- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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WHY IS THIS man smiling? He stands here under the Arizona sun acting as if today is perfect and more than a century of yesterdays never happened. He is one of the highest-paid and most well-respected executives in baseball, and he is looking out upon a brand-new expanse of excess -- a campus, in business-speak -- that typifies spring training's evolution from simple, sun-drenched ballfields to 146 well-irrigated acres with a 65,000-square-foot workout room and a 120-seat theater. He surveys all of it, the players and coaches and crisp white lines, and defiantly defends the smile.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is now 40 years old, an age when most men are easing into their professional prime. A slow tide of gray is rising at his temples. Despite his upright bearing, he carries himself a bit self-consciously, as if the visible aspects of being the boss fit him like a pair of too-narrow shoes. He nearly winces at even the most passing reference to his accomplishments. After close to 20 years in the game and two World Series titles as general manager of the Red Sox, there remains something un-baseball about him. He speaks in fluid essays on everything from literature -- his father, Leslie, is an accomplished novelist -- to sociology to the neuroscience of distinguishing between a ball and a strike. He presides over a group of executives a lot like him, the educated and not-quite-young-anymore who exude an air of well-cropped professionalism and easy knowingness more commonly associated with decision makers in Silicon Valley than a professional baseball team.
The Cubs are starting the third year of Epstein's ballsy, unprecedented, down-to-the-studs rebuilding project. The first two produced a team-record 197 losses, a manager hired and fired, regression from a couple of supposedly budding stars and a stoic apathy from a fan base that long ago resigned itself to eternal disappointment. The team's winter hibernation -- no Joe Girardi, no Masahiro Tanaka -- prompted the Chicago Tribune to ask, "Was this the worst offseason in Cubs history?"
So ... why is this man smiling?
"A lot of local beat writers ask us all these pessimistic questions," Epstein says, with an air of pre-emptive inevitability. "Everyone must assume we're miserable because we haven't done a good job in the big leagues the last two years. The questions always start, 'How depressing is it being here?' or 'How likely are you to leave once your contract's up?' or 'How disappointing is ...'"
Epstein shakes his head and leaves the last question hanging, open to the world's fertile imagination. The prodigy who took over as GM of the Red Sox at the impossibly young age of 28 has acquired a world-weariness that he chases with a tone approaching giddy disbelief.
"There's definitely a dichotomy with how we're perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization," he says. "There's a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable. We all feed off that and enjoy coming to work each day, so those questions stand out as being a bit disconnected."
What's everybody missing? Epstein and his lieutenants believe the doubters are waiting for the fish to jump out of the lake while they alone see the activity beneath the surface. Epstein begins an impromptu tour of the gleaming Mesa complex by heading toward Field 2, which can no longer be used by 21-year-old superprospect Javier Baez, a shortstop with light-tower power and the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck. Roughly 440 feet down the leftfield line sits AZ-202, the Red Mountain Freeway. During batting practice early in spring training, Baez drilled more than one car ascending the on-ramp, costing him his Field 2 privileges.
Baez, in 2011, was the final first-round pick of former general manager Jim Hendry's regime. Despite minimal plate discipline, Baez hit 37 homers with a .920 OPS between High-A and Double-A last season. Since Epstein took over, the Cubs have used first-round picks on centerfielder Albert Almora, a 19-year-old with the composure of an international diplomat, and Kris Bryant, a 6'5" third baseman who last year hit more homers (37) for the University of San Diego than most college teams hit. Almora played on a record six U.S. national teams while in high school and covers the outfield gaps like a rapidly spreading weed. Bryant spent six weeks last summer tearing up A-ball, then did the same in the Arizona Fall League (slugging .727) before drilling a homer in his first at-bat in a big league spring training game. Beyond the draft, the Cubs spent $30 million on powerful Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, of whom GM Jed Hoyer says, "If he'd grown up in this country, he'd be a defensive end."
Scouting/player development VP Jason McLeod dubbed Baez, Bryant, Almora and Soler the Core Four. If even three of them come close to fulfilling their potential, they'll represent a homegrown Cubs trio unseen since the days of Banks, Williams and Santo. Analysts who project prospects for a living rank the Core Four among baseball's top 30, with Baez and Bryant in the top 15.
"I don't really follow that," says Baez, the highest-rated of the group. "I know what number I have only because people put it on Twitter and mention my name."
Baseball is a borrowing culture, and Epstein laughingly concedes that his version of "The Cubs Way" -- a 100-plus-page manifesto given to each player and employee -- includes aspects of the Red Sox's blueprint, which aped the Indians' blueprint before that. Cubs scouts are expected to be the first ones in a prospect's home. Hitters are put through a battery of proprietary video-game-style tests to gauge hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition. Cubs players at every level are required to play these "games" daily. This reliance on "neuro-scouting" is a byproduct of Epstein's contention that analytics are flat because anyone with a credit card and a laptop has access to the same information as big league decision makers. The scouts are expected to determine the answers to an exhaustive list of questions. Who is the family's decision maker? How clean do they keep the house? Who does most of the talking? Is this the type of kid who'll be able to handle living away from his parents and girlfriend?
"The currency of the draft is information," Epstein says. "Scouting information, statistical information, makeup information, medical information. In each of those buckets, we have to drill deeper if we want to have an advantage."
It's a big change from the previous regime, whose old-school methods prompted the overhaul. When one of Epstein's hires told scouts they'd be using Microsoft Excel for scheduling, one asked, "Sorry, but what is Excel?" When McLeod took over player development, just eight of 24 area scouts had email linked to their smartphones. "Hendry is a great guy, but this was the Stone Age," says a player-development source no longer with the team. "A report would be, 'Plus-plus makeup -- I love this kid.' What does that even mean?" Scouts did not take video of players -- a basic and invaluable task with today's technology. The job of one executive under the computer-shy Hendry consisted of scanning the Internet for relevant stories and distributing printouts twice a day. "Theo finally told him to stop," the source says. "They let the guy go, which is sad, but nobody needs stuff that's three hours old when they have MLB Trade Rumors up on their computers and the app on their phone."
Modernization is great, but Cubs fans have one question: Will it work? Not this year. Barring something unforeseen, the eternal mantra of the Cubs fan -- wait 'til next year -- applies for at least one more summer. "We're not naive, but we do feel we're on the right track," Hoyer says. "We knew it would take time."
Decision makers like Epstein and Oakland's Billy Beane have spawned a cult that believes the smart guys will always find a way. The Cubs, however, have faced unforeseen impediments. The most recent collective bargaining agreement, enacted after Epstein signed with the Cubs in October 2011, closed loopholes he had exploited while building the Red Sox. A fixed cap on bonus money means it's more difficult for teams to stockpile draft picks -- gained through the loss of free agents -- and pay above slot the way Epstein did when he routinely redirected $10 million from Boston's big league payroll for bonuses. That tactic allowed him to turn free agents like Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe into Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz.
Epstein shrugs. These are facts, not excuses. "Now you're left only with how well you can scout," he says. "It's gone from strategy and scouting to just scouting."
And while it's hard to fathom the Cubs working under small-market budget constraints -- beer sales alone at Wrigley should be worth a front-line starting pitcher -- the highly leveraged deal the Ricketts family made to acquire the team in 2009, coupled with the failure to gain public funding for the planned Wrigley Field remodel, has limited Epstein's financial flexibility. It's new territory for him. In Boston, he did more with more to win titles in 2004 and '07, then less with more in the chicken-and-beer implosion of 2011. Now he is being tested. Can he do more with less?
At the very least, Epstein seems to have found an inventive way to open a closed loophole. Sure, he turned Matt Garza and his expiring contract into the organization's top pitching prospect, C.J. Edwards -- who has 240 strikeouts in 183 minor league innings -- along with perennial tease Mike Olt -- a 25-year-old slugging third baseman -- but beneath the surface, Epstein is buying and flipping veteran free agents the way investors buy and flip run-down houses with good bones. He squeezed a few good months out of starter Scott Feldman last season and flipped him for potential closer Pedro Strop and rotation contender Jake Arrieta. He did the same a year earlier with Paul Maholm, who was flipped to Atlanta for hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino, who sat out last year after Tommy John surgery but had been rated the Braves' No. 2 prospect.
"There is going to be a time when we are a financial superpower again," Epstein says. "We'll have the entire landscape available to us. In this interim, we have to be focused on scouting and development."
When he took the Cubs job, Epstein predicted that everyone would love him at the beginning but that by year three or four, affection would turn to expectation. People would start to wonder when -- or if -- his magic would be visible above the surface. The third year, this year, would come with the impatient finger-drumming of a fan base eager to see results in Wrigley, not Class-A Kane County.
Was Epstein's prescience a nod to the decrepit state of the organization or a simple hedge? Says a former Cubs executive: "When I first walked in there I made a joke -- kind of -- by saying, '2017 is our year.' That's a sh -- y thing to say when you're hired in 2012, but with the state of that landscape, it was easy to be realistic."
Epstein is adamant that none of the top prospects will be rushed. Baez, the most big-league-ready, will likely start in Triple-A Iowa. The rest of the Core Four will probably start in Single-A or Double-A. "One of the challenges with the drought or the streak is the idea that next year's the year," Hoyer says. "You want to reach the point where next year can always be the year. Trying to cobble something together every year to make a run has had a negative impact here."
Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod shed the weight of history together in Boston. They know to treat the past as a bully: Give it too much credit and it will win; stare it down, face-to-face, and it'll back down. Even so, they'd prefer their Boston success not be held against them. Hendry built teams with an eye on catching lightning in a bottle, but Epstein says, "We're trying to get into a position to get lucky every year. In Boston, Dustin Pedroia could hit .180 and bat ninth because he was in a lineup of All-Stars. It's different here. These guys are going to come up in a pennant race, in Wrigley Field, in front of 42,000 people every day. They have to be ready."
The emphasis on player development in general and the Core Four in particular can feel like a diversion, an attempt to get the fans to focus on the sunrise in the distance and ignore the rubble at their feet.
There have been missteps. Epstein's hiring of manager Dale Sveum, a former Red Sox coach with a reputation for developing young hitters, was seen as a nod toward patience and player development. But under Sveum, the Cubs' two top young hitters, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro, went backward from 2012 to 2013. Sveum was fired two years into his three-year contract. "That was a failure on my part," Epstein says. "Dale established a toughness, accountability and assertiveness that was lacking here. He was in a really tough spot, and I will say that's more my failure than Dale's failure."
Epstein stops nearly midsentence, a tactical silence. "Don't look past how difficult losing two straight years to the extent we did can be on a manager. Maybe we've reached a different phase where we need more of a positive, teaching aspect to our development."
Sveum, who declined to be interviewed, told reporters at the beginning of spring that he was blindsided by the firing. Several Cubs sources indicated that Sveum, now the Royals third base coach, was subject to periodic performance reviews and should not have been surprised.
Under Sveum last season, the lack of a full-time Spanish-speaking coach raised questions about the organization's commitment to its Latin players, especially Castro. (Sources say the front office deferred to Sveum, who felt confident he could communicate with all players.) After a rumored flirtation with Girardi, the Cubs hired the relentlessly positive and bilingual Rick Renteria, a fast-walking, ever-smiling human handshake.
"Watching Ricky going back and forth between Spanish and English, you can't help but see what that means to our Latin players," Epstein says. "He's not the manager because he can speak Spanish, though. He's the manager because he can connect to players."
Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod are the world's mellowest anchormen, talking through the upheaval in smiling, soothing tones. Fittingly, it turns out the smile has a motto: When It Happens.
Devoid of context, the precept is pedestrian, just another halfhearted nod to the milquetoast world of easy slogans and paperweight motivation. But placed within the context of the Cubs -- the Cubs of today and of the past 105 title-free years -- When It Happens assumes unexpected heft. The W in When is the Wrigley Field W flag, significant because the flag, first used in the late 1930s, has never flown after the final game of a World Series.
All Cubs minor leaguers are conversant in When It Happens, a concept that rounds up everything Epstein and his guys preach: patience, belief and a nearly scientific inevitability. There's a certain boldness at work here too -- When leaves no room for failure. At the Cubs' first-ever rookie development program in January, McLeod stood in front of the team's top 15 prospects and said, "You have the opportunity to do something that hasn't been done in 105 years. It's the greatest challenge in American sports." After which Epstein closed the deal by saying, "We think you are the reason we're going to get this done."
As a motto and a source of inspiration, it feels similar to the way Jim Valvano devoted one practice a year to cutting down the nets in anticipation of a national championship at North Carolina State.
"When It Happens is the perfect minor league motto for us," Hoyer says. "Are you going to be ready to take that at-bat in the ninth inning? Are you going to be prepared to pitch the eighth inning of Game 7? We're trying to get those guys in that mindset."
They're banking on one letter being more powerful than all those numbers, and on a bunch of kids growing up to connect the disconnected. "How special is that going to be when we win the World Series?" says Baez. "I want to be there when it happens." In the end, Epstein and the Cubs will discover the answer to the only question that matters: How many will be smiling along with them?