Game changer

As the Cubs ramp up their rebuild, the fun part ends for Theo Epstein

AP Photo

SAN DIEGO — There’s a scene Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein has imagined many times since taking on baseball’s version of the twelve labours of Hercules. He imagines a celebratory press conference. The reporters are all there. A bank of television cameras point at the stage; their lights brighten the scene. There, on the dais, is the happy owner, the happy general manager, the happy manager and, most of all, the happy player. There’s an energy buzzing around, a wicked optimism that says something dramatic and wonderful is happening.

Then somebody holds up a jersey. Yes, that’s the big moment: The ceremonial holding up of the jersey. This is the jersey that the new player will wear. This is a free-agent press conference. The Cubs have just signed a big-time player.

Theo Epstein sees himself in the scene, too, only his smile is a little bit more reserved than the others. He’s not feeling the unrestrained joy that infects everybody. He’s feeling, well, the way someone might feel when they just spent too much money on a car. It’s exciting, sure. But …

“Funny thing,” he says. “they never hold up the uniform at the END of those contracts.”

* * *

Here’s what you have to understand: The game has changed for Cubs President Theo Epstein. People might think that this is the part that Epstein loves: His team seems just about ready to win. He just hired perhaps the game’s best manager. He just won the Winter Meetings. He just signed Jon Lester, one of the best pitchers in baseball. More than that, he beat out the Boston Red Sox, his old team, the team he left in order to take on sports’ mission impossible: To take the Chicago Cubs to the World Series and then win it.

You would think that this is the stuff that gets Epstein’s blood coursing – big money, positive vibes, great pitcher, one small step for the Cubs, one giant leap for Cubs-kind.

No. Of course, Theo Epstein is happy the Cubs landed Lester. He loves Lester, both as a pitcher and as a person. The Cubs just brought in one of the game’s elite starters, a guy who has twice finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, a guy who two years ago dominated the postseason and last year struck out 220, walked 48 and had career highs in innings pitched, ERA and WHIP. The Cubs have their ace. The expectations for 2015 have skyrocketed.

All it took was a longstanding relationship and $155 million.

Of course Epstein can play this big-money game – he certainly did in Boston, where the Red Sox had little choice but to get in a free-agent free-for-all with the Yankees. But that experience left him cold. Sometimes, when he was general manager of the Red Sox, he would casually wish that he worked in a small market, a Kansas City or a Milwaukee or someplace like that, where the money was tight, and free agents walked by without even glancing, and you couldn’t just buy out of mistakes.

My daughters have a saying they use all the time now: That’s not a thing. My wife or I will say just about anything like, “You shouldn’t swim for an hour after eating,” or “When we were young, kids used to wear Member’s Only jackets with these weird and pointless straps on the shoulders.” And they will say, “That’s not a thing.”

So you could say that having small-market envy when you are the GM who brought Boston its first World Series in forever is not a thing. But, for Epstein, it was. It was a feeling that stuck with him. In the end, the Red Sox went on an ill-advised spending binge – bringing in John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, among others – and the Red Sox lost their way, and Epstein left the team he had loved since he was a child.  He agreed to come to Chicago only with assurances that he could do it differently, that he could build the team from the ground up – no panic, no rushing, no short-sighted press conferences featuring short-sighted signings.

That’s how it has been in Chicago the last three years. The Cubs have lost and lost and lost, but I can’t help but feel every time I talk with him that Theo Epstein has been having the time of his life. Oh, he’s certainly not oblivious to the frustration that surrounds a team that loses; he’s certainly sympathetic to a Cubs fan base that hasn’t won since, you know, ever.

But he believes this is how the Cubs finally win – short-term pain for long-term success. In the shadows, he and his staff have been gathering hitting talent. Crazy talent. The fans are beginning to see some of that talent in the big leagues now – Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara all made it up to to the majors last year. One longtime scout at the Winter Meetings told me that Kris Bryant is the best hitting prospect he has EVER SEEN. Shortstop Addison Russell is one of the Top 10 prospects in baseball. And so on.

The Cubs are not a small-market team, but they have been pretending to be one. And, behind the veil, Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest have been building the team unencumbered by the massive pressures to win a few extra games. They have refused to sign a few free agents to curtail the losing. The major team lost 101, 96 and 89 games. Their payroll dropped from sixth in payroll the year before Epstein arrived to 15th his first year to 28th of 30 teams last year.

Sure, there were a few howls about it, a few harsh criticisms – “We’re the Chicago Cubs! This is ridiculous!” — but Epstein was running this team exactly like he had hoped. There was a purity to it. The Cubs were drafting players, signing players, developing players.  They were passing on 30-something free agents who might help the team win a couple more games. They agreed upon a way to play the game, The Cubs Way, and wrote a new team manual and hammered the Cubs Way into the players. They stayed patient when young players faltered, they stuck with it when plans went off track, they moved on when critics said or wrote that they were running the Cubs into the ground.

And … there was a happiness, a palpable happiness that Theo Epstein exuded – he obviously was doing exactly what he wanted to do. Hitting was down all over baseball and the Cubs were gathering what Epstein called “a behemoth of position players.” I would ask him some variation of the same question: Is the losing hard? He would always say he felt for Cubs fans but it was clear. The losing was NOT hard for him, not really. He had the budget under control. He could feel how good the Cubs were about to become. I’m guessing it was like being manager of a band still playing in small clubs but one that you KNOW is about to become a national sensation. I’m convinced: He was enjoying all of it as much as anything he’s done in baseball.

Now, though, that ends. Now comes the business part. Theo Epstein knows full well that this gigantic Jon Lester deal probably will become an albatross before it’s done. The history of good pitchers given six-year contracts includes Barry Zito, Johan Santana, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton. All of those were absolute disasters.

Current contracts show similar signs. The Yankees still have two hugely expensive years left on the CC Sabathia contract, and he looks shot. When the Tigers signed Justin Verlander two years ago, he was clearly the best right-handed pitcher in baseball – he has already shown significant decline and there is more than $150 million left on that deal. Matt Cain was as solid as a pitcher could be, signed the big deal, and had his worst season followed by an injury-crushed season — that deal goes on for another three years. Cole Hamels has actually pitched well the first two years of his deal and even so, the Phillies, by all accounts, are trying desperately to get out from under his titanic contract.

All of those pitchers were superb when the deals were struck. But pitchers fade quickly. Pitchers get hurt. Teams take unexpected turns. Epstein has studied this as much as anybody; he knows that this Lester deal could become a regret at some point. It probably WILL become a regret at some point. He also knows that circumstances have changed. It was fun taking the Cubs from a bloated underachiever to a lean team overflowing young talent. Now, the team has to win. Two or three good years of Lester is the tradeoff for what could be bad years down the road.

This is the new paradigm in Chicago. The Cubs turned stomachs all over baseball when they left former manager Rick Renteria dangling and hired Joe Maddon to manage the team — MLB is still looking into possible tampering there. They re-signed pitcher Jason Hammel less than five months after trading him away. And this week, at the Winter Meetings, they gave Jon Lester $20 million more than the Red Sox were offering to reel him in. They’re probably not done dealing.

Sure, Epstein gets some satisfaction out of this too. The Cubs are now in position to win; one prominent baseball executive told me Wednesday that the Cubs were going to win at least 90 games this year. If Epstein can make the Cubs annual contenders, can actually get them to the World Series for the first time in 70 or so years, can build a Cubs team that WINS the World Series for the first time in more than 100, it will be a joy that will rank right there will leading his hometown Red Sox to their first World Series victory in three or four generations.

But this is work. Winning demands compromise and deals with the devil and excessive pressure and necessary evils. In a way, the Cubs are only just beginning. But I wonder if Theo Epstein will look back on those first three years — the way so many people look back on their younger days – and remember them as the best time of his career.