Chicago Cubs: 10 Ways Team Is Already Different with Theo Epstein in Charge
The Epstein Era has begun.
One thing is clear: It's a new team, headed a new direction, following new leaders.
We've already seen minor moves as management, players and coaches trickle into Wrigley Field. But on the cusp of baseball's winter meetings, Chicago Cubs fans ought to brace for bigger, bolder changes ahead.
Here's a look at how far the franchise and its fans have come already.
1. Faith in Leadership
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
To learn how it's changed in Chicago, understand the new commandment for Cubs fans, "Thou Shalt Love Team Epstein."
That team includes Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum—the holy triumvirate of the Chicago Cubs.
In Boston, fans trusted in “Theo-logy,” and Red Sox Nation was fundamentally faithful.
Chicago fans don’t have a better name for that leadership, but they do have faith in a future with Team Epstein, despite last year’s fifth-place finish. Because whatever Epstein decrees is gospel for Cubs fans.
Team Epstein didn't want Ryno? Kudos for letting him (and us) down gently and calling to explain. Sandberg already likes Epstein more than Larry Himes—he didn’t retire after their conversation. Nice work, Theo.
Neither of the Madduxes, Mike or Greg, will be working for the Cubs? It’s OK, we understand, Mike likes his family (a lot) and Greg wants to hang out with his brother on a World Series contender. Makes sense. It’s not like they're signing with the Atlanta Braves to win championships for the next 10 years, so it’s different somehow. Right, Theo?
Fact is, Team Epstein has already said goodbye to two Cubs legends, and fans are not hoisting “L” flags and taking “Go Cubs Go” off repeat. If anything, they're anticipating a future full of stars to be named.
That’s religious fanaticism.
2. Running a Big-Market Team Like a Small-Market Smartypants
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
John Henry’s deep pockets originally wanted small-market genius Billy Beane and his sabermetrics to bring a World Series to Boston. Beane changed his mind and Henry turned to Theo Epstein, who helped the Sox sign sabermetrics guru Bill James and built everything Henry could have dreamed.
Epstein’s new stomping grounds at the Friendly Confines afford him another big-market payroll. But he made his share of big market mistakes in Boston (Crawford, Lackey and J.D. Drew limp to mind) and learned from them.
"Free agency should never be the primary area you rely upon to build your club," Epstein said. "I think if you set out to build a foundation based on free agency, you've got a tough road ahead of you. We're going to build this around young players."
3. “The Cubs Way”
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
“There’s not one way to play this game,” Epstein said. “‘The Cubs Way’ will be a dynamic, living, breathing entity that changes every year.”
Wait. There’s a “Cubs Way?”
Doesn't Theo mean a “Cubbie occurrence?” Fans know all about those (Steve Bartman, for example). They, too, are best described as dynamic, living, breathing entities—like fire—that set the team ablaze in new ways each year. Often before June.
But that can't be what he meant. Because when Epstein mentioned the “Cubs Way” it seemed less like a catastrophic, season-erasing meltdown. He sounded positive.
If so, that’s (entirely) different.
And while fans don't know what the "Cubs Way" is, they suspect it might have something to do with winning. That'd be a good idea. Winning, on the whole, is preferable to losing.
It’s official: fans want to do things the “Cubs Way.”
4. Acting Unpredictably
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Epstein said he likes to stay “unpredictable (because) being unpredictable is a competitive advantage.”
Yes, Hoyer and Epstein have done nothing but send signals that they want to build through the draft and create another "player development machine.”
I guess that means we can't believe them; if they did what they said, it would be "predictable." These guys don't want to lose major league games.
Besides, Matt Garza trade rumors appear every other day. And would anyone be shocked if the Cubs signed Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols?
Feel free to speculate. Jim Hendry wasn't a pile of answers, but Cubs fans know for certain Team Epstein will not provide specific, useful information.
"As for the actual plan, we'll keep that to ourselves," Hoyer said.
Didn’t see that coming.
Oh, I get it—that is the plan.
5. The Draft Matters
Win McNamee/Getty Images
You can't blame the Chicago faithful for ignoring young players, because the trend has been to talk up prospects right before shipping them to other teams for major-league talent.
But Cubs fans are starting to believe it: unheard of players can turn into big league stars.
With a top payroll in the NL for much of the last decade and the success of 2003, fans expect to be competitive each year. Waiting for minor leaguers to improve is not something Cubs fans do well.
And yet, hearing that Team Epstein thinks the new draft rules hurt the Cubs' chances to exploit teenagers via fat bonuses leaves fans disappointed.
Because we just learned that the draft matters. Or it does now, anyway.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Bye-bye to old manager, Mike Quade. Hello, Dale Svuem.
See ya later, Mark Riggins. Welcome new pitching coach, Chris Bosio (pictured).
Move over Pat Listach, Jamie Quirk is leaving the Colorado Rockies to be the Cubs' new bench coach.
Ultimately, Team Epstein left it up to Sveum to name his own guys. Not all coaches from the previous staff will disappear—Rudy Jaramillo is expected to be retained—but more changes may be coming.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Already been a change in right field, where new Cub David DeJesus (pictured) will start and Tyler Colvin won’t.
Aramis Ramirez? Gone. He'll be replaced by a player to be named at third base, with the Rockies' Ian Stewart and Padres' Chase Headley the most frequent names in rumors. Landing either player would require a trade.
And Carlos Pena isn't likely to man first base, as he's found a market offering more years than the Cubs would like to give him.
Not to mention the Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols rumors swirling around the winter meetings.
Hey wait, weren't the Cubs going to build through the draft, avoid signing free agents and play like a small-market team? Consider this part of being unpredictable, apparently.
One thing is certain: The Cubs stunk last year (71-91) and need a roster remake.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It seems counter-intuitive, given the change surrounding the Cubs.
But the members of Team Epstein are committed to one another for the next three to five years, and the emphasis on scouting and player development means all decisions are implemented as part of a long-term vision.
The foundation of any long-term plan is stability in the system, and for Chicago it means ensuring reliable information on players from high school, college and international scouts all the way up to Epstein himself.
Any future success will be traced to the framework the Cubs are building throughout the organization.
Despite the overhaul, these are changes made for the sake of long-term stability.
9. Playing Style
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
To be fair, the Cubs haven’t played an inning since Team Epstein took over.
But it would be inconsistent with Epstein's philosophy of commanding the strike zone, getting on base and playing great defense to think that Chicago can play the same style they have the past several years.
Already, fans are sold on the idea that Cubs hitters won't lead the league in strikeouts and errors. And, we believe, they’re going to take walks, too!
All this despite Alfonso Soriano's name still appearing on the roster (for now).
It's even easy to imagine Cubs pitchers will stop walking batters at the least opportune moment, which is willfully ignorant of recent history.
Beyond that, diehards secretly hope that if Carlos Marmol stays in Chicago his contract is reworked to include disincentives for bases on balls.
Because Team Epstein is taking an active role to acquire players with their preferred tools and skill sets.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
I'll admit, it's hard to think of the number 10 without thinking of Ron Santo.
In some ways, he represents the old Cubs, as lovable losers who weren't going to win but were fun to watch and listen to. It's unfortunate Santo became associated with that notion of the Cubs because he was anything but a lovable loser.
Truth is, no one expected to win more than Ronnie, even after his playing days were over. He thought the Cubs had a chance to win every game, every day.
And it sounds cliché, but that kind of hope is critical. It translates to wins no statistical analysis or sabermetrics guru can find. Without it, batters lose intensity in their at-bats. Pitchers expect ground balls to find holes. And fielders give up on close plays that could mean the difference in a game.
A baseball team with hope believes in each other, in the vision of the organization and their plan on game day.
Like Santo did. His eternal optimism made him a great player, teammate and person.
Maybe it's the winter meetings, maybe it's the "wait 'til next year" attitude creeping in like it does every offseason, and maybe it's Santo's optimistic grin finally busting into the hall of fame, but Cubs fans are different. Full of hope.
Get out the "W" flag and leave it on top of the pole.
Cubs are gonna win today. And tomorrow.