When you think of patience and the Chicago Cubs, usually it's about the fans who have waited more than a century to see this lovably inept franchise win a championship. We shouldn't forget about the restraint shown by the new front-office regime, led by Theo Epstein.
In his final season with the Boston Red Sox (2011) and two years since, Epstein has come under fire for leaving that team in the lurch. (This was before Ben Cherington built a title team in 2013.)
How quickly everyone forgets that Epstein was instrumental in building two championship teams for the once-maligned franchise.
Forbes' sports business reporter Tom Van Riper wrote in August 2012 that Epstein got out of Boston because of the problems he caused with a series of bad contracts and personnel decisions:
But when expectations are high and you're competing against the free-spending Yankees, discipline is hard to maintain. And that's just the trap Epstein fell into. Even as he was being held up as a leader of the new breed of sabremetric stat gurus, he veered from that formula often.
Forget beer and chicken in the clubhouse. The Red Sox are victims of a GM who responded to the pressure to keep a winning program going by throwing good money after bad players on a continuing basis. Eventually, it blows up on you.
Was Epstein perfect in Boston? Of course not. No general manager, regardless of the budget he is afforded, will have a 100 percent success rate. It's a gamble that every team takes when investing multiple years and millions of dollars in players who are, usually, 30-plus years old.
Getting lost in the way Epstein's Boston tenure ended clouds what he did with the franchise and what he's on the verge of doing in Chicago.
If we put a pin in the 2004 Red Sox championship team for a minute, let's look at the 2007 Red Sox and how a lot of the key players from that team were acquired.
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2nd Round, 2004 Draft|
|Mike Lowell, 3B||Traded from Marlins, November 2005|
|Josh Beckett, RHP||Traded from Marlins, November 2005|
|Jacoby Ellsbury, OF||1st Round, 2005 Draft|
|Jonathan Papelbon, RHP||4th Round, 2003 Draft|
|Hideki Okajima, LHP||International Free Agent, Signed November 2006|
Those are six key players either drafted or signed by the Red Sox when Epstein was general manager. That list doesn't include holdovers from the 2004 team that he signed or traded for, including David Ortiz, Curt Schilling and Mike Timlin.
Even J.D. Drew, whom fans loved to hate, had two seasons where he was worth at least 4.0 FanGraphs' wins above replacement (2008, 2009) and had a .370 on-base and .455 slugging percentage in five years with the team. He also hit a key grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians.
What's the most exciting part of the Chicago Cubs' future?
So for all the Carl Crawford deals or Edgar Renteria signings, Epstein did a lot more good than bad in Boston.
Of course, Epstein was in a different situation with the Red Sox than what he walked into with the Cubs. He, along with general manager Jed Hoyer, has taken a different approach to getting his new team back on the path to contention.
Epstein took over a Boston team after the 2002 season that won 93 games. He was named president of baseball operations for the Cubs in October 2011 after the team's win total went from 97 in 2008 to 83 in 2009 to 75 in 2010 to 71 in 2011.
On top of that, former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry left both the MLB team and minor leagues in shambles thanks to a series of bad contracts to players like Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol.
Instead of coming over and trying to put a Band-Aid on a broken leg by offering those big-money contracts he had gotten so accustomed to handing out in Boston, Epstein has taken a patient approach.
In fact, patience was a key point that Epstein brought up in April 2012 when talking to MLB.com's Carrie Muskat:
The definition of 'patient' varies from person to person, as it should.
We need some more impact talent and we need some guys who have the ability to break through. It'd be nice to get a breakthrough player or two this year and have someone move from that interesting prospect category to that potential impact category.
The good news for Epstein and Cubs fans is the team has gotten breakthroughs from a number of players.
2011 first-round pick Javier Baez, one of the best acquisitions of Hendry's later years, is ranked among the top 10 prospects in baseball this year; MLB.com put him at No. 7 on its 2014 Top 100 list, thanks to incredible bat speed and huge power.
There are also recent draftees from the Epstein-Hoyer regime, like Albert Almora (No. 18 on MLB.com Top 100 list) and Kris Bryant (No. 9), bringing optimism to the Cubs' future.
Chicago has also been astute making trades and international signings, acquiring high-ceiling pitchers C.J. Edwards (No. 42) and Arodys Vizcaino in separate deals with the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves. Jorge Soler (No. 49) is a 22-year-old from Cuba loaded with tools and a great build for right field.
Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs' system second-best in the minors entering 2014, raving about Chicago's approach to talent acquisition:
Thanks to a strong draft, clever trades, an aggressive acquisition plan in the international market, and developmental progress from some of the big names in the system, the Cubs became one of the strongest systems in the game.
The results aren't going to show at the MLB level this season for the Cubs. Their rebuilding plan is going well, but the players who represent the future of the franchise aren't ready to take their hacks in Chicago.
Players like Baez, Alcantara and Bryant have a chance to debut late in 2014. Soler, Almora and Edwards shouldn't be far behind in 2015. That's a nucleus of talent few teams in baseball can match.
One weak area that everyone assumes will have to be addressed in upcoming drafts or free agency is starting pitching. Edwards is the best of the bunch, but at 155 pounds, he doesn't look like a 200-inning starter.
However, therein lies another key aspect of what Epstein and Co. have been able to do the last two years. If the Cubs decide they are ready to dip heavily into free agency next year to improve their pitching, they couldn't have picked a better time.
They have just three players under contract after 2014 (Edwin Jackson, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo). Several more are eligible for arbitration, including Jeff Samardzija, but they could have as much financial flexibility as any team in the sport.
Combine that with what could be a deep pitching market—assuming Max Scherzer, Justin Masterson, James Shields and Jon Lester don't re-sign with their current teams—and the Cubs could add two impact arms without running their payroll up $140-150 million.
That's the brilliance of what Epstein has done. He isn't panicking or overreacting to a restless fanbase. He understands how this game is played, even appearing to learn from some of the mistakes he made in Boston.
Just because you have the money to spend doesn't mean you need to. Building a franchise from the ground up is the way to go. The Cubs are on their way, even if it means waiting another year to see the results in the big leagues.
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