Chicago Cubs: Can Theo Epstein Build a Winner in Chicago?

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COMMENTARY | It is just after 6 in the morning as I jog down Waveland Avenue. The city is just waking up to a chilly November morning as a thin layer of dew covers the Wrigleyville neighborhood with a translucent sheen. As I turn left to cut through the Wrigley Field concourse, a streetlamp throws a perfect cascade of light to illuminate the famous marquee: "Wrigley Field Home of Chicago Cubs."

The stadium has been empty for months now after the Cubs finished a disappointing 61-101 during the 2012 season. But just under the surface, like an idling volcano waiting for the right moment to erupt, I can still feel the reverberations of 45,000 strong screaming at the top of their lungs as they cheer on their beloved Cubbies.

This stadium wants to erupt again. It has been 104 years since the Cubs have hung a World Series banner and yet every spring without fail, we descend on Wrigley Field with hopes that this is the year the curse will be lifted and the Chicago Cubs will finally make it back to the Promised Land.

Not simply satisfied to rest on eternal optimism, or wait for the clouds to part and the baseball Gods to finally bestow a championship unto the Northsiders, new owner Tom Ricketts has gone out and brought in a ringer. Last season, he was able to pry Theo Epstein away from the Boston Red Sox with hopes the 39-year-old wunderkind will do for Chicago what he has already done for Boston twice over: Bring us the World Series.

After one season ensconced as the president of baseball operations, Epstein's rebuilding process is already under way. He and general manager Jed Hoyer have restocked the farm system while also cutting the payroll from $125 million in 2011 to just $88 million in 2012.

But when exactly will the fans see the fruits of their labor translate into a competitive team that can consistently win?

To answer that question, let's look at the progress they have made so far by identifying the integral players already in place, as well as those who may soon be shown the door.

Starlin Castro, SS

After leading the National League in hits (207) in 2011, Starlin Castro came back last season to bat .283 with 14 home runs and 78 RBIs.

The only issue for Castro is that he was often asked to carry the offense out of the three-hole. In actuality, his best position is batting second to help set the table for the run producers -- the Cubs just don't have many yet.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B

Rizzo was initially drafted by Epstein and Hoyer when the two were running Boston's show. However, in 2010, Jed Hoyer traded for Rizzo as the GM of the San Diego Padres. Fast forward to 2012 where Hoyer made it a perfect three-for-three when he traded for Rizzo again. Someone has a not-so-secret admirer.

Anthony Rizzo batted .285 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs in 87 games for the Cubs. With Rizzo and Castro, the second and third spots in the order should now be set.

Alfonso Soriano, LF

Alfonso Soriano is simultaneously one of the Cubs' best players, as well as being the one fans would love to see playing somewhere else. The Cubs are still on the hook for his $19 million salary in each of the next two seasons. Soriano has a career.265 batting average in a Chicago Cubs uniform.

Given the $98 million already paid, Chicago has handed Soriano $121,588.09 for every hit he has produced in a Cubs uniform -- not a bad gig if you can get it. Chicago would love nothing more than for some other team to swoop in and take his salary off its books.

Jorge Soler, OF

Jorge Soler, who signed a nine-year, $30-million contract in 2012, is expected to be Soriano's eventual replacement.

Soler batted .338 with three home runs and 15 RBIs for the Peoria Chiefs in just 20 games. Soler is likely still a year or two away from the majors, but he remains one of the most vital pieces of this rebuilding puzzle.

Darwin Barney, 2B

His .254 batting average won't dazzle anybody, yet Darwin Barney is the type of grind-it-out player that every championship team needs.

Last season, Barney's 141 consecutive error-free games at second base tied an MLB record. His .997 fielding percentage also set the Cubs' record, which was previously .995, set by Ryne Sandberg in 1991.

There will certainly be a place for Barney on this Chicago Cubs' roster; the only question will be whether that remains in a starting capacity.

Jeff Samardzija, SP

Jeff Samardzija is one of the lone bright spots coming out of the 2012 season. He became the Cubs' unquestioned No. 1 starter after totaling a 3.81 ERA with 180 strikeouts.

Epstein and Hoyer's No. 1 mandate has to be finding other starting pitchers to combine with Samardzija to build a respectable starting staff. Matt Garza will try to bounce back from an injury-plagued campaign. However, after failing to trade him at the deadline last season, the Cubs could look to move him in 2013.

David DeJesus, OF

David DeJesus racked up a .350 on-base percentage and played nearly flawless defense at any position manager Dale Sveum asked him to play. Yet, his biggest value for the Cubs will likely come by way of the players they get via trade.

His one-year, $4.25-million contract is very attractive for contending teams that want an established veteran with no future contractual obligations.

It is clear that Epstein and Hoyer have already significantly altered the Chicago Cubs organization. They are getting younger and less expensive with each move they make. Now it is just a matter of believing in the men calling the shots and waiting till their vision comes to fruition.

We have waited 104 years, what's another couple more among suffering Chicago Cubs fans?

Lee Anthony is a freelance writer who covers sports and entertainment. He has a lifetime membership in the agony club that is being a fan of Chicago Cubs baseball and Chicago Bears football.

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