They spent a lot of money on the international free agent market.
Ricketts said he was going to go after a guy essentially matched Theo Epstein, I think we all were hopeful it would be Theo or Andrew Friedman or maybe even Brian Cashman. Ricketts went all out in acquiring Theo. Kaplan even says that Theo was blown away by the owner’s commitment. If you can blow away one of the most brilliant general managers in sports, you have gone the additional mile and then some to secure the best possible person for the job. That’s all you can ask of an owner. He can’t make Theo sign. He couldn’t have made Friedman sign. There’s only so much he can do and the rest is up to the individual. Ricketts obviously went out of his way here to see to it that Theo would feel welcome and receive an impressively large salary for a GM. Prying away a Boston guy from the Red Sox wasn’t going to be easy, but Ricketts did it.
He’s shown the kind of commitment that we’ve all wanted this organization to have for as long as we’ve been fans. This commitment does not guarantee a championship. It does, however, make the odds of winning one a hell of a lot higher. And that’s something to be optimistic about. That’s something to be happy about. After a shitty season, this is definitely the best news we could get and the World Series hasn’t even started.
The tough work is ahead. Going that extra mile as Ricketts did or showing up to work for the Cubs as Theo will do doesn’t mean anything. Together they have a lot they need to accomplish in order for this team to be the annual contender it should be. If that happens, given the Cubs payroll advantage over the rest of the teams in the Central, the Cubs can walk away with the division title most years.