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Chicago Cubs: Grading the 1st Year of the Theo Epstein Era

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Chicago Cubs: Grading the 1st Year of the Theo Epstein Era
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This is the time of year when Theo Epstein is used to making the rounds on the phone, desperately trying to convince general managers of waning teams to surrender their players. After all, Epstein always found himself needing players right around this time of year. He had a contender to feed.

Things are a little different for Epstein this year. He always had a contender on his hands when he was the GM of the Boston Red Sox. He's now the President of Baseball Operations and general savior of the Chicago Cubs, a team that probably has the word "contention" framed and hung on a wall somewhere in the bowels of Wrigley Field: a reminder of what the organization is after, but still very far away from.

Epstein's Cubs still have a lot of work to do. The 2012 season is merely the first step toward what the Cubs and their legions of fans hope are better days.

So how exactly is the first step going? Is everything according to plan? Or have the Cubs unwittingly taken a step in the wrong direction under Epstein's watch?

This is what we're here to discuss. It's time to grade Year One of the Theo Epstein Era.

 

Offseason Transactions

Epstein and the Cubs agreed to a five-year contract on the 12th of October. A couple of weeks later, they announced the hiring of Jed Hoyer as the club's general manager and of Jason McLeod as the club's head of scouting and player development.

The Cubs' brain trust was complete, and they got to work more or less immediately. Here's a rundown of the foremost transactions they made in the ensuing months, which come courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

December 8, 2011: Traded OF Tyler Colvin and INF DJ LeMahieu to Colorado Rockies for 3B Ian Stewart and RHP Casey Weathers

Stewart opened the season as the Cubs' starting third baseman, which was the plan all along. The hope was that he would rediscover the pop that he showed off in 2009, when he hit 25 home runs.

So much for that. Stewart has been limited to 55 games this season, and he's hitting just .201 with five home runs. He's currently on the disabled list with a wrist injury, and is probably out for the rest of the season.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Colvin hit just .150 in 80 games for the Cubs in 2011.

Colvin, meanwhile, is hitting .278 with an .862 OPS for Colorado, with 13 home runs in just 75 games. He was one of the hottest hitters in the league for a period of about a month between early June and early July.

There's a question of where Colvin would have played if the Cubs had held on to him, so you can see even in retrospect why Epstein chose to allow it. Nonetheless, the Cubs have clearly lost this trade.

Verdict: Bad move.

 

December 23, 2011: Traded LHP Sean Marshall to Cincinnati Reds for RHP Ronald Torreyes, LF Dave Sappelt, LHP Travis Wood

Marshall established himself as one of the top lefty relievers in baseball in 2010 and 2011, compiling a 2.45 ERA over 158 appearances with a K/9 over 10.0.

Marshall didn't pan out as Cincinnati's closer, but on the whole, his season has been a success. He has a 2.63 ERA in 45 appearances, including a sick 1.04 ERA in non-save situations. He and Aroldis Chapman make for a killer late-inning duo.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Sappelt has been a bit player and Wood has a 4.33 ERA in 12 starts. He's still young, but he has also yet to show whether he has it in him to be anything special as a pitcher.

The Cubs wouldn't be a contender if they had Marshall instead of Wood, but it's fair to say they haven't gotten equal value from this trade.

Verdict: Bad move.

 

January 5, 2012: Cubs trade RHP Carlos Zambrano and cash to Miami Marlins for RHP Chris Volstad

Zambrano was unhittable for the Marlins earlier in the season, but his numbers have since leveled out. He's got a 4.42 ERA in 19 starts with a WHIP of 1.45.

Volstad has been a lot worse, as he's posted an ERA near 8.00 in nine starts for the Cubs this season.

But this trade wasn't about getting equal value for Zambrano. It was simply about getting rid of him. If the Cubs ended up getting anything from Volstad, it would have been a bonus.

Verdict: No harm, no foul.

 

January 6, 2012: Traded RHP Andrew Cashner and LF Kyung-Min Na to San Diego Padres for 1B Anthony Rizzo and RHP Zach Cates

Norm Hall/Getty Images
Cashner's fastball is coming in at an average of 98.5 miles per hour.

The Cubs lost a pitcher with a very, very big fastball when they made this trade. Cashner has done well for the Padres, posting a 3.44 ERA and 11.0 K/9 in 30 appearances, including five starts. His future is probably as a reliever, most likely as the club's future closer.

The Rizzo watch was on in Chicago as soon as the Cubs made this trade. Bryan LaHair was able to take the focus off of Rizzo earlier in the season, but people noticed just how hot Rizzo was down in the minors once LaHair cooled off.

When Rizzo finally got the call to the majors in late June, he had a .342 average and 23 home runs in 70 games with Triple-A Iowa. So far with the big club, he's hitting .323 with an .884 OPS and five homers in 24 games.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Verdict: Good move.

 

The Rizzo trade was the last big move the Cubs made during the offseason. In all, it was a quiet couple of months for Epstein and his staff. A couple of the moves they made were meant to trim fat. Others were meant to bolster the club's foundations for the future.

The Cubs basically didn't make any moves that were meant to bolster the club's chances of winning this season. Epstein and co. never allowed themselves to entertain that pipe dream. Instead, they chose to make it clear that they're going to walk before they run.

They started by taking baby steps this offseason.

 

The Dale Sveum Hiring

Before Epstein and his staff got to work rounding out the team's roster, they first provided the team with a leader.

A couple of weeks after firing incumbent manager Mike Quade, Epstein hired former Red Sox third base coach Dale Sveum to run the team.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Sveum also briefly served as Milwaukee's interim manager in 2008.

The hiring was something of a victory for Epstein over his former employer, as Sveum was also in the running for the Red Sox's vacant manager position. He hadn't exactly convinced Tony La Russa to un-retire, but Epstein definitely got the man he wanted.

So how's Sveum doing?

It's hard to tell with managers. About the best we can do is take a look at the club's Pythagorean record, which Baseball-Reference.com has calculated at 40-57. 

The Cubs' actual record under Sveum is 40-57. Cubs fans will therefore be happy to know that Sveum hasn't cost the Cubs any victories. Things are as they should be.

Hey, it could always be worse. They could be the Astros.

 

The Rudy Jaramillo Firing

It took a while for the Cubs' new management to flex its muscles and let everyone know once and for all that there's a new sheriff in town in Chicago. Epstein didn't make his first big decision concerning the club's coaching staff until June 12, when he fired hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

Epstein took care to praise Jaramillo for his knowledge of hitting mechanics, but he told the press (via the Chicago Sun-Times) that Jaramillo's firing was about a new philosophy and "a new message."

"It’s a nuance difference. It’s a point of emphasis," said Epstein.

The translation here is that Jaramillo wasn't quite on board with Epstein's organizational philosophy. It would seem that he fired Jaramillo not because of the techniques he was teaching, but because of the approach he was teaching.

The Cubs hit .243/.292/.379 as a team in the month of June. Thus far in July, they're hitting .238/.280/.366.

Probably not the explosion Epstein was hoping for when he decided to fire Jaramillo. One can only hope that he's at least satisfied with the team's approach at the plate, even if it's not paying off.

 

Jorge Soler Signing

When the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo, they effectively hand-picked their future first baseman.

When Epstein signed Cuban prospect Jorge Soler in early June, he effectively hand-picked the club's future right fielder.

Here's a video of Soler going yard.

He better hope he picked the right man, as he gave Soler a nine-year contract worth $30 million. That's not a ton of money for that many years, but it's nothing if not a big commitment. There's also language in the deal that could allow Soler to earn a lot more money through arbitration.

Is Soler worth the risk? It's hard to say because he's still young and he still has a lot of developing to do. He's nowhere near being in the same ballpark as fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, who was ready to be a big leaguer as soon as he set foot on American soil.

But Soler definitely has good tools. Scouts are particularly in love with his raw power, and ESPN's Keith Law praised Soler's "explosive" hands after watching him in person recently.

Sounds like the Cubs may have a young Alfonso Soriano on their hands.

Calm down, now. I said a young Alfonso Soriano.

 

MLB Draft

Before the start of the season, the one thing the Cubs' farm system lacked more than anything else was pitching. According to Baseball America, only three of the club's top 10 prospects were pitchers, and none of the three were considered to be elite.

So it came as no surprise when Hoyer admitted just days before the MLB First-Year Player Draft that the plan was to bolster the club's pitching depth.

“As an organization I think our pitching depth is one of our biggest concerns,” Hoyer said. “We don’t have a ton of arms in the minor leagues. I think the best organizations are just littered with power arms."

He added: “The more we can add those kind of arms during the draft the better."

Here's some video of Almora in action.

In somewhat of a surprise, the Cubs' first pick in the draft was actually an outfielder, as they chose Florida high-schooler Albert Almora with the sixth overall pick.

Almora profiles as the Cubs' future center fielder. He has the goods to be an excellent defensive player, and he has a good line-drive approach at the plate. As with most high school prospects, Almora should develop more power as he fills out.

Once the Cubs had Almora in the bag, they started targeting pitchers. Ultimately, eight of their next nine picks ended up being used on arms.

With that many pitchers in tow, the Cubs are bound to get lucky with one or two. And in a year or two, they'll be on the call list of any teams that are looking to trade major leaguers for young pitching.

In other words, mission accomplished.

 

Anthony Rizzo Call-Up

As I mentioned above, there wasn't a ton of pressure on the Cubs to call Rizzo up early in the year, and this had everything to do with LaHair.

Through May 7, LaHair was hitting .388/.479/.800 with eight homers and 17 RBI in just 26 games. At the age of 29, he had the look of a classic late-bloomer.

Or, as some said, a fluke.

It turns out the non-believers were right. Between May 8 and June 25, LaHair hit just .217/.282/.367 with five homers and 11 RBI.

Rizzo debuted the next day on June 26. He's hit at .323/.357/.527 in 24 games. The Cubs have won 15 of the games he's played in.

You could argue that the Cubs should have called up Rizzo sooner, but honestly, what difference would he possibly have been able to make? The Cubs would be a non-contender today even if Rizzo had been in the lineup on Opening Day. He's made them better, but they're not a great team just because he's in the lineup now.

And as long as we're not kidding ourselves, the Cubs' true motivation in waiting so long to call Rizzo up was to delay his arbitration eligibility. Smart move.

 

Trade Deadline Activity

As I'm writing this, the Cubs have yet to trade Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza.

It's just a matter of time before they trade Dempster. In fact, they already have traded Dempster once, as they had a deal in place with the Atlanta Braves before Dempster used his 10-5 rights to kill it.

It's a shame that he did. The Cubs were poised to get Randall Delgado from the Braves, and he's considered to be one of the top young pitchers in the game. He's exactly the kind of pitcher Epstein and the Cubs brass are looking to slot into their rotation behind Jeff Samardzija in 2013 and beyond.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
The Cubs don't have a leg to stand on in their discussions with the Dodgers about Dempster, who has a 2.25 ERA this season.

As pointed out by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Dempster's rejection of the Atlanta deal put the Cubs in a tough spot. Dempster effectively forced them to try and trade him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and in doing so he robbed the Cubs of whatever leverage they had in talks with the Dodgers.

The Cubs are going to have to settle for less-than-fair value for Dempster. If they don't, their only option is to hold on to him, make him a qualifying offer at the end of the season, and hope he doesn't accept it so they can get an extra draft pick after he walks.

It's not an ideal situation. Whatever happens, Epstein and his staff deserve a free pass for what happens, as it's not them who came up with the 10-5 rules.

If they settle for less-than-fair value for Garza as well, they will not deserve a free pass. Garza's value has taken a hit this season due to his subpar performance on the mound, but he's still young and he still has good stuff. Most importantly, he's still under club control for one more season, so the Cubs should be able to get something good for him in a trade.

If Epstein gets fair value for Garza, this deadline season won't be a total loss.

If he finds takers for Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol, it will be a total victory.

...But I'm not counting on that. I'm guessing you aren't either.

 

Team Performance

Oh yeah, we probably should talk about how the Cubs have actually performed this season, huh?

Well, they're in fifth place in the NL Central with a record of 40-57, which puts them on a pace to lose over 90 games. They ranked dead-last in baseball in runs scored, and 24th in team ERA. Their -72 run differential is one of the worst figures in either league.

In short, they're a bad team.

End of discussion.

 

The Grand Conclusion

When you look at the Cubs now, you have to look beyond their 40-57 record. Their record says they're a bad team, but the big question mark concerning these Cubs is not what kind of team they are. It's what kind of team they will be.

Is there hope for these Cubs?

Yes there is.

Let's be clear on this much: The Cubs are still a couple of years away from being contenders. But when you look around, it's not hard to find things to get optimistic about.

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They have good young pieces in place on the field in Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney. On the mound, Samardzija has the look of an ace, and it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Epstein chose to sign Garza to an extension rather than trade him.

Down on the farm, the Cubs have a couple of potential All-Star outfielders in Almora and Soler. Until they arrive, Brett Jackson should arrive in the big leagues in the meantime and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he becomes a solid big leaguer. 

So far, Epstein's greatest gift to the Cubs is the tremendous pitching depth the club acquired in the draft. It's going to come in handy down the road.

When Epstein was introduced in late October, he spoke of building a "foundation for sustained success." In other words, his plan was to build a championship team from the ground up.

In my eyes, he's done that. The fact that I can say this before Dempster and Garza have been traded for prospects is a good sign.

It's way too early to tell how all of Epstein's wheeling and dealing over the last nine months or so is going to pan out, but the organization is on the right track.

 

Grade: B+

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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