Well the announcement finally came, the deal is semi-official, they have a process in place for the compensation issue and Epstein is free to mosey on west to Chicago and bring some good folks with him.
One of the local radio stations is asking Cub fans what they would like to convey to Theo. Only problem is it is on one of those websites where you can have something like 200 characters. Wow! If the solution to the Cubs woes could be reduced to that small a space it would have already been done.
Here are some of my thoughts.
While I like Mike Quade, I have to be in the majority on this one, there were too many times this season where he really appeared overmatched. There are many who felt he really misused his pitching staff and I am certainly in that group.
When I saw the Cubs were going to hire a new GM, I wrote an open letter to Tom Ricketts strongly suggesting he does not hire a GM on his learner’s permit, he get someone with a good track record of success at the GM level. Well kudos to the owner, he did just that.
There is some speculation the team might want to consider Ryne Sandberg. That is really tough for me. Personally I would hope that they hire the best man for the job, giving consideration to having been there and done that in an organization that uses statistics along with good coaching. The only drawback I see to Sandberg is the fact he has never been a bench coach or managed at the major league level. Like it or not, my guess is Joe Girardi is a much better manager in New York as a result of his experiences in Miami. Speaking of Girardi, if he is available I would sure hope he gets some real consideration. At the same time, if Epstein and his brain trust say they feel that Sandberg is the best man for the job, at this point I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I suspect they will know exactly what they are looking for and it will be well spelled out.
There was speculation in a couple of the Chicago media outlets that the Cubs could be in contention with the Red Sox vying for his services. If that is the case, then the way the saga played out could well work to the Cubs advantage. There were many reports that John Henry, the Red Sox owner and Larry Luchino, the Red Sox CEO were dragging out the negotiations and being unreasonable to “punish” Mr. Epstein for leaving Boston. One reporter went on to describe Mr. Luchino as being a nice person, but having a dark side to his personality and at times being very difficult to work with. I put credence in those reports for two reasons. The fact there were several and the sources all were in Boston. The way the Red Sox released their manager, and then handled the Epstein situation was out for all the world to see. Now this in the GM and manager who led them from the dark ages into two world championships. Certainly any candidate for manager who might have choices between coming to Chicago or Boston would likely take that into consideration.
There is much speculation about trying to sign Fielder or Pujols. A good friend of mine in St. Louis said why wouldn’t the Cardinals want to re-sign the best player in baseball? To me, that was an easy question. Because he wants $30 million and several years. If the Cardinals were currently paying him $30 million, good chance they would not be in the world series because one of the three players, Carpenter, Holliday or Berkman would not be on their roster. It is because Pujols is paid around $16 million that allowed the Cardinals to build a team around him. If the Cubs or Cardinals pay him $30 million, even for four to five years they would be taking a real risk on a guy over 30 and it would hurt their ability to move about in the free agent market. As a Cub fan I hope the Cardinals re-sign him for $30 million for 5-6 years. They are a team that is corporate owned, likely the payroll budget will not be raised and over the next few years that team will deteriorate.
Fielder is five years younger than Pujols and his numbers are not quite as good as Pujols. The problem I have with Fielder is he is huge. Give him his fat contract and then see how well he sticks to his diet. Fielder has a history of avoiding the DL however should he put on more weight, coupled with the fact he is approaching 30 my guess is his injury risk would certainly increase. Now if he were Mark Texiera when he signed with the Yankees, I would be more inclined to be in favor of it.
Honestly, Mr. Ricketts has said he wants to build a team from the ground up through the draft. Then, when you have a good nucleus is the time to get active in the big boy free agent market to put you over the top. While they may talk about a Diamondback turnaround, going from 90 losses to 90 wins in a season, and I hope it happens, I would still hold back. If the team is really even close to the hunt you still have a chance to get a big bopper at the trading deadline.
The real trick is going to be if they can re-sign Pena to no more than a two year contract.
Now what about Ramirez at 3B? Cubs have a $16 million option for next season which he can void. Toward the end of the season Pat Hughes and Keith Moreland, the Cub radio broadcasters, were talking about some of the other veterans in the same situation where they took a one year contract to a two year deal and it worked out. Offer Ramirez $20 million for two years, still averages $10 million a year. If he turns it down, then you have to look for other options, probably through a trade.
Zambrano will go; presumably to the Marlins and he will do a good job. If the Cubs can get a couple legit prospects in return, good for them. If not, unload him and have Miami pay $10 million of his salary which is likely his true value.
To me the biggest problem is Soriano. I will be kind and say he put up some pedestrian numbers. At the same time he is not really a clutch hitter, most good pitchers do not fear him. He will cost you 5-6 games a year because of his fielding, and most important of all he is standing in the way of some young player who needs to be given a shot on the upside of his career. I would hope some AL team would take a shot at him for a DH with the Cubs eating most of his contract.
I see where some speculate that the Cubs could trade him to Boston for Lackey and the money is about even. I would do that in a minute. Lackey could only hurt you every fifth day. He also could easily be a fifth starter or long reliever and eat some innings for you.
What would I tell Mr. Epstein? Take it slow, you know from Boston that it is going to take awhile. He needs to figure out what he has before he figures out where he is going and how to get there. First decision I would suggest is a new manager. Then, after the organizational meetings, when they have gone over all the players he has in inventory, he can start to put the pieces together. Likely one of the first decisions is going to be Dempster because his option expires shortly after the world series.
Instead of trying to make a splash with high priced free agents, particularly those on the downside of their career, he would be better served sticking with the plan and first seeing what he has in the minor leagues. Two years ago it was Starlin Castro. This year it was Darwin Barney. I suspect next year it will be Chris Carpenter (assuming he is still on the roster) and possibly one more position player.
He does not have a lot of kids in the minors to trade after the Garza deal and the Red Sox and Padres get their compensation so those assets must really be protected. He may do better if he could trade Marlon Byrd in a two for one deal where the Cubs get two good young players in return.
In his spare time he would do well to begin to build a strong relationship with Starlin Castro and his agent. The relationship Kerry Wood built with Jim Hendry is a good example. It certainly proves the point that treating people fairly and honestly becomes a factor in a veteran deciding where they want to play. Should Starlin Castro continue as he has he will make an awful lot of money. Better he stays with the Cubs and is happy at the same time.
In addition, the entire organization would do well to have the situation with current Cub president Craig Kenney clearly spelled out an agreed upon by all. That would mean not only what he is responsible for, but also what he is not responsible for. If he truly is to have nothing to do with the baseball side of the business, then when Mr. Epstein builds up his staff they should consider moving Mr. Kenny to another building or something, likely there will be a shortage of office space anyway. Why do I say that? Following is a blurb that appeared in one of the Chicago papers which I found disturbing.
“The fact the Epstein deal hasn’t been closed reveals the naivete of the Cubs’ management team, specifically president Crane Kenney. A major-league source said Kenney has bragged since September that he is leading this process, despite claims from Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts that the former Tribune Co. executive wouldn’t be involved. “
The Cubs are really investing a whole lot of money in Mr. Epstein and his staff. The CEO of the Red Sox, Larry Luchino, presumably was knocking heads with Mr. Epstein on many occasions. Better the Cubs should learn from that and avoid any possibility of that happening in Chicago.
Remember it was Leo Durocher who came to Chicago and said “this is not an 8th place team.” He was right, the next season they finished 10th. Along the way they got Bill Hands and Randy Hundley from the Giants. Ferguson Jenkins came from the Phillies. A young Ron Santo was coming into his prime. Then over the next five years they put together the best five year streak for the team in the previous 35-40 years. Remember also that was when there was not a multitude of huge, long term contracts so it was easier for them to move players around than it is today.
Next year will be my 68th year of following the Cubs and I must say I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the team’s future. We have an owner committed to winning, and willing to put forth the funds to do so. He is surrounding himself with winners. Those who have worked with him say he truly listens and will give his subordinates the support to get their job done. He is accountable and visible. When did we ever see Mr. Wrigley or Mr. Tribune (pun intended) walking around the stands, making themselves available and accountable to the fans and the press?
At the beginning of the year someone asked me how I felt the year should be measured. I said that progress would be defined this way. Is the team better off to move forward and improve at the end of the year that it was at the beginning, then that is progress. Since then we have a new, young GM who is surrounding himself with winners. We have an owner who spent more on draft picks than any owner in Cub history, getting 19 of their top 20 signed. Randy Bush stated that this was the first year he has been with the team that ownership has given them the money and the instructions to get them signed. Kind of a knock on previous ownership if you ask me.
Several newspapers this week have said the Cubs will beef up their scouting and player development personnel saying the Cubs have notoriously had one of the smallest groups in MLB. I thought that was a pretty subtle indictment of previous ownership that some might have missed. You can have all the statistics you want but I have known several scouts and that is where it starts. Not only do they have to scout talent, they have to get to know these kids, their personalities, their work ethics and a whole lot more.
I recall a few years ago asking a friend of mine who was a national cross checker for a MLB team about a particular young player in the minor leagues. Without hesitation he said, “he’s on the juice, I would stay away from him.” Two years later that young man was out of baseball. Over the years I have probably asked him about a dozen different kids and without hesitation, in every case, not only did he know who I was speaking about, he gave me the full rundown from a scouting perspective. You just cannot have enough of those type folks on your scouting staff, that is where it all begins.
Bottom line is simple. In my opinion, we are much better off as a team today than we were a year ago. Now that the appropriate folks are falling into place, progress should speed up even further. I can hardly wait for spring training because I suspect the 40 man roster the Cubs have today will be a bit different from the 40 man roster they have going into spring training in February. This is going to be lots of fun!