Chicago greeted Theo Epstein with great fanfare, hailing him as the savior of a championship starved North Side. Only 28 when he was hired as Red Sox GM in 2003, after Billy Beane, one of the first executives to rely on sabermetrics almost exclusively, turned down John Henry’s largesse, Epstein broke the Curse of the Bambino in two years.
The Curse of the Goat will be chewing more Wrigley grass longer than that.
For one thing, Epstein happened a club with its core intact. Manny Ramirez was an RBI machine; Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball at the time; Nomar Garciaparra was at least a top three shortstop, behind Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada. All he needed to do was smartly add to Boston’s deficiencies — another high strikeout power pitcher (Curt Schilling), a good bat at designated hitter, more than eclipsed by David Ortiz; a solid third base defender, a need he filled at a very low cost (Bill Mueller, whose batting title more than paid for his contract; and a shutdown closer, finding it through free agency when he signed Keith Foulke, then the owner of the nastiest change up in baseball, without apologies to Trevor Hoffman.
Epstein excels at finding value in junk, and a combination of luck and smarts landed him all star caliber regulars to combine with an already solid core of holdovers.
He had no such luxury when he took the Cubs gig. Jed Hoyer, pirated from that minor league team in San Diego, had a more promising outlook, even with a penniless enterprise.
The previous Cubs regime spent too much money on unsustainable veterans, overpaying Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano, while neglecting a rotting minor league system that has failed to produce an all star apart from Zambrano since Dusty Baker destroyed Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s arms.
Restocking farm systems is easy when you’ve got enough veteran pieces or cheap, club-controlled major leaguers coveted by teams gunning for contention.
But Soriano has been on a three-year decline, and entering his age 36 season will still be paid an outrageous $18 million for THREE MORE YEARS. He can’t play defense, even if he tried this time, His body is breaking down. Three bucks says that Dominican birth certificate had taken a three-year leap back in time. He’s not getting any better, his bat speed is dead on arrival, and an analysis on his swings suggest he’s been cheating on fastballs. Sure, he’s got power whenever he connects, making him a good veteran source for extra base hits, whenever it happens. But the way he’s getting paid, until he’s 38, suggests he’s an investment in diminishing returns. Or Dominican Returns, implying the quick drop-offs from peak to decline in Dominican developed ball players. Chicago has shown a willingness to eat money, already paying $15 million, $17 million combined to go with Chris Volstad’s contract, to make Carlos Zambrano go away.
It doesn’t matter. Even sunny day Cubs fans recognize that Soriano, like Zambrano, needs to go. It’s not because he’s a crappy clubhouse presence. Far from it. But he’s a rusted luxury item the Cubs don’t need in as it rebuilds. The team could flip him to a DH-hungry AL club, assume a large portion of his remaining contract, and maybe even get a major league piece in return.
However marginal, any left fielder the Cubs could land in a deal involving Soriano — I’d be very shocked if Epstein wrangles even a middling starting prospect for him — is better, even just as a psychological relief. The Los Angels of Anaheim reportedly showed interest in Soriano before pouncing on Albert Pujols. At the moment, the Baltimore Orioles look to be a logical fit. It could happen too, given Dan Duquette’s affinity for veteran power.
Consider the Cubs lucky if Epstein and Hoyer are able to get rid of Soriano at all, given the low demand for declining sluggers sitting on long term deals. The Houston Astros have never been able to rid itself of Carlos Lee, a useful power hitter but a black hole for errors in the field. Generally, teams don’t want to incur more than a one-year commitment with aging sluggers with limited to no defensive skills.
In the meantime, Epstein and Hoyer have been stockpiling on young, cheap starter types, acquiring Travis Wood in a win-win trade with the Reds for lefty reliever Sean Marshall, Chris Volstad from the Miami Marlins for Zambrano, while agreeing to terms with groundballing lefty Paul Maholm.
Matt Garza may or may not be on the block, but he’s a better long-term gamble than John Danks, who received a $65 million, five-year extension to stay with the Chicago Cubs. He blossomed into an ace halfway through the season in Chicago, and he’s indicated every desire to stay. In any case, Epstein doesn’t have to trade Garza, and should only do so for a package of high yield prospects. The Tigers have dangled top pitching prospect Jacob Turner, and the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees have the right pieces to land Garza as well.
Reacquiring Anthony Rizzo, traded between three GMs who stem from the same Epstein/Lucchino tree in one year, gives Chicago a slugger to hope for. Word is Rizzo could blossom into a Joey Votto-type on base machine, and Hoyer admitted he rushed Rizzo into the majors. Wrigley Field would be kinder to Rizzo’s bat, so don’t expect him to cede too much time to 29-year-old rookie Bryan LaHair, a career minor leaguer expected to hold down the fort until Rizzo gets called up in late May. The Cubs have nothing to lose here, and it doesn’t make sense to commit to another $10 million or more deal to bring back Carlos Pena. LaHair could even become a good regular player, a 2.0 to 3.0 bWAR first baseman, although it’s hard to imagine him stealing it away from Rizzo.
Trading live arm Andrew Cashner, a former first round pick, to get Rizzo was a break from the Epstein/Hoyer pattern of hoarding cheap pitchers. In the past, Epstein would jump on former first round picks who haven’t quite worked out. Giving up on Cashner means the oft-injured power pitcher doesn’t mean he’d instantly flop. The Cubs had to give something to get something, and it speaks to how high Epstein values Rizzo.
Shit always happens in the North Side, but for now, everything’s coming up roses. Just expect the goat to chew on it by mid-summer of this year, when the Cubs are out of contention. And that’s fine. The Cubs need high draft picks, an avenue where Epstein and his team excel in the most.