Epstein’s plan: Rescue Cubs by losing big

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Chicago Cubs.

2011 record: 71-91
Finish: Fifth place, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $140.6 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $104 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 24th
Hashtags: #rebuild, #theo, #troublewiththelaw, #rahm, #howmuchlongerdoesmattgarzastay, #newGM, #cults, #yourstadiumisadump, #ubeforeeexceptaftersv, #2015getherenow

Offseason action

Team president Theo Epstein talks with reporters at the 27th annual Chicago Cubs Convention on Jan. 13 in Chicago.
(AP)

Oh, it’s been a pretty quiet offseason at Clark and Addison.

Aside from bringing in the game’s most renowned executive, Theo Epstein, as club president and letting him poach San Diego Padres’ general manager Jed Hoyer for a similar role with the Cubs, that is. The Cubs also fired manager Mike Quade, hired his replacement in Dale Sveum, which pretty much ended their maneuvering.

Well, there was the two-year, $10 million deal they gave outfielder David DeJesus. And signing veterans Andy Sonnanstine and Manny Corpas to minor league deals figuring they can fill out an up-for-grabs bullpen. Plus signing starter Paul Maholm for $4.25 million with a reasonable $6.5 million club option and re-signing reliever Kerry Wood for $3 million and outfielder Reed Johnson for $1.15 million.

And there were four trades. Getting Anthony Rizzo, the team’s first baseman of the future, for a pitcher – Andrew Cashner – who could end up a reliever? Smart. Getting rid of Carlos Zambrano and receiving something even halfway decent, starter Chris Volstad, in return? Gravy. Turning an unneeded asset, reliever Sean Marshall, into five years of starter Travis Wood, plus prospects Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes? Dynamite. And buying low on Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers for Tyler Colvin’s terrible plate discipline and D.J. LeMahieu’s iffy power? Worth a shot.

Yeah, it’s been quiet in Chicago, all right.

Reality check

Brett Jackson

The Cubs are going to lose and lose big in 2012. If they do trade Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Geovany Soto or Carlos Marmol, they belong much further down this list. For now, however, that represents the core keeping the Cubs respectable, not the one around which Epstein and Hoyer plan to build.

That includes shortstop Starlin Castro – who currently faces questioning from police investigating a sexual-assault allegation – Rizzo, Triple-A center fielder Brett Jackson and whatever other sorts of prospects they can wrangle via the draft, international free agency or especially trades. Epstein called his new job a “rebirth,” something even more invigorating than the last time he took over baseball operations on the fly eight months after joining Boston as an assistant GM.

“Those eight months helped,” Epstein said. “I got the whole year to get to know the players, the staff, the system, the things we did well, the things we didn’t do well. When I got the GM job in late November, I was able to have a clear idea of what I wanted to try to accomplish, who I could lean on, who I could trust, what changes we should make.”

[ Fantasy: Pressing Questions for Chicago Cubs ]

With the Cubs, the changes have come fast and significant, and it’s bound to get uglier before it gets pretty. Nobody can say definitively whether Wood or Volstad is consistent enough to be a rotation-worthy pitcher. The Cubs are just looking for a decent arm or two that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Owner Tom Ricketts would prefer not to shell out big-market money while the team enters an obvious downswing.

They’ll free themselves from that thinking soon enough, especially if Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to update Wrigley Field goes through. For all of its charm, Wrigley is a mediocre place to watch a game and could use a facelift and tummy tuck. Epstein wouldn’t mind it, either, not when it comes with a boost in payroll back toward the $150 million mark he used to receive annually with the Red Sox.

Were that around today, Prince Fielder might be a Cub. Instead, the Cubs acquired Rizzo. Unless they plan on spinning him in another trade, they have no place for Fielder, not with the lack of a DH in the NL.

No sense in lamenting that. He wasn’t going to save the 2012 Cubs anyway. Nothing can.

Savior

All hail King Theo Epstein, friar of the front office, deity of the draft room, sultan of the spreadsheet, giant of the gorilla suit. The Cult of Theo is in full effect because Epstein is good at what he does, and he can rescue this franchise with you-know-how-many consecutive years without a World Series title. That was part of the Cubs job’s allure, doing in Chicago what he did in Boston. Even if the rules are different than when he first accepted the job – the collective-bargaining agreement caps amateur spending, where Epstein and Hoyer planned to build heavily – his vigor is no less. Epstein is playing his very own game of “Inception,” trying to take an idea of what a ballclub should be and build a world around it. The foundation is steadying. The first bricks are going up. And if everything goes as it did in his head, Epstein will have a whole city – his city – in the palm of his hand.

Cubs in Haiku

The oldest person
Alive: 115
Cubs’ streak? A baby

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
Dan Wetzel podcast: Super Bowl storylines no one wants to see
Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw offers hope with African mission
Michael Jordan: Only one player has earned the right for comparison

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012