The Cubs are in trouble.
The team finished 71-91 last season in an ultra competitive division that features the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, the 2011 NL Central Champion Milwaukee Brewers and the 2010 NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds.
Hiring Theo Epstein is step one in a long series of steps necessary to get them competitive again. Unfortunately, they might not have any real options until 2013 when many of their awful contracts begin to expire.
Let's take a look at the first 10 changes Epstein must make in order to get the Cubs in the 2012 pennant race.
Doesn't the first step always involve denial in some way?
In this case, the Cubs should skip denial and move straight to acceptance.
Acceptance, meaning that they need to accept that they can't win with this current roster.
Alfonso Soriano is set to make $18 million through 2014 and Carlos Zambrano is getting $18 million in 2012, and then $19.25 million in 2013 (vesting player option).
That's a crippling amount of money.
Regardless of any other factors, they have to find a way to make that money more productive.
Keeping Soriano and Zambrano shouldn't even be an option.
I know. It's tough to trade a bad player with another $54 million due to him. Luckily for the Cubs, they aren't the only team to make this kind of mistake.
Often times a simple change of scenery can make all of the difference for a player.
A trade of Soriano for Wells would give a change of scenery to both players that are playing as shadows of their former selves.
Wells hit .218 with an OBP of just .248 last season, and Soriano hit .244 with a .289 OBP.
Wells is 32 years old and Soriano is 35, which is why the Cubs would be willing to take on the additional money from Wells' contract ($63 million through 2014).
It's a tough decision to make, but ultimately it's the only real option.
The Cubs will have to simply release Zambrano before the 2012 season. Their stance with Zambrano last year is a signal to all other clubs that they don't value Zambrano any longer, which means they won't be able to trade him.
Additionally, Zambrano has a $19.25 million dollar vesting player option for 2013 that is contingent on where he finishes in Cy Young voting in 2012. It's unlikely that it becomes a factor, but the Cubs would be better to just release him than to risk having to pay the $19.25 in 2013.
The Cubs did the smart thing by picking up the $16 million option on Ramirez, however reports indicate that Ramirez will decline his side of the option and opt for free agency.
The Cubs knew that Ramirez wasn't going to come back, and will now be entitled to a second-round pick when he signs his contract with a new team.
While Ramirez was productive last season, it's likely that he's going to sign a big multi-year contract, and the Cubs would be smart to let someone else make that mistake.
Pena signed a one-year, $10 million dollar contract with the Cubs last season.
The move worked out okay for the Cubs, but certainly not well enough to offer any sort of multi-year contract, especially given the big-name first basemen currently on the market.
The Cubs should resist the temptation to give Pena a three-year, $32 million dollar contract and let someone else make that mistake.
Sizemore is a former three-time All-Star, and two-time Gold Glove award-winning center fielder.
He's missed 276 games in the past three years due to injury, but nobody can doubt his talent when healthy.
He's not likely to demand a large, or particularly long contract in free agency since he'll be hoping to prove that he can stay healthy and secure a long-term contract in the future.
Sizemore would be a perfect gamble for the Cubs and they could move him or Byrd to right field where Tyler Colvin has been largely unproductive.
The one problem with allowing Ramirez to walk is that there aren't any good options available free agency.
This means the Cubs will have to make a trade to bring in a quality player.
The Cubs could certainly include some of their top minor league talent like Brett Jackson or Trey McNutt in order to bring in someone the caliber of David Wright.
A Wright trade might be a bit far-fetched however, so let's focus on a few players that would be a little easier to obtain.
Casey McGehee, Ty Wigginton and Chone Figgins would all be solid options to consider as well. None of these are long-term answers, but they are serviceable until Javier Baez is ready to take over.
Maholm is going to be a sneaky-great pick up for somebody this offseason.
Last season Maholm went 6-14, but he posted a 3.66 ERA with a 1.294 WHIP. Additionally, he allowed just 11 home runs in 162.1 innings pitched.
While he won't be a splashy signing, he'll certainly be a quality signing and a great addition to the back end of the Cubs' rotation.
Mark Buerhle is already extremely popular in Chicago, just for a different team.
Buehrle, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster would give the Cubs a legitimately solid front end of the rotation. It wouldn't be as good as St. Louis or Philadelphia, but it's at least a step in the right direction.
I've said from the beginning that I think someone is going to step up and give Pujols a 10-year, $300 million dollar contract.
The Cubs are one of the few teams that have that kind of money, and Theo Epstein will certainly be looking to make his mark on this franchise.
So, what would the lineup and rotation look like if Epstein executes all of these moves?
C - Geovanny Soto
1B - Albert Pujols
2B - Darwin Barney
SS - Starlin Castro
3B - David Wright
LF - Vernon Wells
CF - Grady Sizemore
RF - Marlon Byrd
SP - Mark Buerhle
SP - Matt Garza
SP - Ryan Dempster
SP - Paul Maholm
SP - Randy Wells
As a Cincinnati Reds fan, I find that a little scary.