Can Theo Epstein save the Cubs...from themselves?
Theo Epstein has already started his tenure as President of Baseball Operations correctly by bringing in two of the brightest in baseball—general manager Jed Hoyer and Director of Player Personnel Jason McLeod.
This holy trinity of baseball will combine their methods of sabermetrics and player evaluation to bring yet another star-crossed franchise back from the dead to the promised land; a World Series title.
As president, Epstein is the face of the Chicago Cubs. His decisions, while discussed within a group of his peers, will ultimately be his to take credit or blame. The stakes are high, the goal is set and the plan is in place.
Theo Epstein must make the following seven moves before the start of the 2012 season to begin the process of resurrecting the Chicago Cubs in their pursuit of a World Series title, baseball gods willing.
Theo Epstein, with an eye on the future
Four words will define the 2012 Chicago Cubs season; "This is a process." Theo Epstein has a plan, and as a fan, you must believe in it.
There is no room for unnecessary expectations for a team that has just finished a second consecutive year of futility in the form of fifth in the NL Central. Talking of titles and accomplishments before 2013 are absurd.
Fandom can have expectations, but you must ground them in reality. With these four words, reality will breed success.
With the Cubs finishing 14th in the National League in team ERA, pitching is a glaring issue to address, and as with all changes, they start at the top. Enter Mike Maddux.
Mike Maddux took an already outstanding Texas Rangers pitching staff and made them better. The Rangers lowered their already sterling team ERA in 2011 from 3.93 in 2010 to 3.79.
With the Cubs 2011 team ERA at 4.34, every little bit helps, and Mike Maddux is the perfect fit in the Cubs' dugout.
Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are not viable options for the 2012 Cubs. With a team dedicated to rebuilding, it would be both a waste of talent and dollars to sign either to a lucrative long-term deal.
Pujols has been the most consistent player of this generation. Fielder is a workhorse, having been the only player in baseball to play every game this season.Their numbers would suffer in Chicago, due to a lack of protection in the lineup.
Pujols has produced because he's been protected by Holliday, Berkman and others during his years in St. Louis, while Prince was a part of baseball's scariest 3-4 combo.
In Chicago, teams would pitch around either, and fans would become restless.
Carlos Pena performed relatively close to his career averages. (2011: .225/.357/.462; Career: .239/.352/.486) His salary in 2011 was manageable and is only 33. His defense is solid, and his complaints are minimal.
Pena hit 28 home runs and 80 RBI with Jeff Baker and Marlon Byrd being his "protection." Signing Pena to a modest new deal would not only save the Ricketts' family money, but allow Theo to use Pena as trade bait should an opportunity arise.
Remember, this is a process, and the Cubs have more important things to throw money at, like pitching.
With the Cubs rotation undecided after Dempster and Garza, Theo Epstein must move to sign the premier free-agent pitcher CJ Wilson. Having hired Mike Maddux would be a good sell to Wilson as well, after a stellar regular season where he boasted a 16-7 record with a 2.94 ERA and 223 innings pitched.
Had Wilson pitched better in the postseason, this option wouldn't be available. The Cubs have too many other glaring needs than to devote a Sabathia-like contract to a pitcher. They've been burned with the Zambrano deal and would hold off on anything like that again.
CJ Wilson's stock has come down to a more reasonable number, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million per year.
Ryan Dempster's option in 2012 is $14 million. A five-year deal would be ideal for Wilson, and with Dempster's contract over after this season, the Cubs would be replacing their old ace with a new ace.
Carlos Zambrano is a polarizing figure in the Cubs' community. His potential was off the charts, and his collection of pitches was devastating. That was 2002. In just under a decade, Zambrano has alienated innumerable owners, managers, front office executives and teammates. He has become a former asset who is a mistake.
Trade Zambrano. Buy out Zambrano. However you get rid of him, you must. His friend and most staunch supporter, Ozzie Guillen, is now the manager of the Miami Marlins. He could have a good career in Miami, but the glaring truth is that he has pitched his final game as a Cub.
The trouble with this move is that the rest of Major League Baseball is aware the Cubs want to jettison Zambrano and his egregious $19 million per year contract.
Epstein must convince Mr. Ricketts to eat a majority of the remaining balance, along with another player's toxic contract.
By definition, a bloated contract is what Alfonso Soriano signed in 2007. Eight years, $136 million dollars. Coming off a spectaculous 2006 season where he became the first player to hit 40 home runs, 40 doubles and steal 40 bases, it seemed like it could work.
Today, that contract has become a lesson in overpaying for a career year. Soriano hasn't even sniffed the production of his pre-Cubs' career and is a defensive liability, leading the league in errors for a left fielder in 2011.
Theo must do whatever it takes to rid the Cubs of this colossal mistake.
Trying to sell an outfielder with a 2011 OPS of .789 while being paid $19 million is not easy. The Cubs will again atone for past mistakes, eat a majority of Soriano's salary and send him to the American League where he can survive as a designated hitter.
With a sizable chunk of the Cubs' payroll being chopped, either by buyout or contract completion, the final move for Team Theo is to get the kids some playing time.
Contracts have been bought out, new talent has been brought in and the Cubs' transformation is in full swing. With year zero playing out as expected, the final move Theo Epstein must make for the future is to bring up the young talent and give them some experience.
People questioned bringing up a young shortstop named Starlin Castro. Castro finished the season leading the NL in hits and was selected to the All-Star Game. In order to build for the future, you must bet the farm.
Brett Jackson, DJ LeMahieu, Bryan LaHair and Tyler Colvin need to be on the Opening Day roster. With a full season of experience under their belts, married with the Theo Epstein method of baseball operations, the march for 2013 begins in a positive direction.
2013 will be a year where expectations can be had but only if Theo Epstein makes these seven moves to plan for the future.