Cubs far from contending -- with or without Theo Epstein

Cubs far from contending -- with or without Theo Epstein

Editor's note: With the NBA lockout in full swing, let's take a look at news that's dominating Chicago sports right now: The Cubs' hire of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

Forget the 2-3 Chicago Bears, a Chicago White Sox team that had a 79-83 record this past season despite having the league's fifth-highest payroll, the locked-out Chicago Bulls and a Chicago Blackhawks squad that brought the city its most recent championship (2010). Because whenever the Chicago Cubs, who finished up a 71-91 campaign in the NL Central to further extend their championship drought to 103 years and counting, make a big-name, big-money acquisition, Chicago sports fans tune in.

For eight seasons, former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen dealt with the oddity of his team, which won it all in 2005, playing second fiddle to their crosstown rival, who haven't won a title in over a century and fail to provide substance for fans to pack Wrigley Field on a daily basis. Yet fans will continue to flock the historic ballpark.

"We won it a couple years ago, and we're horse(bleep)," Guillen told reporters in 2008, a year in which the Cubs were swept by the L.A. Dodgers in the National League Divisional Series. "The Cubs haven't won in (100) years, and they're the (bleeping) best. (Bleep) it, we're good.

"(Bleep) everybody. We're horse(bleep), and we're going to be horse(bleep) the rest of our lives, no matter how many World Series we win."

Like it or not, Guillen's assessment was on the mark then, and remains so now, too. The Cubs, for better or worse, are the toast of Chicago, which is why the collective uproar from the team's fans in recent days should not come as a surprise.

However, give the "Lovable Losers" credit for their newest addition. It's quite the feat to be able to persuade general manager Theo Epstein to leave the Boston Red Sox -- a team that has been in title contention, winning World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, for the better part of the last decade and will remain a powerhouse despite his departure -- and taking a position at the top of the Cubs hierarchy.

Of course, Epstein knows what it takes to break a curse. In 2004, the former Red Sox GM helped break the franchise's "Curse of the Bambino," an 86-year World Series drought. Under his direction, the club fielded title-contending teams year after year after year.

As for accolades, he has plenty of them. In 2008, Baseball America named Epstein its "Major League Executive of the Year." A year later, he was named Sporting News' "Executive of the Decade" and ranked third on Sports Illustrated's "Top 10 GMs/Executives of the Decade."

According to various reports, Epstein and the Cubs agreed to a five-year, $20 million contract. But with the amount of expectations already being placed on the 37-year-old, you'd think he signed an eight-year, $136 million deal.

Yes, that takes us to one of the many large contracts on the Cubs. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano -- who signed the aforementioned eight-year, $136 million contract in 2006 -- starting pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster and reliever Carlos Marmol are some of the players who have handcuffed the Cubs from spending money the past few years. Luckily, the Cubs were able to find a taker for Kosuke Fukudome, who was given a four-year, $40 million deal in 2007.

The Red Sox have had their share of homegrown players -- most notably, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathon Papelbon, Jon Lester and Kevin Youkilis. But Epstein's had the fortune of digging into the wallet of Red Sox owner John Henry.

Although the Cubs, who had the sixth-highest payroll in 2011, have some wiggle room this offseason, don't look for them to spend the way the New York Yankees did in 2008, when the club acquired CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. It would be unfair to expect that kind of spending from Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.

From the outset, Ricketts let it be known that he'd search for a person who can help the franchise build from within, a baseball mind who can develop the farm system in order to keep the team consistently relevant. Aside from shortstop Starlin Castro, the Cubs have a bad track record of finding and developing young, highly-touted prospects -- Corey Patterson and Felix Pie, to name a couple.

What happened to Josh Vitters? As of January 2011, Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft, ranked just fifth on Baseball America's list of top 10 prospects in the Cubs' minor league system.

Epstein's hands will be full trying to build the Cubs' minor league system, as it will probably have to be done from the ground up. Which is why it would've been foolish for the Cubs to even consider sending Castro to the Red Sox as compensation for Epstein.

While Epstein has an opportunity to build a winner in Chicago -- a scenario that would instantly send him to Cooperstown and make him a legend not only in the city, but in baseball history -- is he ready for the pressure that comes with being a target for Cubs fans? Hearing ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian's take, I'm not quite sure.

According to Kurkjian, the stress and pressure that comes with being GM of the Red Sox might've led Epstein -- who dreamed of working for the Red Sox as a kid -- to pursue a different challenge. Frankly, if Epstein thought he had it bad in Boston, he could be overwhelmed with Cubs fans and the Chicago media. The fan base is starving for a title.

If you can't deliver, you're just one of the many failures.

Don't get me wrong, I love the hire. Epstein brings a championship pedigree to a franchise desperate for legitimacy. During his tenure in Boston, the Red Sox were an annual contender. With the league's third-highest payroll, they will likely remain one following the departure of the man who put it all together.

The fact that Cubs nation wants a winner sooner rather than later doesn't bode well for the start of Epstein's tenure, because the club has a long way to go.

While they should have enough money to make a serious run at Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, Ricketts' hands are tied in the money department, largely due to the already-bloated payroll. And with the current group of players coming off a 91-loss season, and the minor league system seemingly paltry, it's hard to paint the on-field picture bright.

In the end, the Cubs got their man -- Theo Epstein, the curse breaker. Can he do it again, this time for a team and fan base that's faced the longest drought in professional sports history? For his sake, there better be a two- to three-year grace period.

Comments

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  • I know you're usually a basketball blog, but damn you do a good job with baseball. It would be interesting to learn more of how the cubs conduct their farm system in contrast to other teams known for their homegrown talent, and what theo plans to change that culture

  • In reply to waitwhat:

    Thanks.

    If you want more on the Cubs, you can check out Cubs Den, along with the other Cubs blogs here on ChicagoNow.

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