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Cubs Fri Oct 21 2011

Can Theo Epstein Save the Cubs?

By Mike Chamernik

Thumbnail image for cubs.gifWhen a team hasn't won a World Series in 103 years, any upper management change is a good change.

And after such a directionless and disappointing 2011 season, the Cubs really do have nowhere to go but up.

The pursuit and signing of Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, with an official announcement expected as early as Friday's World Series off day, was a great move in and of itself. Epstein is a great judge of talent and a proven winner, leading the Red Sox to two World Series championships in the past seven years. Certainly, he will be better than his predecessor, Jim Hendry.

What Moves Will He Make?

Perhaps Epstein's Boston past can provide an insight into his Chicago future. He molded the Red Sox with an array of transactions, and his biggest move was signing David Ortiz in 2003 after the Twins famously cut him loose. Not much significance was given to the signing; after all, Ortiz had only played more than 100 games only twice in his six years in Minnesota, never hitting more than 20 home runs in season.

We all know what a central role Ortiz played in Boston's 2004 and 2007 titles, hitting a peak as high as nearly any slugger in baseball history - and he wasn't Epstein's only big acquisition.

Others included Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Mike Lowell, Orlando Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Coco Crisp, Dave Roberts and Adrian Gonzalez, who this season was one of the most productive hitters in baseball. Epstein's tenure also saw the drafting and development of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daniel Bard.

With an eye like that, he could make similar moves in Chicago.

Epstein has a ton of flexibility in what he wants to do with the Cubs. They'll have a top-10 pick next year, and if they choose to go in rebuilding mode, they could get draft-pick compensation for free agent Aramis Ramirez. Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd would probably be their best trade options, and they would be ecstatic if someone wanted to take Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Zambrano off their hands.

On the other hand, the Cubs could aim to compete in 2012 as well, with 21-year-old Starlin Castro a budding franchise player and other under-30 talent in Matt Garza, Carlos Marmol, Geovany Soto, Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija.

Luckily, the Cubs will need a first baseman after this year, assuming they don't bring back the 33-year old Carlos Pena, who could hit home runs but not much else. Epstein could go the route of Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, who will be free agents in a few weeks.

More than likely, it will take a few years for Epstein to build a good ballclub in Chicago.

So When Do We Order Our World Series Flags?

Things are looking up ... but beware. Theo Epstein is not perfect.

One of the big knocks against him is that some of his big budget moves did not work at all. Various busts and disappointments include signing or trading for J.D. Drew (especially at $70 million over five years), Julio Lugo, John Lackey, Carl Crawford, Eric Gagne, Bobby Jenks and Edgar Renteria, re-signing the aging Mike Lowell after his World Series MVP performance in 2007, and the Daisuke Matsuzaka fiasco ($111 million for five wildly mediocre years).

Another problem may arise. It's the theory of "commoditization." Theo Epstein is known as a big believer in sabermetrics, but since Billy Beane's "Moneyball" heyday nearly a decade ago, a strange thing happened: the Athletics went back to being a below-average ballclub.

What happened? Gregg Easterbrook, a columnist for ESPN.com, wrote in a recent column that "Beane did in fact have an important insight, but his idea has been copied by most if not all MLB franchises, turning the idea into a mere commodity that, possessed by everyone, confers no advantage."

Was Epstein was able to steal players like David Ortiz, draft talented prospects, build his team and win two World Series due to his advantage over other baseball execs who ignored sabermetrics? It's possible. In 2011, after the successes of Moneyball and sophisticated baseball statistics, is that advantage gone? That's possible too.

But even with some minor red flags, Cubs fans have to feel good. Chicago, like Boston, is a big market, so if a mistake or two is made, the cost isn't as great as a similar mistake made by, say, San Diego. And even if the league has caught up with the Moneyball approach, Epstein himself is still an expert in that field.

All considered, hiring Theo Epstein is a big step in the right direction.

 
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