The next time we see Theo Epstein smile, there will be a Cubs' logo behind him.
In November of 2002, a Red Sox baseball operations employee hailing from local Brookline got his first general manager job at the age of 28. He was the youngest to ever take the job -- not just in Boston, but anywhere in the majors -- and the pressure was on to end the supposed Curse of the Bambino, as it had been for everyone else who took the job prior to the newest GM, Theo Epstein.
Fast-forward to this week, and there is a similar situation brewing -- at least, in terms of a city without a championship in ages getting a new GM. Epstein, after two World Series titles in Boston, an average of 93 wins per year, five Wild Cards and an AL East division title, is moving on to the Chicago Cubs, who have not won a World Series since 1908, and haven't even appeared in one since 1945 -- a 66 year stretch. At least the Red Sox got there in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986, even if the results weren't in their favor.
Things have also become worse for Cubs' fans the past decade, as the Red Sox and cross-town White Sox, something like brothers in loser solidarity, both took home championships, leaving the Cubs standing alone with the likes of the San Francisco version of the Giants (your 2010 World Champions!) and the Cleveland Indians, two organizations who had or have waited for a far shorter time -- not to demean the decades-long pain of any Cleveland fans reading, because it's very real, but your last title came three years after the Cubs last World Series appearance, and you had three chances since. Think of how terrible it's been for you, then multiply that by Cubs.
That's the situation Theo is walking into, and he has at least five years to fix it, as his deal with the Cubs lasts that long and will pay him $20 million. The similarities between the 2003 Red Sox and the 2012 Cubs end at their shared failure, though, as Epstein is taking over a roster very different from the first one he inherited.
For one, the 2002 Red Sox won 93 games. They didn't make the playoffs, no, but that's because the Angels -- eventual World Series winners -- won 99 games and took the Wild Card. The 2011 Cubs went 71-91 and finished in fifth in the NL Central. This doesn't mean the Red Sox couldn't get any better, or that they had a set roster, but there was a core there to be built upon.
The 2002 team featured Jason Varitek at catcher, free-agent acquisitions Johnny Damon in center and Manny Ramirez in left field, and homegrown players like Nomar Garciaparra at short and Trot Nixon in right. Not everything was perfect -- Rey Sanchez was the primary second baseman, Tony Clark spent more time at first base than anyone else, and Brian Daubach was a DH who could be improved upon -- but there was at least something to work with in the lineup. The rotation was in the same state: it needed some serious overhauling, as there were just four starters that stuck all year (with one of them being Frank Castillo, the Mark Portugal of 2002), but it did have The Best Pitcher Alive in Pedro Martinez, and Derek Lowe, who had been acquired in the same Dan Duquette trade that brought Varitek to the Red Sox.
The Cubs have just six players under contract heading into the off-season, for a grand total of nearly $73 million. That doesn't include arbitration-eligible contracts, or pre-arb players, of course, just the ones with a specific contract that is owed no matter what next season. Of the signed players, you have Alfonso Soriano (.244/.289/.469 in 2011, owed $19 million in 2012 and under contract through 2014), Carlos Zambrano ($19 million again, but mercifully in the final year of his contract), Ryan Dempster ($14 million, and had a much better season than his ERA suggests), Aramis Ramirez ($16 million, assuming his mutual option is picked up by both sides), Marlon Byrd ($6.5 million -- finally, a bargain!), shutdown reliever Sean Marshall ($3.1 million), and Carlos Marmol ($7 million for a closer with ridiculous strikeout stuff). There is a core there, but it's expensive, aging, and will likely not be part of Theo's first championship team in the city -- though a winning team is not out of the question, with the right winter moves.
Of your arb and pre-arb players, there is more to love. Matt Garza is in his third year of arb, and has a fourth year in 2013. He was the Cubs top starter in 2011, making a smooth transition to the NL where he set a career-high in strikeout rate. Geovany Soto has at least two years left as well, and while he hasn't reached the lofty heights he set upon entering the league once again, he's still one of the better catchers to have around. Randy Wells isn't anything special, but he's also cheap in his first year of arbitration. Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner haven't even reached arbitration yet, and neither has the jewel of the franchise, 21-year-old Starlin Castro, he of the .307/.341/.432 line in his second full-season in the bigs.
It's all something, but it's not a 93-win team that had room to improve upon. Of course, the same kind of moves that helped shore up that Boston team that had spent a significant portion of its budget could help the 2012 Cubs, who will be up against their budget soon, as well. Kevin Millar was purchased by the Red Sox from the Marlins to play first base in 2003, and played for $2 million. That's about all he was worth, but next to Clark's 556 OPS from 2002, Millar's 820 OPS looked positively Herculean. Boston sent Josh Thigpen and Tony Blanco to the Reds for Todd Walker to play second base, where he was basically average -- what he couldn't do defensively that Sanchez could, he did with his bat. Bill Mueller, a player Cubs fans know well, signed as a free agent for $2.1 million in 2003, and won the batting title in a park that seemed built for someone with his doubles power -- Mueller, who had never hit more than 29 doubles, hit 45 in 2003, and finished his career as a .321/.396/.522 hitter at Fenway.
The most significant low-cost pickup, of course, was David Ortiz, who had been cut by the Twins and didn't even become Boston's starting DH at the beginning of the year. In 128 games, Ortiz bashed 31 homers and 72 extra-base hits all along, and at a cost of $1.25 million.
This was a series of low-cost, high-reward pickups, and nearly all of them worked either as well as expected (by the front office, I mean -- not everyone was quite sure what to make of these guys when they got here), or far better. While baseball as a whole is better about recognizing the Bill Muellers of the world, these guys still exist, and can slip through the cracks of teams just like Ortiz did. Ask Jose Bautista and Nelson Cruz how that works.
It takes someone with an eye for this sort of player to make it work, and Epstein has that going for him. Some of his more recent transactions along the same lines haven't worked as well due to things like injuries -- Mike Cameron, whose deal looked like an absolute steal when signed, comes to mind -- but it's the process that matters. The Cubs could use the kind of process that has brought the Red Sox an inordinate amount of success over the last nine seasons, to the point where we can be crushed when the team "only" wins 179 games over its last two seasons. If the Cubs are lucky -- hey, they're due -- they won't have to wait much longer to see Theo take the next step from Hendry to a championship, just like Boston fans didn't have to wait long for Duquette's talented roster to do so.