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Friday, January 13, 2012
Hope always strong at Cubs Convention

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Big Surprise was ruined when someone spotted Kerry Wood's wife up in the balcony before he was officially announced as "the newest member of the Cubs."

It was a fun moment, schmaltzy but enjoyable, when Wood, This Old Cub, appeared before the teeming masses in the Hilton ballroom to kick off the Cubs Convention.

Wood's "last-minute" signing was a seemingly well-scripted kicker to the good-vibes opening ceremony, where radio broadcaster Pat Hughes can introduce James Russell as a "blossoming star" and get away with it.

The Cubs Convention, mocked by some (me) and beloved by others (people who cheer way too hard for Todd Walker) is an annual display of renewed hope mixed with casual insanity and capped off with really boring panel discussions.

After a fifth-place finish in 2011, and three straight seasons of attrition, the faithful have been enthused by the addition of front-office superstar Theo Epstein, who promises to change the culture or the paradigm or whatever buzzword we're all using today.

Remember when the Cubs created buzz by signing players, not executives? Epstein hopes those days come back soon.

Fans showed their excitement for their new favorite Cub when Epstein was introduced Friday night. Outside of a rowdy bar mitzvah, you typically don't hear a ballroom chant, "Ep-stein! Ep-stein!"

Kerry Wood
Kerry Wood helped the Cubs to their last playoff berths, in 2007 and 2008.

"I think it will die down," Epstein said of his high profile. "The players are the show. That's why we're all in this profession. As a kid, when I got involved into baseball, it wasn't to see Lou Gorman, the GM of the Red Sox in 1986, it was to see Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.

"If [the GM] ever becomes the show, you probably don't have a very good product to begin with."

Considering the 2011 recap video was 35 percent Tony Campana highlights -- there was no Aramis Ramirez or Carlos Zambrano, but I did see a Brad Snyder highlight -- I think we know what kind of organization we're dealing with in the present.

The signing of Wood to a one-year, $3 million deal (with a 2013 club option) symbolizes the bridge between the old regime and a presumptuous, bright future. And while you can't say this is the deal that puts the Cubs over the top, or even over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central, we're certainly all better off with Wood in a Cubs uniform.

Why? I can't really tell you. The team was lousy with him last year and lousy without him in 2010. But everyone likes the idea of Wood finishing his career with the Cubs, so it's a nice story. You can't always define nostalgia, but it usually comes with a club option.

The question I had for Wood was the same one I had for pretty much everyone Friday night: Can the Cubs compete in the NL Central this year? Not 2014, not the next 10 years as the "foundation for sustained success" turns into "a stadium of current success," but right now.

After all, Cubs fans aren't spending big bucks on tickets this season to watch a farm system bloom in Tennessee.

So, the question I have, and will continue to have, is "Can this team win now?"

"Well, we're going to have to see," Wood said.

Hey, scrap that "Baseball is Better" campaign!

Wood soldiered on.

"We have to get through spring training first," he said.

Another good slogan! They sell tickets to spring training, so this is good. Wood's paying for himself.

Seriously, of course, Wood then said yes, the Cubs can go all the way. Maybe even win a playoff game this time.

"I think we can definitely compete," he said. "We've got great young talent, and if we get guys to throw together solid years and get the veterans to support that, I think we can surprise some people."

Cubs fans weren't the only cockeyed optimists at the Hilton. Every year, it's pretty much the same. No one's going to say, "Man, we're going to suck this year."

"I think this division is up for grabs," Marlon Byrd said. "I think anyone can win this division. You saw what the Pirates did in the first half last year -- surprised everybody. Nobody is going to be looking at us right now; we can fly under the radar and sneak in."

"Why not?" seemed to be the attitude among the returners. ("Who's that?" was the attitude among the reporters.)

"Why not?" Matt Garza said. "You don't field a team not to win."

"Absolutely. Why not?" Ryan Dempster said. "We're all tied for first right now. It's our job not to lose it."

Dempster half-jokingly suggested he'll lead the clubhouse by "wearing more superhero costumes," but, really, the leadership the Cubs need is from his arm, not his childlike enthusiasm. That goes for a lot of the returners. There's a reason why Epstein got the job, and it's not the clubhouse culture.

Dempster had a 4.80 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP last year, and several of the other rotation hopefuls had similar numbers. I hope new pitching coach Chris Bosio has more success than Mark Riggins did in his one year with the big league club.

Everyone was raving about the potential depth of the pitching staff Friday, from Epstein on down the chain, but what I see is Garza and a lot of question marks. If Garza does get traded, then this team is in real trouble. Dempster better buy a lot of capes.

But, of course, that's the kind of negativity these guys want to avoid right now. Reality is for the summer. You want to talk about positive vibes? Alfonso Soriano, who just turned 36, said he's ready to run again. Yes, that Soriano.

"I'm an aggressive guy in hitting and running," he said. "Last year, I think I had three or four steals [actually two]. I hope with the new manager and the new group, they give me a green light to run more and give me more opportunities to let me do what I'm able to do."

I really regret not asking Theo if Soriano has the green light to run. The answer would've taken five minutes and required the use of three dictionaries, but I bet it would boil down to, "Say what?"

But, you know, I always get sucked into Soriano's preseason optimism, and I always hope this is the year he gets his legs back. The Cubs could use a healthy Soriano just to be watchable this season.

After exhausting my repetitive question on the players, I posed the same question to Epstein. Can the Cubs win this year?

"In baseball, anything can happen," Epstein said, echoing the exact same comment Soriano said to me.

Since this is Epstein, I thought he was going to write another poem about baseball, but he then he got real.

"We might not have the most talent in the division, but I know we're going to play hard."

I like Theo's honesty about the talent level, but how does he know they're going to play hard? Is there a metric for hustle? Is it proprietary? Is it called PEDROIA?

"I know we have young players with upside, players entering their primes or pre-prime years," Epstein continued. "When you have that, you can surprise a little bit. If we stay healthy, and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually take a big developmental step forward, I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer."

Sounds good. See you in the middle of the season! Save me a drink from the BP Cup.

I'd like to believe this is a team that can compete in 2012, but, like the new sabermetric overlords of Clark and Addison, I need to see some hard numbers first.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.