From the Cubs Den Archives: Taking a look back at Theo's early blueprint with the Red Sox

In light of the recent frustration over so-called minor signings.  We can take a look at how the 2004 Red Sox were built and it wasn’t from big name signings.  Yes, the Red Sox were a good team before Theo Epstein came, but he made them a better, more efficient team that spread out it’s talent better all over the roster — in part because he consistently found great value on the free agent and trade markets.

Back in 2011, I wrote about this process and while Cubs Den has grown since then and there are plenty of new readers, I thought we could all use a reminder of how Epstein really built the Red Sox.

Theo’s Early Red Sox Blueprint Could be a Model for the Cubs.

(This piece was originally published on November 1st, 2o11)

There’s been some great debate today as to how the Cubs should go about building for next season.  Some believe the Cubs should strictly go with the farm, others believe they should spend big in free agency, while others believe the Cubs should build through trades and/or bargain free agent signings.  There’s probably quite a few who might also vote “all of the above”.

All of this got me thinking:  How did Theo himself do it the first time around?  Granted this isn’t going to be an apples to apples comparison since the Red Sox had better major league talent than the Cubs did when Theo took over, but their farm system was similar — decent, but thin at the upper levels.

I decided to look at all the starters from the 2004 team that were not with the team when Theo took over in late 2002.  Here are the results:

Starting Lineup Acquisitions

1B: Kevin Millar – Acquired for cash from the Marlins

2b: Mark Bellhorn – Acquired in a minor, conditional deal from the Rockies

SS: Pokey Reese – Signed as a low cost FA ($1M), played 96 games before Red Sox acquired Orlando Cabrera

3B: Bill Mueller – Signed as a low cost FA ($2.1M)

RF: Gabe Kaplar – Signed as alow cost FA ($750K)

Starting Rotation Acquisitions

RHP – Curt Schilling – Acquired via trade for for Michael Gross (minors) Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa

RHP – Brandon Arroyo – Acquired off waivers from Pittsburgh

Additionally Tim Wakefield was moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2003.  He was originally signed on a minor league deal.

The team’s biggest star, David Ortiz, was picked up after being released by the Twins for $1.25M.

So what does this all mean?  We have heard Epstein hint that he isn’t going for the big signing right away.  In his own words, “there is a time and a place for that”.

It’s also not a team built from his farm system.  That came later with the 2007 champions when his own front office’s picks had a chance to develop.  Similarly, the Cubs best current prospects are the lowest levels of the minors and the Cubs figure to keep on investing in the draft and international market for the foreseeable future.

Rather, Epstein mostly built the team with undervalued free agent signings and other bargain players to quickly change the makeup of the ballclub.  Building through the farm came gradually and had a larger effect on the roster 5 years later.

The Cubs are in a different position than the Red Sox were in 2002 and may use a couple of prospects right away to fill some holes.  We may see farm products in the bullpen and at 3B and 1B.

There may be a couple of tweaks here and there to allow for those differences, but overall it’s a formula that we may well see him use again as he tries to reshape a Cubs team.

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  • It will take time, but we will start seeing the prospects by Aug 1.
    No over priced FA's or loosing of draft picks.

  • I got no problems with this formula. It's interesting to look back at how many everyday contributors on that first WS championship team were signed off of "the scrap pile".

    I do think the new CBA complicates this more. But it shouldn't delay us at all.

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    If I have to eat crow in September, there will be no one happier than myself, and you can flag this post and tell me you told me so :)

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Being wrong has nothing to do with it. The Cubs will almost certainly be bad in 2014 whether they sign these kinds of free agents or not, but spending money on short term free agents to still be bad then lose payroll flexibility in the long term is a short-sighted plan for a team in the Cubs position. It is the Hendry plan all over again. I'm amazed Cubs fans still want to build that way and even more amazed that they think it will turn out differently the next time.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    The very definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result ?

  • In reply to peoria cubfan:

    That's what Einstein said :)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I knew a Bradley graduate would know that.

  • In reply to peoria cubfan:

    Haha and a science geek at that.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Happy holidays science geek!

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    "The Cubs will almost certainly be bad in 2014 whether they sign these kinds of free agents or not, "

    but this was my point. These signings are meaningless, and to debate them in fine detail, comparing one crap player's platoon splits with the other crap player's platoon splits, and calling this "flexibility!" is a waste of time. As I said in the previous thread, meaning absolutely no disrespect to all the effort put in by John or Mike or Canter, these moves are yawns barely worth reporting beyond a line. Remember how many comments were written after Liam Hendriks was signed, and just as I had said, he was completely forgettable, completely disposable, and he will not be missed.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    I meant signing big name FAs. If the Cubs sign Jimenez or Cruz, they will still be bad. If they sign cheap guys at multiple positions, they can have the same cumulative impact with less risk and less financial burden.

    As I said, we cover the process of building. If I would have taken this advice in the past, I wouldn't have bothered writing about any of the signings that did work -- and if I had been blogging for the Red Sox from 2002-2004, I would have missed the boat entirely if I followed that advice. If you don't see the value in these kinds of signings, then I don't think you're only thinking in terms of results and not process. That is not the way this FO thinks or works.

    Liam Hendriks is a part of that process whether he is part of the end product or not.

    And if people want to sit back and wait for big signings or results that's fine, but when the Cubs win, I think people who follow the process will truly understand how the Cubs did it step by step while those who look for results and big names will be scrambling for reasons.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Jose Quintana was a minor league free agent acquired by the White Sox before the 2012 season.

    Now, he's a #3/#4 starter in MLB with the Sox.

    Every one of these deals is going to seem minor when they're made. But some of these guys really do blossom and I'm sure that's why John dedicates space on his blog to signings like this. Are most of these guys longshots? Of course. But there's always a chance one of these guys ends up a valuable piece.

  • Rome was not build in a day and neither will the Cubs be. This
    is the best group of prospect that I can remember. The wait be
    we worth it.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I agree. I think it will pay off eventually and the Cubs will probably eventually sign a FA -- but only when it's close and it's a final piece or two.

  • John - So you think Theo is building the Cubs major league roster the way he wants to do it?
    Or do you think he is building the major league team the way he is being forced to do it because ownership has tied his hands financially?

  • In reply to Rosemary:

    I think it's possible there are financial limitations, but honestly I'm not sure it would have changed anything. I was talking about this with Kevin a while back and we asked ourselves, "Is there any guy the Cubs should have signed on a big money, multi-year deal?" And neither of us could think of anyone other than Tanaka who is the right fit right now on that sort of contract.

    Other than that, I would have liked to have taken a shot at Josh Johnson on a one year deal (which they did, but he wanted to play closer to home). Also had some interest in Fausto Hernandez as a buy low -- and they did try for him as well.

    But if you ask me whether the Cubs would have signed Cano, Ellsbury or Choo for those years and that kind of money at this stage even if they had a blank check, I would say there would have been basically no chance of that.

    I also don't think they want to give up a draft pick for short term fixes like Ubaldo Jimenez or Nelson Cruz.

    So yeah, I don't know the financial situation but I would say that the impact has been greatly exaggerated.

    If they don't earnestly pursue Tanaka, then I will have my doubts. But for now, I think they're saving their bullets until they really need them.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    One shot. One kill. Works for me!

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    In reply to Rosemary:

    Like when they offered Anibal Sanchez a bunch of money?

  • And before spending money on big free agents Theo has to find out what prospects are major league players. You don't want to many resources(minor league player,free agents with money tied up) in the same position.

  • I remember this piece , when you originally wrote it.

    I definitely get the point- there many ways to skin the cat . The one thing I'll point out is that the game -GMs in particular- have progressed to the point where finding the surplus value that Theo did , in his early BOS days, has become more and more difficult. Guys like Mueller & Ortiz just don't slip through the cracks, anymore.

    These days-more than ever- the name of the game is scouting and being able to find impact talent outside of the first few picks in the draft, as well as internationally. I like our infrastructure to succeed on that level but I'd argue the days of finding 3+ WAR players lying around the scrap heap are virtually over.

  • In reply to Carl9730:

    It definitely has become more difficult since then but the Oakland A's showed teams can still do it in this day and age. They changed their plan slightly but they still kept their payroll way down. Tampa also continues to compete without signing a major free agent. It can still be done and I'm glad that the Cubs have Theo to figure out how.

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    John, I had a response to you which seems to have disappeared into the ether, which is happening more this week. It'll show up around midnight probably. Meantime, I feel I'm dangerously close to hurting some feelings which I would never want to do here, so I'll step out. Peace out.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Thanks, I did respond to it. I think people just look at things in different way and I tend to see in big pictures and process. These signings are important to me because they lend insight into what the FO does and what they value. You may look at things differently and that's fine, but I'm still going to look at this entire process.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    short of being attacked personally, no one should ever have their feelings hurt. We're not always going to agree and that's part of the beauty of this stuff.

  • John, I'd submit that the catalyst for the sustained success of TB & OAK has been the returns they've received in the equivalent of "Shark" deals-i.e trades of Garza, Shields, Haren, Gio, etc. Friedman & Beane have both made some stealth deals/signings to sustain their success but I think/hope we'll be following a somewhat different model. I'll be thrilled if we only have to make one "Shark" deal- trading young, arb-eligible guy at high point on value curve. Hope we're locking those guys up soon.....

  • Jed Hoyer reiterated the Cubs are working on ways to improve the big league roster. And while he did not mention any deals or signings being relatively close, Hoyer did indicate it could be an active January for the Cubs.

    Offense is the biggest weakness, what positions do you think Jed/Theo are working on 2B & OF ? If so who ???

  • Cubs Interested In Jesse Crain

    By Charlie Wilmoth [December 23 at 7:44pm CST]

    The Cubs are interested in reliever Jesse Crain,'s Bruce Levine tweets. The Cubs are one of many teams looking at Crain's medical information.

    Crain, 32, spent the last three years as a setup man for the Cubs' cross-town rivals. He posted an 0.74 ERA with 11.3 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in 36 2/3 innings for the White Sox in 2013, although he suffered a shoulder injury in June and missed the rest of the season. The White Sox traded him to the Rays in July, but he did not make an appearance for Tampa Bay.

    FOX Sports' Jon Morosi tweeted last week that Crain was deciding whether to take a one- or two-year deal. A one-year deal presumably might be attractive to Crain as a way of proving his shoulder is healthy before hitting the free-agent market against next season.

  • In reply to SouthsideB:

    I like that on a potential one year make good deal.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I like Crain on a 1 year, "make good" deal as well. The Cubs can also promise him a trade to a contender at the deadline (if he pitches well), so that he has a chance to showcase himself on national television in the playoffs. Good for him - Good for us

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    We'll see how serious it is. He's supposedly deciding between one year and two year offers. My guess is the Cubs would offer him one year with a chance to rebuild value.

  • In reply to SouthsideB:

    Now Crain would be a nice puickup. Very good pitcher when healthy.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    If healthy, then definitely. I don't know how serious to take the rumor only because the Cubs have acknowledged they've been on almost every single RP this offseason.

  • Jerry Krause built a 6-time championship team by finding his core through the draft, plugging in role players off the scrap heap and making shrewd trades to assist in rebuilding on the fly. I think the difference is that when the core is there, the scrap heap players are more established, like Ortiz, Mueller, whereas now the Cubs are picking up guys with little notoriety.

    For example, John suggested bringing in a guy like Juan Uribe who re-signed with the LAD. Once the core is identified and established, these will be the kind of players that will be brought in to fill holes and/or strengthen the bench.

  • In reply to Cleme:

    Blackhawks are doing that too.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Cleme:

    jerry krause
    won 6 rings becuase of MJ and scottie
    and phil

    wasnt because of randy brown, cliff levingston, dickie simpkins, etc

  • In reply to deport soriano com:

    Exactly right.

  • If the Cubs end up signing Crain as the last bullpen piece, suddenly we have an extremely potent bullpen.

    6th - Parker/Wright
    7th - Crain/Russell
    8th - Strop
    9th - Veras

    Not to mention, players like Rondon and Fujikawa (perhaps) could play pivotal roles as well. Rondon really stepped up in the second half:

    Pre-ASB: 25 games 6.14 ERA 1.64 WHIP .284 BAA
    Post-ASB: 20 games 3.20 ERA 1.14 WHIP .209 BAA

    All of a sudden, this is looking like a real sound bullpen. I know the team blew 26 saves last year (which was fourth most in the MLB). But if the team could even be "average" and be around 19, that's an extra 7 or so wins. Improving the bullpen was crucial, and it looks like Theo/Jed really made it a priority to patch that this off-season. Kudos.

  • Very interesting article. I appreciate it since I'm one of the newer readers. It just goes to show that acquiring good value whether in Free Agency or Trade has always been the right strategy, and still is. Spending money frivolously on aging players is a losers game, and I for one am glad that the Cubs finally have an organization that understands the value in spending money on scouting, acquiring good, young assets & spending the money, time, and man hours required to develop them properly, which was severely lacking in prior Cub regimes, and is the only way to build a solid foundation for success, years and hopefully decades in the future....not the house of straw with a fake facade that the prior regimes tried to pass off to the fans, which inevitably would collapse on themselves with the first injury or letdown. Epstein/Hoyer/Mcleod aren't going to cobble together a playoff team one year, only to have the team stink for the next 3-4. I would think Cubs fans would be tired of that by now, but apparently some people are just gluttons for punishment.

  • Most of the guys on that list were not below .250 hitters like the group the Cubs are going after. BUT.............the Cubs are not going after winning this season. If anything, they will take a step back this season. But we will have 1,2 or possibly even 3 prospects come up towards the end of this season so at least we have that to look forward to

  • In reply to INSaluki:

    This FO doesn't measure worth with batting average. All of these guys were below replacement level except Ortiz and Mueller -- and Ortiz was barely above it. Only Mueller had starter value. Process is the same. With exception of Mueller these guys were all flyers.

  • I think the difference is that almost all of the Red Sox players mentioned had significant major league experience and the Cubs aren't taking taking shots at those kind of guys now. They are taking shots at guys who have very limited, if any major league experience.

    And as you said yourself... "You can't just find a David Ortiz or even a Chris Denorfia laying around on the scrap heap anymore"

    Not to say I'm for the Cubs signing top free agents because I'm not, I just find it harder than others to put a positive spin on every single Cubs move.

  • In reply to Jimmie Ward:

    It's not the individual moves that are important. Nowhere does it say we should be excited about Brett Marshall. The hope is that he can be SP depth and a cheap 5th starter down the road. We're focusing on the process here. We're focused on how they're trying to add talent and uncover players wherever they can. This is part of what this blog is about. They pick up a player we'll report on him, try to explain the thought process and give you info on the player. There is no spin here, I gave you a scouting report. Take it for whatever you think it's worth.

  • Pretty much right on. As we get closer now, you see some of the returns in trades are rumored to be closer to major league ready, which makes sense with the timeline now then it would have originally.

  • Good post John, and as a relative 'newbie' here (only been hanging around here for a year come this Janurary I think, might have been February) I hadn't seen this summary before.

    Does make you think,... now doesn't it? 'Scrapheap' guys,.... although how anybody put Ortiz on a 'scrapheap' or just outrighted Arrroyo remains beyond me.

    Here's hoping the 'eye' remains as good now. I really have started to like the pickup of Roberts, and think Ruggiano could be a well above replacement find when coupled with Scherholtz or Sweeney. Sweeney himself I loved as a pickup last season.

    It's still (IMO - unless several people have career years) going to be an offense that sputters a lot. The Rotation (especially if they extend Shark) is going to be a fairly solid & workmanlike bunch - and I love what they have done to remodel the bullpen.

    Still thinking this is a 70-75 win team,.... but it will be one that is in most games.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I remember when the Twins released Ortiz and it was pretty surprising because of his age and because he had hit 20 HRs the year before and had put up solid OBP numbers. He was never more than a 1 WAR player with the Twins but he was still young, so I remember being puzzled when they let him go.

    It's going to be tougher this go round for the FO because the game has changed. Teams are more analytical and they value players more than they used to -- but a lot of guys they did pick up in Boston were replacement level, so it's not impossible -- just more difficult.

  • Thnx. John for the timely pitch from the not too distant past. It definitely went out on Waveland.

    Merry Christmas to all the great posters here.:)

  • In reply to TobaccopouchinIvy:

    You are welcome and Merry Christmas to you. I thought it was a good time for a reminder that Theo did not build a dynasty with free agents, those came much, much later and if anything, I think he regrets their expensive investments as they tried to compete with the Yankees. The Red Sox, however, had the strong organization to recover quickly, while the Yankees had to go back to their spending ways this offseason. Look forward to the day when the Cubs have an organization like that of the Red Sox rather than the Yankees.

  • Rondon, Strope, T Wood; these appear to have been guys that either didn't perform or hadn't shown enough performance to merit retaining by there former teams. Although not nouveau, these are the likely market efficiencies that this front office will continue to exploit.

    Although I understand that the current standing of the MLB team allows this FO to take chances on players that contenders may not be able to afford, I still believe scouting MLB teams is a means to acquire underrated talent. Especially since it is human nature to overvalue your neighbor's toys at the risk of undervaluing your own.

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