Mike Quade did not do well in his lone year as manager of the Chicago Cubs. He was not developmentally, strategically or psychologically the right fit for the position. His hiring reflected nothing so much as the personality-driven nepotism that partially defined the tenure of then-GM Jim Hendry.
His firing Wednesday reflected the objectivity and clear sense of purpose that defines the new regime, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, and it was the first concrete step toward making the Cubs winners again that the men have taken in tandem since their arrival.
Now that Quade is gone, though, the Cubs have some heavy lifting to do. The roster remains a mess, though the paralysis wrought by big, bad contracts is subsiding quickly and has become as much media straw-man as actual impediment to progress. The farm system is on the rise, but is not yet the sort of powerhouse that produced Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury under Epstein's reign in Boston.
There are 100 steps between here and the next Cubs World Series. There are 1,000. Since a lot of those steps will never make headlines or find their way onto the pages of history, though, these 10 lay down a concise and clear blueprint.
Martinez sits roughly where Terry Francona did in 2003, a respected man within the game and a solid coach, but as yet, not someone anyone has given the chance to succeed as a manager.
He's the perfect fit for the Cubs. He is not an icon or a celebrity like Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella were, or like Ryne Sandberg would be. He is just a smart baseball man, apprentice to an even smarter one in Joe Maddon, and he knows how to balance managing egos and having fun with being tactically on-cue.
Now is the time to make a free-agent splash.
That statement is blasphemy to those who call themselves the conservative contingent within Cubs Nation, who think that rebuilding and looking through a long-focus lens means withdrawing completely from free-agent forays. That group is akin to the Puritans, an overzealous, needlessly ascetic lot. They are in large measure self-righteous and narrow-minded.
It's time to open their eyes. Here are the facts:
- Though Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are Type A free agents, the Cubs would lose only a second-round draft pick by signing either, thanks to having finished 71-91 and being well within the 15-team group whose top draft picks are protected from loss through this process.
- The Yankees and Red Sox are non-factors in the bidding for both sluggers, a perfect storm that makes their values much lower than they might have been in other years. Fielder can almost certainly be had for eight seasons at the total expenditure of $200 million, which (believe it or not) is a bargain.
- And there it is. $25 million a year is a solid investment in Prince Fielder. That cannot be said about any free agent most seasons, and unless Matt Kemp weathers this winter without signing an extension or being dealt to the Yankees or to Boston, it certainly will not be true of anyone next year.
Fielder plays every day (one game missed in the last three seasons combined); has sensational power and a great batting eye; and will not turn 28 until next May. Long-term contracts are not merely concessions to players with leverage. They are a method through which teams can secure an asset for a fixed cost, so that whenever that team needs the player most, they are still around. Signing Fielder doesn't mean committing to winning in 2012. It just means committing to winning.
Having added Fielder, the Cubs need to get aggressive about moving virtually everyone else they can move. Once the big free agents sign and the trade market begins to crackle a bit, Epstein should start wheeling and dealing.
Marlon Byrd, who stands to be displaced from center field by top-prospect Brett Jackson in 2012 anyway, needs to be dealt. Geovany Soto, whose salary could top $5 million next year, is an obscene luxury item. He will be well past his prime the next time the Cubs really need his production at the catcher spot.
Between Byrd and Soto, the Cubs will rid themselves of $12 million or so in 2012 obligations and should net three or four usable prospects. What a deal.
Epstein was quick to swat away a question about Zambrano in Jed Hoyer's introductory press conference Tuesday. George Ofman, who does sports on WBBM in Chicago, posed a loaded, leading question that strongly implied Zambrano's return to the Cubs would be untenable.
"It sounds like you've made your decision," was part of Epstein's answer. "We have yet to make ours."
Jim Hendry was terrible at this. He had no idea how to sell a lemon. From Sammy Sosa to Milton Bradley, Hendry never shied away from saying when he did not want a player around anymore. It only interfered with the team's ability to move those liabilities.
Epstein is smarter than that. He will talk for weeks, maybe months about how the Cubs feel Zambrano could be back and be good for them in 2012. Then he will get some sucker to take half of Zambrano's hefty 2012 salary and give up a quasi-useful prospect.
Starlin Castro's career is off to a heck of a start. He's going to be a superstar someday, and Cubs fans no doubt find him that much sexier because he plays shortstop.
He shouldn't play shortstop.
It's great that Castro is a superior athlete; the Cubs have had too few of those among their baseball-skilled prospects over the years. Unfortunately, Castro's arm is simply too erratic, and his hands too hard, for the position. He could thrive at second base; he could excel there. Think of him, in that proposed move, as a right-handed batting, more athletic version of Robinson Cano. A positional switch is the key that will someday unlock Castro's full potential.
Meanwhile, Castro's double-play co-conspirator of last season, Darwin Barney, is useless at second base. He's a good glove guy there, and he runs the bases quite well, but he cannot hit enough to support himself as a regular at second base. At shortstop, though, he would suit Chicago's short-term needs really nicely. He could be to them as Ryan Theriot once was, an acceptable stop-gap until an impact talent (like Castro) comes along.
Epstein made his first meaningful move this week when he picked up the Cubs' $16-million option for Aramis Ramirez's services in 2012. Predictably, Ramirez then voided the option.
That helped the Cubs in two ways:
1. Because they picked up the option and Ramirez dropped it, Chicago does not owe him the $2-million buyout built into his deal if the option goes unclaimed.
2. Ramirez is now headed for free agency, and the Cubs have the right to offer him arbitration. They will, he will decline, and whenever Ramirez signs elsewhere, the Cubs will have an extra pick in the bank, somewhere in the top 35-60, in June's Rule IV draft.
It's critical, now, that the Cubs save that $2 million, and simply plan to spend it on the best available player when that pick comes up in June. These are the little things that make Epstein great, and that open doors for rebuilding teams. You have to be willing to roll fiscal savings back into the farm system as you build, and Ramirez's leftover buyout money is the perfect way to start doing it.
The Cubs will also get a pick in exchange for Carlos Pena when he goes somewhere else. Good sense says they should match the money they give the Ramirez-related pick. The Cubs had a high-impact draft in 2011; they should have an even better one in 2012.
By July, the pump will be primed at Wrigley.
The Cubs will be well out of contention. Prospects like Trey McNutt, Chris Carpenter and/or Rafael Dolis will be ready for their chances to prove their mettle with the parent club. Teams across the league will be in need of pitching help for the stretch run, and they will be overeager buyers.
That is the moment at which the iron will be hottest, and that is when Epstein and Hoyer need to strike. Trading Ryan Dempster, Sean Marshall and Jeff Samardzija should net the Cubs about $7 million or so, not to mention at least five good prospects. Marshall alone is worth a very good minor-leaguer, even as a rent-a-lefty.
Both Dempster and Marshall have expiring contracts. Samardzija is a non-asset in the bullpen. There is no sense in retaining them, and there is all the sense in the world in getting that huge return for the investment the last regime made in each.
Alfonso Soriano is not useless.
That is the big secret the Hendry administration seemingly kept hidden at all times. No one under the old regime ever came to Soriano's defense, despite all the criticism he got in the media in 2009, and in 2010, and in 2011.
Epstein and Hoyer need to become Soriano's press secretaries for the next year.
Soriano has power. He actually plays fine defense. He's never going to have a .330 OBP or steal 10 bases again, but he is an average player with a very high ceiling as a lefty-mashing platoon partner.
At present, because Hendry and company allowed Soriano's value to crater the way it did, trading him is a non-starter. After 2012, though, if Soriano performs even roughly as well as he did in 2011, he could be more movable, especially because there would be just $36 million left on the final two years of his contract. That's a surmountable problem.
In 2013, the Cubs have their first outside shot at true contention. In 2014, they should, by all rights, be well on their way. They will not succeed, though, without making a splashy pitching acquisition somewhere along the line. The farm system's strength is in power bullpen arms and positional depth, not future starters worthy of a playoff team.
Matt Cain and Cole Hamels are inning-gobbling aces, the kind of pitchers who rarely hit the market anymore. One or the other will certainly sign a contract extension this winter.
The good odds, though, are that one of them doesn't, and whichever reaches free agency should immediately become a Cubs target. These are the moves a team can make at critical and correct junctures to accelerate the rebuilding process, and they need to be made.
The most important part of any rebuilding process is also the most difficult: Sometimes, you just have to be patient.
Brett Jackson will be a very good lead-off or fifth hitter and center fielder, but possibly not right away. Starlin Castro will contend for batting titles and MVP awards, but not for two or three years. Trey McNutt, Matt Szczur, Josh Vitters, Reggie Golden and Junior Lake all have big upside, though each struggled when challenged at times in 2011.
The future is not now; the future is the future. Chicago fans--and executives--need to be ready to wait out the development of some very young players, and find precisely the right window in which to really go for it. If they do, the Cubs can win the World Series by 2014 or 2015.