COMMENTARY | Have the Chicago Cubs been sold magic beans with Theo Epstein?
In 2011, Chicago fans jumped for joy over news the 37-year-old wunderkind, Epstein, who orchestrated two World Series titles for the Boston Red Sox during his time as their general manager, had agreed to bring his magic touch to Wrigleyville with the promise of building this organization into a winner.
Epstein became Boston's general manager in 2002, and two seasons later Beantown was celebrating a championship, as well as the exorcizing of an 86-year "curse." Epstein will be entering his third season with the Cubs in 2014, and impatient fans want to know, 'Where's our World Series title already?'
Does Firing the Manager Indicate Organizational Failure?
Dale Sveum was the man handpicked by Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer to be the one to lead the ballclub on the field. Their rebuilding plan had a lot to do with Sveum helping to change the organizational mindset that had seemingly become too accustomed with losing. But, after two seasons of rubbing people the wrong way -- and a 127-197 record -- Sveum was sent packing and the Chicago braintrust was forced to reevaluate their game plan for bringing this franchise back to respectability.
Blindly following the "In Theo We Trust" doctrine requires that fans assume there is an overriding plan in place, even when the contrary appear to be the case. With the names the Cubs brought in to compete to give Sveum's vacate managerial chair a new butt print in 2014, it is easy for some to question the new direction in which Epstein is taking the Cubs.
They ultimately chose Rick Renteria, the San Diego Padres' bench coach who has no managerial experience. Aside from Chicago's sudden need to only find coaches from the Padres' system, the other names they were interviewing left my wondering about Epstein's "plan."
The Associate Press reported Eric Wedge was being considered for the position after spending three years with the Seattle Mariners, leading them to a 213-273 record. As a manager, Wedge has a lowly record of 774-846 in 10 seasons.
Similar retreads, such as Manny Acta and A.J Hinch being bandied about as possible replacements in the Chicago dugout, had this hiring process feeling less like the magical Epstein rebuild we were promised, and more like the tired old plucking of familiar names from the MLB coaching carousel.
Boston Is Not a Fair Comparison
Epstein gets a ton of credit for turning Boston into a World Series champion, but, realistically, the Red Sox already had a lot of their pieces in place. Sure, it may have been Epstein's acquisitions of David Ortiz, Kevin Millar and Curt Shilling that eventually put them over the top, but they were a 93-win team before Epstein took over, whereas the Cubs were a sinking ship taking on water and asking Epstein to save them with nothing more than a roll of duct tape to plug the leaking holes.
The Cubs were not just a team looking for a quick makeover. This team had all the outward beauty of someone you'd expect to see being chased by villagers with pitchforks and torches.
The first step of this reclamation project: liposuction. In order for the team to be able to squeeze into its World Series uniforms, Epstein had to get this roster on a treadmill. In only his first year in the big chair, Epstein cut the Chicago payroll from $125 million to just $88 million in 2012.
After getting rid of the bloat created by the ridiculous contracts of Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano, the 2014 team should finally be able to wear a pair of pants it doesn't have to buy from a specialty livestock store in Paramus, N.J. Chicago will soon be able to resume its role as a big-market player in free agency to find those pieces that can put it over the top, the way Epstein was able to do in Boston.
The Future Is Not Here Yet … but It Will Be Soon
Although I do still have my reservations regarding the managerial hiring process, the one thing no one can deny is that Epstein and his staff has certainly begun strengthening the farm system. Fans who do not want to wait for results will complain that the team is struggling like always, but the future is in place -- fans just have to wait a little longer to see it on the big-league field.
Anthony Rizzo became the first major win for the Epstein team. The Cubs traded for Rizzo in 2012, and in just over 1 1/2 seasons in Chicago, the big first baseman has mashed 38 home runs and 128 RBIs. Continuing their strategy for buying cheap players with big upsides, Epstein locked up Rizzo to a very team-friendly seven-year, $41 million contract.
The team made a similar deal with minor league power hitter Jorge Soler when they signed him to a nine-year, $30 million deal in 2012. Soler is one of the pieces yet to make their debut on the major league level, but calculated risks like these could allow Chicago to become a contender -- seemingly overnight.
Junior Lake made his presence felt in Chicago in 2013, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Cubs Minor Leaguer of the Year Javier Baez, who hit 37 homers and drove in 111 runs while splitting time between Daytona and Tennessee last season.
It is still unknown when all of these players will officially join the big-league club, but Epstein's architectural design to build the Cubs from the ground up will undoubtedly make them an annual contender in the future. But it's just so tough for fans to anticipate greatness on the horizon but unable to see it quite yet.
Dalton Russell is a sportswriter who has followed the Chicago Cubs his entire life. Like all practical Cubs fans, he knows it was Alex Gonzalez booting the double-play ball that cost them a World Series trip in 2003, not some overzealous fan reaching over the rail.
- Sports & Recreation
- Theo Epstein
- Chicago Cubs
- Boston Red Sox
- World Series