Chicago Cubs: Top Tricks Up Theo Epstein's Sleeve
Theo Epstein signed a five-year deal but the Cubs want everyone to think they're building for later.
It's a ploy. The Cubs will compete in 2012.
You think Epstein will spend two or three years fielding a loser, when his contract only goes through 2016?
You think Cubs fans are happy rooting for a team that can't contend?
You think fans want to pay top dollar for a team that can't beat Pittsburgh?
Theo is smarter than that.
Who said rebuilding means a team can't compete?
In a big-market town, with big-market resources, you don't just rebuild.
You rebuild and compete.
And Theo knows if the Cubs aren't competitive inside two years, he should have never spent $3.25 million on property in Lakeview.
Because when Jim Hendry's teams didn't contend, he was on the hot seat. And Epstein gets no break because he's the new guy.
Theo's the new guy because the old guy didn’t win enough games. Welcome to the majors, Mr. Epstein.
Here's the thing, the NL Central isn't stacked with great teams. Albert Pujols already left St. Louis and Prince Fielder isn't going to stay in Milwaukee.
The race is so wide open, the Reds believe they've got a chance.
So if you think the Cubs hired Epstein to lose for two or three years, or that he'd be OK with that plan, think again.
Fortunately, the biggest trick up Theo's sleeve is convincing everyone the Cubs are out of contention, lowering expectations and putting a winner on the field anyway.
What Kind of Tricks?
Unpredictability. Misdirection. Deception. Sleight of hand.
They’re good poker tools but also part of building a baseball team.
Whether it’s swindling another team out of players via trade, manipulating the media, making problems disappear or conjuring an offense out of thin air, Theo needs to use any tricks he can.
Because he wasn’t dealt aces under the table.
One major difference between poker and baseball: all the cards are face up, everyone can see what everyone else has.
Every Cub is scouted, videoed and reviewed by National League opponents. Even American League teams investigate players prior to interleague games or for potential trades.
And while clubs differ on how they scout minor-leaguers, amateurs and international players, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
In the age of YouTube, expect eyes and cameras everywhere, as each team gathers information.
That said, there might be a few gems on Chicago’s roster the previous administration didn’t value the way Epstein does. Likewise, there may be highly-touted players he doesn’t value as much.
But it’s to his benefit to keep plans close to the vest, so nobody knows what he really thinks.
Because Theo said himself, “being unpredictable is a competitive advantage.”
That's a poker player telling you he's going to bluff: it's the last statement you can believe.
The Ultimate Bluffs: "We're Rebuilding and Have No Money"
The Cubs should buy a pink neon sign blinking, "Nothing to see here."
That's what they want everyone to think, especially regarding the 2012 roster.
Information about legitimate team operations are such tightly-kept secrets that unlocking them requires two keys turned at the same instant by persons who must remain in separate time zones.
That means every move Team Epstein makes is masked by the biggest canard of all: that they're not trying to compete in 2012.
It's not exactly a lie. It's a half-truth. No one knows how the season will turn out.
But ideas that the Cubs won't spend money (at any cost!), or they're not pursuing free agents, and are trading every decent player for a chance to win two or three years from now?
It's to the team's advantage for others to think that.
It makes it easier to do business out of the spotlight, lowers expectations of fans (and the Ricketts), hides negotiations with free agents behind the vague notion of "rebuilding" and spares Team Epstein from the inevitable pressure to win immediately.
In fact, if the Cubs could issue a press release of what they want the fans, media, agents and 29 other teams to believe, it might read...
From the Desk of Theo Epstein:
We're not doing anything special, just blowing up the whole roster.
Really, don't consider us players in free agency. We hate the thought of spending any money. We're doing this right: we're rebuilding.
We would never bid on international players or offer legitimate contracts to free agents.
In fact, when we bid on Mark Buerhle, Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish, we weren't serious. Those were lowball offers just so we could say we did it, trying to show Cubs fans we're paying attention, that's all.
(We hope fans aren't paying too much attention, of course, because they'd learn we were just doing it for show.)
But this business about Prince Fielder? Confession time: we're on record saying we like guys in his age range, that's true.
Too bad we're rebuilding.
Yes, I've only got a five-year deal. So you're right, a Fielder contract would mean he's likely to be here as long as me.
Rats. Not sure how that could work, cause those are only his prime years. Tough call. Would hate to get saddled with his career-best production.
Not going to waste time thinking about winning now: just prepping for my last two years of the deal, 2015 and 2016. Those will be great—just you wait and see!
Because we have no money to spend. And we think free agents are usually bad value. So we're just rebuilding.
And everyone knows you can't rebuild and compete at the same time. Ha, ha, ha, that's crazy talk!
No one does that.
Not the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers or Phillies. Those big-market teams don't invest in free agents. No, they blow it all up and wait two or three years before contending again. That's what we're doing here, rebuilding.
See, the thing is, no good can possibly come from free agency. You can't sign a free agent at market value who will help you win games. It's just too expensive and you'll get stuck with a bad contract so we're never ever paying for a free agent again (except cheapies like David DeJesus, Manny Corpas or Andy Sonnenstine).
And even though we have "revenue flexibility" equivalent to the major league payrolls of Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, San Diego or Kansas City, we don't see how handing out any of our extra cash would do good.
We'd prefer to keep all of it for, you know, rebuilding.
There is nothing to see here.
There is certainly no pile of cash waiting to be spent on a players in 2012.
Let's be real, Cubs fans will show up to the tune of three million visitors next year and pay an average of 43 bucks a seat whether we win or not. (Estimated ticket sales alone: $129 million dollars.)
So that's free money. Just fish in a barrel, gotta take that. Would be a fool not to, right?
Let fans get sunburned watching another 71-game winner.
Truth is, Old Man Ricketts told me I could keep anything we didn't spend below last year’s budget ($140 million)! So, I'm gonna make a quick buck and take the wife out for Starbucks, you know?
And hey, if there are ever changes to the CBA regarding draft pick compensation, we'll be in great shape, let me tell you.
It will all be fine. Because we're rebuilding. And we think a few years of losing might be good for us.
I'm sure you understand.
P.S. Please feel free to stop by and peruse our selection of fine goods and (slightly) used merchandise. On sale cheap! Everything must go!
"We'll Listen to Anything"
Part of rebuilding a team is selling others on the idea that you're willing to give up value now for value later.
But rebuilding isn't unbuilding a team simply to lose games.
It's remaking it.
And who says the 2011 Cubs can't be remade more competitively with younger, cheaper parts? Or by using old tires that still have some tread?
By all accounts, after a 71-win season and with plenty of question marks on last year's squad, it's hard to see how they could do worse.
But it's to the Cubs' advantage for the 29 other teams to believe all the parts are for sale, that Team Epstein is waving the white flag and giving it up.
Because then suitors are inclined to think two things:
1. Epstein doesn't know or doesn't like the guys on his roster and is willing to erase and start over. Hence, a bargain could be had, so it's worth checking out.
2. Everybody knows these players are available, so multiple teams might inquire. There are other shoppers at the store.
Both act to increase the number of proposals and raise the bids on players. And it costs nothing for Team Epstein to listen.
Truth is, Theo probably doesn't know how other teams value the Cubs. By soliciting offers, he gets a better perspective of how the league views his new guys, at worst that information is useful.
And who knows? Maybe someone comes hard after a guy like Sean Marshall, offering a starting pitcher plus two prospects.
Because as Epstein said at the time of that trade, "This move, you could certainly argue, taking Marshall out of our (bullpen) for 2012 hurts us. But our rotation and our farm system just got stronger. If Wood pitches like that half season in 2010, you could argue we got better for 2012."
As always, Theo speaks carefully.
And he made it easy to keep believing the "total rebuild" stuff.
That's important, because there are more potential deals to make.
Start the bidding at "more than it cost for Marshall."
The Cubs will listen.
Misdirection on Free Agents
Epstein planted the seed in early December when he said, "No. 1 is to build this thing the right way." That's for the long haul, mainly through scouting and player development through the acquisition of young players.
Thanks to statements like that and the recent news of a "complete and total rebuild," fans seem to think the Cubs aren't signing big name free agents.
People seem to forget Epstein also said, "The second thing is to take advantage of every opportunity that you have. That's short-term for us. That means building the 2012 club, hopefully the smart way, maximize our chances of winning."
Theo continued, "If there is a move that makes us that much better in the short term, but it's at the expense of doing things the right way, through a corps of young players, we're not going to make that move. Any rumor you hear or any potential player move, it's probably worth your while to assess it through that lens."
OK, that makes sense.
But to add a twist for those paying attention, Epstein adds, "I'm not going to say we aren't going to make a move that's unanticipated, or catch people by surprise, or not perfectly fit into that little box that's generally our philosophy. That's how we are evaluating moves as we look to build this thing."
So what's up?
Yes, those statements rule out bad contracts—big money spent over 10 years that hurts the team’s long-term future.
We get it.
But read carefully. Epstein didn't rule out free agents. In fact, he left the door open to smart moves, with an emphasis on youth, while taking advantage of every opportunity.
And yet fans buy into the notion the Cubs have already surrendered 2012 in the name of “rebuilding.”
Because a rebuilding team would never pay for free agents, right? Because signing free agents is generally considered a bad investment, right? That’s how the Cubs got into trouble in the first place, right?
The Cubs can outspend their NL Central foes by a margin of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They’re just going to sit on their hands and keep the money?
Would be nice if another baseball team believed that.
Because even though the Cubs have money to spend, they don’t want to get into bidding wars and overpay. That’s when free agency goes bad, and it's what Theo (and 29 other teams) want to avoid.
That doesn’t mean the Cubs aren't interested.
Don’t forget, players get big contracts because they've shown an ability to play at high levels. Not because they’re ready to decline.
And what about Chicago's bids on Buerhle, Pujols and Darvish—that’s all just smokescreen? For what, trying to hide the fact they’re rebuilding?
Sorry, the piles of leftover cash keep winking.
Depending on whose numbers you trust, the Cubs are already committed to about $90 million in contracts.
But assuming they spend what they did last year, around $140 million, there’s still $50 million left.
And Cubs fans aren’t going to watch the current team play baseball while Old Man Ricketts counts that kind of profit.
So if you want to believe the Cubs will sit on millions of dollars, were fake-bidding on Buerhle, Pujols or Darvish, and are currently bidding on Prince Fielder without any desire to sign him, go right ahead.
Theo Epstein may call to thank you personally, shortly before offering a deal on a used car, with low mileage, that runs good.
Because the harder trick is keeping prices down on players the Cubs want to sign.
It's easier to do that when no one thinks the Cubs are involved.
The Disappearing Act
Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano have little to offer the new Cubs.
Sadly, they have little to offer to another team, too.
Big Z likes to tell everyone he’s as safe as a sparkler on the 4th of July.
But then the Atlanta Braves light him up and he turns into Mt. Vesuvius. And the only thing certain is that Zambrano will explode before or after the All-Star break. Probably both.
Free-swinging Soriano is another problem. Primarily, he’s not good in left field, strikes out too much and is rarely introduced to Ball Four.
He also costs $54 million for the next three years, during which time he impedes the Cubs' ability to get on base, play good defense or win games.
The Cubs appear willing to pay large portions of either contract in any deal, and still can't find much interest.
The smart money says if you have to pay them anyway, give them a chance to play well so you can increase their value in a trade.
But what do you do when Reed Johnson has to play left field because Dale Sveum can't stop retching while Soriano is in the game?
And what do you do when Zambrano throws one of his tantrums?
At least in the offseason, while he's out of the country, he can't embarrass himself on a major league mound. From that perspective, it may be time to trade him before his value plummets again.
Zambrano would benefit from a move to the AL only in that fewer GMs are familiar with his brand of stupid. Plus, there's an extra hitter in the lineup to plunk.
More likely (hopefully), the Marlins decide Ozzie Guillen can handle Carlos (despite all evidence to the contrary) and take a gamble on him (if the Cubs pay for it).
No matter what, it will be quite a trick for Theo to make either of these guys disappear.
The Reappearing Act
Given the number of castoffs, letdowns, also-rans, re-treads, and has-beens in Chicago, the Cubs have to be statistical favorites to take home the Comeback Player of the Year award.
Who disappeared last season and could magically reappear at Wrigley this summer?
Here are a few candidates so bad they almost have to improve:
Ian Stewart—Hit just .156/.243/.221 in 122 AB with the Rockies but posted a .275/.359/.591 in 179 AB at AAA. Has hit at all levels in the minors and had a couple of successful years in Colorado, hitting 25 HR in 2009.
David DeJesus—Last year batted a career worst 44 points below his lifetime .284 average, and 33 points below his career OBP of .356. If he's healthy enough to play 140 games each of the next two seasons, he could make $10 million look like a bargain.
Manny Corpas—Cubs will discover whether 2007 was a fluke season or evidence of Corpas' full potential, when he had 78 IP, 63 H, 58 K and a WHIP of 1.064. He hasn't pitched since 2010, recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Andy Sonnenstine—Went 2-1 in the playoffs of 2008 and won 13 games for the Rays that season but has never had an ERA below 4.38 in any year. Moreover, he spent part of 2011 in the minors and was hardly better. Even in this group of players he's the dark horse to be CPOTY.
Ryan Dempster—He's the only one of the group on the roster prior to Epstein's arrival but is a candidate to reappear better than before. 2011 was his worst year in Chicago, going 10-14 with a 4.80 ERA for the hapless Cubs. Considering how poorly he began the season, allowing at least four runs in each of his first six starts, an ERA under five means he finished strong. Rough sailing when that's the good news.
Next year should be better for each of these guys.
But even if just two or three play closer to their career projections, the Cubs should improve: the biggest reappearing act of all.
What Happens Next?
Bluffing about short-term plans in the name of the long-term vision.
Broadcasting that the Cubs are rebuilding, implying they're not targeting free agents, then bidding on the biggest names on the block behind closed doors.
Managing to swing deals that improve the team in both the short- and long-term.
Making big contracts and problem players disappear to create space for new growth.
Finding players likely to rebound from bad years, despite recent injury or poor performance.
All are tricks to outmaneuver his new rivals.
And despite implying the Cubs are giving up on 2012, Theo could field a team that's cheaper, younger, more talented and still competes to win more than 71 games.
Chicago isn't as good as Epstein's teams in Boston (not even close).
But they aren't facing the Yanks, Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles, either.
And against those opponents, across nine seasons, Epstein's teams won at least 86 games every year.
Hard to believe the NL Central scares him.
The next trick?
Fill Wrigley. Convince Cubs fans the days of waiting 'til next year are over.