In October 2011 (was it that long ago?), Theo Epstein made the decision to leave the Boston Red Sox for the Chicago Cubs.
Boston was where Epstein built a winning team that brought two World Series championships under his leadership. He left to take on the task of turning around a Chicago National League franchise mired in misery, steeped in frustration and bereft of talent.
Upon taking the Cubs job, Theo stressed changing the Cubs culture and went about building his "Cubs Way."
The "Cubs Way" wasn't necessarily anything new to him, as it was a mold set in place with the Red Sox and the Tribe before that, but it was going to require a new way of thinking for an organization and a fan base constantly on the edge of its seat waiting for "the answer."
It meant taking baseball operations, stripping it bare to its skivvies and giving it a Silkwood shower, hosing away every last bit of bloated contract, aging player and cancerous culture that plagued the franchise. It meant reconstructing a farm system so bare it didn't even house a barn owl. And along the way, every person who hit the payroll on the team, pinstripes to khakis, and fans from Skokie to Blue Island, had to buy into the plan.
I know it's not sexy to most, but to some, the process of taking a farm system and scouting department that was described as being in the Stone Age and transforming it into the number-two system in the majors in just two years is a pretty spectacular accomplishment.
Part and parcel to Epstein's mantra of Cubs scouts being the first to visit potential draft picks has also paid off in the signings of top Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant.
You know, that Bryant fella. The one who does nothing but hit home runs wherever he goes and who, whenever he smiles, makes 78,349 sets of ovaries in the Chicago area adhere Post-Its reading "Patrick Sharp who?"
Bringing on Ricky Renteria and his positive attitude seems to have turned around the performance of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. And if you look at the pitching the team currently has, and the number of one-run games they have lost due to lack of production from other spots in the lineup that can--and soon will--be filled by higher producing players, you can see things coming together.
Yes, there is the business side of things, which this year has had a lion's share the bulk of the media attention (deservedly so in many instances). For prolonged success and Theo's plan to take shape, it's necessary for the business and baseball operations plans to converge, so where are they now?
I caught up with Epstein the at Hot Stove, Cool Music Event and asked him exactly about the two sides coming together.
"I think they are pretty well aligned now," says Epstein.
"They're both in foundation-building mode, as you know. We're doing it on the baseball side, and the guys on the business side are taking a long view and taking some difficult but necessary steps to set us up for success ," he said.
The Cubs even threw their name, and the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars, into the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, but came away empty. Maybe they thought themselves real players, but perhaps it was just a shot across the bow of the National League that they are ready to play with the big boys.
So, are the Cubs now ready to make a splash in the free agent market?
"We'll see, Just by virtue of the inexpensive, young, productive players we have on our roster, we're going to have some payroll flexibility. We don't have too many commitments and a few years down the line, we will have a little more flexibility to where our payroll can grow to," says Epstein .
As with many responses from a guy never looking to tip his hand to the others at the table, Epstein keeps this one close to his chest, but you don't have to read between the lines to see his level of confidence in the system.
One in which he is building may not require the need to throw around money like a sailor on shore leave when you have many of the answers right in front of you or are tapping you on the shoulder, a la Bryant and Baez.
"It's pretty easy to close your eyes and envision what the lineup and roster might look like in a couple years," Epstein said.
That's not to say the Cubs won't make free agent moves, the E-Jax signing aside, the Cubs may not be a team to overpay potentially under-producing players anymore.
As the big league franchise continues to show signs of being ready to win now and the farm system offers hope of filling some of those voids to make that happen, it seems as though Epstein's "Cubs Way" is taking shape.
"Some things are, and some things aren't," he said.
"After we were here for a little while, we got a feel for what the landscape was, financially and otherwise. Once we got a feel for the financial landscape and the baseball landscape, we understood it would certainly be a long-term plan, and we have set about just trying to make the organization healthier. I think there's tremendous momentum right now," says Epstein.
Yet, because they see it happening soon, maybe you can get a glimpse into the culture of winning that is replacing the decades old one of resignation.
"I like where we are," he said.
Watching all the moving parts begin to come into place makes it hard not to agree with him.
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Filed under: Interviews