The Chicago Cubs lost 101 games last year. That’s all part of the plan — the long-term strategy of team president Theo Epstein. He arrived to considerable fanfare in the fall of 2011 with the mandate to lead the Cubs to their first World Series victory in more than a century. The Chicago Tribune’s Dave Van Dyck has covered baseball here for 30 years. He says that Epstein’s reception was unprecedented.
“It was funny because when he came, it was greeted as if it were the second coming,” he said. “The reviews were unanimous, I would say, that this was the right guy at the right time.”
Epstein also received a five-year, $18.5-million contract. But he said that he followed a higher calling in coming to Chicago.“After 10 years with the Red Sox, it would have been tough to go to just any other team,” Epstein said. “I was looking for a unique challenge and an opportunity that really resonated with me personally. And the Cubs not having won a World Series in 104 years now, that’s quite a special pursuit, and the opportunity of to be part of an organization that could change that history really appealed to me.”
Van Dyck added that transforming an iconic team like the Cubs into world champs would likely secure Epstein — who hasn’t yet turned 40 — a piece of baseball immortality, not to mention a place in the Hall of Fame.
“To take not just one team but a second team to win the World Series — after all the supposed curses, you know the Curse of the Bambino, the Billy Goat curse — to do that, it would make him one of the great executives of all time.”
Epstein has reprised the approaches that spelled success for him in Boston, where at age 28, he became the youngest general manager in major league history. He reassembled much of his Red Sox management team, most notably installing former aide Jed Hoyer as the Cubs’ general manager. Epstein also brought with him his signature approach to statistical analysis.
“Here, there isn’t that same core in place, so the first order of business is to build a core of young players that we can build around and that can hopefully be the nucleus of winning cubs teams for years to come,” Epstein said. “And it all starts through building an effective scouting and development operation. So that’s taken up the majority of the time since we’ve been here.”
Building from the bottom up is also the driving force for the current Cubs team. Big-name, big-contract players including third baseman Aramis Ramirez and volatile pitcher Carlos Zambrano are long gone. In their place are young budding shortsop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, both 23.
Epstein is also stocking the team with the type of unheralded players that distinguished the world champion Red Sox in 2004. Cubs right fielder David DeJesus, who signed as a free agent this past offseason, fits that mold.
“He’s going to bring the right guys over to the team,” DeJesus said. “That’s what enticed me. He brought the right type of players — the Mark Bellhorns, the David Ortizes, the Kevin Millars, and they built around that. I feel that’s what he’s doing here — I’m excited to see the future.”
The Tribune’s Van Dyck said that for the Cubs to go all the way, Epstein will eventually need to acquire some marquee players.
“They stockpile the money and when the time comes, maybe two years from now, that some of these kids start to come up and the team gets a little better and they build around the youth core, that they can go out and buy a free agent or two and plug in the pieces and everything will be better than ever,” he said. That’s the theory.”
Whether that theory becomes reality may depend on the kind of stars Epstein acquires. His last major acquisitions for the Red Sox, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, didn’t pan out
It will help, most observers agree, that Epstein has ample financial resources going forward. He also acknowledges that he has been given an even more precious commodity — time.
“Well, we have some time,” Epstein said. “I don’t think anyone’s signing on for a 10-year plan or anything of that nature, but certain things in baseball can’t be rushed.”