- Bruce Levine, Chicago baseball beat reporter
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Now that Theo Epstein has been announced as president of baseball operations (and with Jed Hoyer expected to join him as GM), here's a list of five must-dos for the new Chicago Cubs brass coming out of the chute:
1. Solidify front office: Epstein has been working on his group of underbosses for the past 10 days. With the help of chairman Tom Ricketts, he is in position to bring in Hoyer as his general manager. The Cubs might have to fancy up Hoyer's job title, which is Executive Vice President and General Manager with the Padres, for the job description. Padres assistant GM Jason McLeod will follow Hoyer to Chicago. Epstein is reportedly trying to bring Red Sox vice president of baseball operations Brian O'Halloran with him to Chicago. Epstein must make decisions on the current group of front office people he inherits. Interim GM Randy Bush and scouting director Tim Wilken each have one year remaining on their contracts. Vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita was given a four-year extension at the end of the 2011 season. Others on the staff such as director of baseball operations Scott Nelson and manager of baseball information Chuck Wasserstrum have been with the Cubs for over 25 years. Paul Weaver directs international scouting for the team. This is a solid group that Epstein will have to decide how to use. But his main guys are firmly in place.
2. Decide on manager/coaches: Mike Quade has a year remaining on his deal for $1 million. Theo and Co. if must decide if looking past Quade is the way to go. Rumors have had Terry Francona and Ryne Sandberg in the mix as possible replacements. Sandberg's name got out there because Epstein tried to hire him as his Triple-A manager before the 2011 season. A quick decision on Quade and his coaches would be the logical and fair thing to do for the group. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, bench coach Pat Listach and bullpen coach Lester Strode have one year remaining on their deals. Jaramillo, making $875,000, is the second-highest paid coach in baseball (Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan makes more than $1 million). Pitching coach Mark Riggins, first base coach Bob Dernier and third base coach Ivan DeJesus are unsigned for 2012.
3. Trade off the vets: Epstein and Co. must put their efforts toward trading troubled pitcher Carlos Zambrano and outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Zambrano should be easier to move than most think. He walked out on the team Aug. 12 and did not return in 2011. Although teams will be concerned with his fiery temperament and loss of focus, the 31-year-old Zambrano pitched without injury in 2011. Teams are always looking for starting pitching depth, and Zambrano at a discounted price from the $18 million the Cubs owe him will be attractive to teams after the winter meetings. Many sources say the Miami Marlins will come calling for Zambrano. Soriano closed out the season with 26 homers and 88 RBIs. The best spot Epstein can find for the 36-year-old Soriano will be with an American League team as a designated hitter. The Cubs will have to pay a large chunk of the $54 million still owed to Soriano over the next three seasons.
4. Address the starting pitching problem: Ace Matt Garza is under contract control for two more years. Epstein and Hoyer must talk to Ryan Dempster and his agent Craig Landis immediately to find out if Dempster is interested in picking up his $14 million player option. Although Dempster's record wasn't very pretty (10-14, 4.80), he can be an asset to Epstein. Dempster threw 200 innings-plus for the fourth straight season. Although he was 0-6 with three no-decisions in his last nine starts, seven of them were quality starts. The rest is up for grabs. Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Jeff Samardzija and Casey Coleman are some of the same choices the Cubs had in 2011. The Cubs will have to work hard on signing free agents and making trades. Top free agent C.J. Wilson will be asking for more than $100 million when he hits the market. Trades are going to be the only way they improve their starting pitching.
5. Improve the worst defense in baseball: The Cubs made 134 errors in 2011, by far the most in baseball. Although the Cubs had good infielders, their defense must be improved. First baseman Carlos Pena saved 50 bad throws which he converted to outs, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That number led all of baseball in outs saved. Shortstop Starlin Castro has improved defensively, but his 29 errors led all shortstops. Fourteen errors by third baseman Aramis Ramirez and 12 by catcher Geovany Soto were also NL-highs in errors at those positions. Outfield defense was not much better. Centerfielder Marlon Byrd's hustle made up for a lot of plays he wouldn't normally make. Soriano's play in left field is well-documented. The Cubs were not much better in right field after Kosuke Fukudome was traded to the Cleveland Indians.
Theo and Co., roll up your sleeves and make the same magic happen as in Boston. If you can pull it off, Mayor Emanuel will be naming the streets after you.