Commentary

Theo's patient plan will go only so far

A major-market team can't wait years on its young talent to restore it to relevance

Updated: June 15, 2012, 11:46 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- On a sunny day when his former last-place team met up with his current last-place team, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was resplendent in his equanimity.

At his new home, foundations for sustained success are being built, losses are being tolerated, hitting coaches are being fired and high-priced veterans are being dangled. Aside from Boston being in town, Friday was just another day for the new Mr. Cub.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTheo Epstein got to see some familiar faces on Friday with the Red Sox in town, including David Ortiz.

Dressed casually in a polo shirt for a blistering hot game at Wrigley Field, the Tony Campana-slender Epstein met with a ravenous pack of Chicago reporters and strolled across the infield to engage with his old Red Sox players.

Maybe, while the rest of us were dawdling around the field, he got Boston to take Alfonso Soriano's contract as the rest of the compensation for his move to Chicago. More likely, Epstein will just be glad this last trip down memory lane will be over soon so he can get back to the important work of trading Ryan Dempster -- who threw seven scoreless innings, extending his scoreless streak to 22, and added a triple and a single, which doesn't hurt his value -- fellow starter Matt Garza and whomever else he can unload for value on playoff contenders.

"It's one of those things where you can't wait for it to come and you can't wait for it to be over either," Epstein said of the Red Sox series, not the 2012 season. "Hopefully three good games, we can get a couple of wins and move on. It will be great to see everybody. We don't get to play these guys very often so we have to relish it."

Well, the Cubs proved him prescient as they beat Boston 3-0 for just their fourth win this month. It was one to savor for the guys in uniform and the few thousand fans who still care. Carlos Marmol got a save opportunity but loaded the bases with two outs. He got out of the jam unscathed, pumping his fist with joy. He's available too, folks.

Chicago also went 3-0 against general manager Jed Hoyer's former last-place team, the San Diego Padres, so there is precedence to the rare pro-Cubs sweep.

Despite a new job, a new title and plenty of new paper, Epstein, the graying boy wonder of baseball, hasn't had a good baseball month since last August. A horrendous September for Boston presaged his exit and segued into an 8-15 April in Chicago that was, well, pretty successful in retrospect. May and June haven't been kind. His hands were mostly tied in adding new players, but the deals he has made so far have been pretty bad.

Let's just say Ian Stewart, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood will definitely have to buy their own beers for the rest of their lives.

While the underachieving, injury-riddled Red Sox (31-33) could easily still make the playoffs, the last-place Cubs (22-42) are a throwaway team at best. A cynical excuse for a major-market team that draws fans based on a stadium at worst.

Throughout the tumult of a lost season, Epstein has often been asked how he "feels" about being in charge of a loser, which is a new concept for him. "Baseball is better" when you win more than you lose, right?

"It's never easy," Epstein said. "You can talk about a vision and a plan in theory, and when you have to get in the trenches day in and day out and suffer through some losses, it's really tough. And it should be. If it was easy then you'd be in the wrong game."

Epstein has the gray hairs to prove it. I know he has the track record of success and he was, by all accounts, the best choice for this job; almost too good to believe. I didn't have high expectations. Heck, I half-expected Todd Ricketts to get the job.

Epstein It's never easy. You can talk about a vision and a plan in theory, and when you have to get in the trenches day in and day out and suffer through some losses, it's really tough. And it should be. If it was easy then you'd be in the wrong game.

-- Theo Epstein

But looking at Boston's current situation makes me wonder if Epstein is in a midcareer run of bad decisions like the one that Kenny Williams seems to be finishing. I know it's heresy to criticize Epstein, but sometimes decision-makers in a business prone to human frailties seemingly lose their edge. I'm not saying it's happening, but hey, there is a chance Epstein's sound decisions don't turn into that elusive World Series. You don't always succeed by doing the right things. See the Florida Marlins' 1997 title.

While I'm always ready to spend someone else's money, the current Red Sox serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers of profligate spending. Spending guru and Cubs donor Joe Ricketts would surely have hated Epstein's Taxachusetts-style outlay of cash.

While the Red Sox kept developing players, this team is a reminder of how off-track Epstein and his bosses got in chasing more World Series and the big-bucks Yankees.

John Lackey got $82.5 million for five years; Adrian Gonzalez inked a $154 million deal, which goes until 2018; Carl Crawford got $142 million (through 2017); and they spent $108 million to bring Friday's starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to the United States.

Those four deals total just under a half-billion dollars. That's enough to build a neighborhood of Triangle Buildings and have room for that secret Crane Kenney museum.

And none of the four multimillionaires is doing much to earn that money this season. A rusty Matsuzaka, whose gyroball was a perfect example of his misplaced hype, walked the bases loaded in the first inning and Gonzalez, forced into left field for this interleague game, misplayed a Ryan Dempster fly ball into a triple.

Lackey and Crawford, both of whom had disappointing starts to their Red Sox careers, are on the 60-day disabled list, Matsuzaka just made his second start and Gonzalez was hitting .267 with five home runs through Friday's game.

Money doesn't buy championships, though it helps most of the time. In a recent interview with a Boston columnist, Epstein spoke longingly of his Boston front office's desire to field an all-system team. In places like New York and Boston that's a pipe dream. Those franchises want immediate gratification and are under pressure to sign big-name players.

In Chicago, Epstein is working with Hoyer and Jason McLeod on a return to sensibility. They're coming off their "Super Bowl," the amateur draft. Epstein has an understanding, patient benefactor in Tom Ricketts, who hasn't allowed any major spending on his watch, outside some land purchases and Cuban teenager Jorge Soler's not-yet-finalized $30 million deal.

This Cubs team was cobbled together just to exist. It's a limbo year. But as the farm system is resodded, what about next year? It's safe to say Anthony Rizzo will be freed from Triple-A, along with Brett Jackson. Other minor league prospects are further away.

But aside from relying on a few prospects, I don't think a major-market team should get much leeway to rebuild, especially not next season when the Cubs have very little committed in salary. As it stands now, Epstein would be one of the highest-paid Cubs in 2013. For a guy who talks about not wanting to be the face of the team, that would be problematic.

I know it's too early to criticize the Cubs for next season when they're knee deep in this mess, but I think it's perfectly valid to look ahead. The Cubs' plan for the future is just that, a plan. And as Mike Tyson used to say, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The Cubs have endured repeated blows to their collective jaw; Epstein & Co., not so much.

The idea of Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod creating some utopian farm system that fuels the team to a World Series in the next five or six years needs some tempering. I asked Epstein about next year already, and I can't decide whether I was being prepared or idiotic.

"Right now we're worried about 2012 and seeing what we can do to get better and put the pieces in place for that foundation we talked about for the future," Epstein said. "It's impossible to tell how long it will take, we just have to play forward."

The Cubs won a 2012 game Friday. It might not mean much in the long term, but winning never hurts.

"It's all about wins and losses, that's what matters in this game," Epstein said. He went on about the behind-the-scenes work going on, but I tuned him out.

Wins and losses. That's what you should start caring about soon and then for a long time.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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