Theo Epstein has his greatest challenge ahead of him. He inherits a lesser team and a greater drought than he faced in Boston. If he succeeds in Chicago, he will undoubtedly go down in history as the greatest general manager of all time.
In order to win, Theo Epstein will need to make a lot of moves. The following are the most important.
Theo Epstein needs to make re-signing Aramis Ramirez a priority.
Some Cubs fans have criticized Ramirez for his sometimes sluggish play and perceived lack of emotional fire. These thoughts may have some legitimacy, but they pale in comparison to the facts.
Consider the following numbers: In 2011, Ramirez batted .306, belted 29 homers, drove in 93 runs and had a .361 OBP. That means, among National League third baseman, Ramirez finished first in home runs, batting average and RBI. As for OBP? The veteran slugger finished in second, by a mere .005 points.
We can easily say then, that Aramis Ramirez is the best offensive third baseman in the National League. It is not even close. It would be absurd not to pursue him. Ramirez gives the Cubs a chance to sign a premier offensive player, and likely at a relatively cheap price.
The Cubs need to sign Ryne Sandberg.
Under Mike Quade, the Cubs had the worst fielding percentage and the most errors (by 10!) in Major League Baseball. The Cubs were clearly inept at the fundamental aspects of the game.
It is hard to imagine this continuing under Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg won nine consecutive gold gloves and has the highest fielding percentage for a second baseman in baseball history. The soft-spoken Hall of Famer would likely make sure his team took care of the little things first.
Signing Ryne Sandberg would be more than just an excellent PR move for Theo Epstein. It is true that Sandberg is well loved in Chicago, but more importantly, hiring Ryno makes good baseball sense.
Thus far, Sandberg has excelled in every level in the minor leagues. He was named Pacific Coast League manager of the year in 2010 and last year he led the Lehigh Valley IronPigs to the first winning season in their history. Sandberg is young enough to fit as a long-term solution, and his personal familiarity with the Cubs' long and tragic history may give him the determination and resolve needed to overcome unexpected problems.
The Cubs need to go after Prince Fielder.
The Cubs will have reservations about Prince's price tag, but Chicago ranked near the middle of the league in every offensive category. A team with great pitching might be able to get away with this, but certainly not the Cubs.
To make matters worse, division foes Milwaukee and St. Louis boast the best offenses in the league. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are two of the greatest hitters in the game and would give a significant offensive boost to any team. Secondly, signing one of these two players also takes them away from a division rival. The Cubs simply cannot miss their chance to snag one of these hitters while it is possible to do so.
A second-tier free agent could not help the Cubs. Carlos Beltran and Michael Cuddyer, for example, are hardly capable of turning the Cubs' offense around. This is not the time for patience—no matter who becomes available in the following years, it is not likely they will get much better than Fielder or Pujols.
Between the two, Epstein should shoot for Fielder. Pujols had an off-year last season, decreasing in average, RBI, home runs, and OBS. While it was still a great year by any account, a decrease in production is not a good sign when making a long-term deal.
In contrast, Fielder maintained his production and bested Pujols in home runs, RBI and OPS. Fielder is also younger and will probably cost less.
Chicago, as a large-market city with a devoted fan base, can be difficult city for under-performers. Fans and the media criticize every single move in painstaking detail.
It is odd, indeed inexplicable, that Cubs pitching coach Mark Riggins has thus far escaped unscathed. Under Riggins, the Cubs' collective ERA skyrocketed. They also gave up more hits and home runs than in 2010, and were unable to prevent the Cubs from again leading the league in walks. Riggins also presided over severe and sudden decreases in performance by Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Marmol and Ryan Dempster.
Some might argue that these failures might lie more with the pitching staff than the pitching coach. However, it is important to consider that Riggins, with the additions of Matt Garza and Kerry Wood, had a significantly better pitching staff than Larry Rothschild had in 2010. Despite this fact, Riggins managed to perform even worse than Rothschild's lackluster staff.
Carlos Marmol is not capable of closing for a lowly team, much less a contender. His 10 blown saves last year led the National League.
Marmol has always had difficulty with command, and this alone is worth anxiety. Even more disturbing is the fact that hitters are starting to figure Marmol out. In 2011, his ERA climbed above 4.00 for the first time in his career. The Cubs gave Marmol a three-year contract last year, and this makes the problem more difficult to solve. Still, Marmol's strikeout rates remain high, and this might be enticing for some teams.
The Cubs have some replacement options already. Sean Marshall is one of the premier relievers in the game and one of the most underrated. As a left-handed pitcher with a good breaking ball, one could easily envision Marshall having success.
It is also possible that Kerry Wood could return to his former role, though this could hardly be seen as a long-term solution. Perhaps Epstein and new general manager Jed Hoyer can use their Padres ties to attract Heath Bell. This is their best option. A bullpen featuring Marshall, Wood, Jeff Samardzija and Heath Bell would be formidable indeed.
The Cubs have a serious pitching problem.They ranked 25th out of 30 in ERA last year. If they want to build a contending team, they will need to start finding young talent as soon as possible.
The best free-agent pitcher on the market this offseason is C.J. Wilson. With only two full seasons as a starter and shaky postseason numbers, Wilson is a risk for teams looking for a long-term ace. Until a better ace becomes available, the Cubs need to start making some trades for pitching prospects.
Exactly how Epstein needs to acquire pitching prospects is an inexact and difficult business. Still, the Cubs have some valuable trading chips that could help them amass prospects. Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson, the latter coming off of a career year, are super-subs that many teams would love to have.
The Cubs could even part with Geovany Soto, as catchers with consistently high OBP numbers are a rare and desirable commodity. The weak free-agent catcher market could increase Soto's value, although the Cubs need to be careful here—they do not want to be stuck with Koyie Hill as a starter.
At any rate, Epstein needs to focus intently on acquiring starting pitching prospects with his trades, even if he has to give up some of the valuable players I have just mentioned.
If Epstein wants to institute a culture change, he will need to find a new home for the volatile Carlos Zambrano. Some of Big Z's more recent decisions (throwing at Chipper Jones, criticizing Carlos Marmol in a post-game interview, starting a shouting match with Derek Lee) have left many weary of his antics.
Still, something bigger is at play here. Front offices and fans have easily forgiven players in the past for regrettable behavior. For proof, just look to Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers. The major difference here is that Carlos Zambrano is simply not a good player. He has always had talent, but he has never lived up to it.
Furthermore, his 4.82 ERA last season (up from 3.33 in 2010) would seem to suggest that Zambrano is getting worse with time. Similarly to Milton Bradley after 2009, any deal the Cubs can make to move Zambrano will benefit them. His presence only weighs them down. It will be difficult to find a taker for Big Z without eating much of his contract, but the Cubs need to move on.