Theo Epstein hasn’t been on an offseason roll like this since ... the Boston Red Sox traded Anthony Rizzo to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and signed Carl Crawford to a $142 million contract?
“Expectations got so high,” Epstein remembered. “People were speculating: ‘Is this the greatest team of all-time? A super-team? An uber-team?’”
The 2011 Red Sox started out 0-6 and 2-10, finished August in first place in the American League East and then lost 20 games in September, missing the playoffs in a spectacular collapse that led to manager Terry Francona being forced out and The Boston Globe publishing the fried-chicken-and-beer story.
Tired of the power struggles at Fenway Park and looking for a new challenge, Epstein bolted to Chicago that October for a president’s title with the Cubs and a direct report to ownership.
“It is an unbelievable dynamic the last few years,” Epstein said, “how the winners of the offseason tend to be miserable the following September.”
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Epstein said that during the general managers meetings in the middle of November, when the idea of spending $272 million on bulldog pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward sounded completely unrealistic given the franchise’s financial limitations.
But Epstein’s front office lobbied chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department, and the Cubs got creative, pulling off some accounting tricks and reinvesting money generated during a surprising trip to the National League Championship Series. A franchise that usually seems so focused on the future and risk management thought big and acted decisively, trying to win a World Series.
After Heyward agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract and started trending on Twitter on Friday, Jason Hammel set the bar for the 2016 Cubs at “#162-0.” So there would be no confusion, the veteran pitcher clarified his tweet three minutes later: “Strike that. Reverse it. Let’s make that 173-0.”
After being the fun-loving, out-of-nowhere team that won 97 games last season, the Cubs will now be the hunted.
“The target’s going to be bigger, and I want us to embrace the target,” manager Joe Maddon said during the winter meetings. “The pressure is going to be possibly greater, and I want us to embrace the pressure.
“The bigger target, the greater pressure, I think, equals a grander chance for success. So I’m all about that, and I definitely will bring that to our guys’ attention.
“(With) the accountability of our young players — combined with our veterans — I really believe we could avoid those kind of pitfalls.”
Who knows if this means more or less zoo animals, but the Cubs do have the perfect manager to distract the media, keep the clubhouse loose and make rapid-fire decisions in the dugout.
At least the Cubs haven’t been thrown together like Ozzie Guillen’s reality-show Miami Marlins. The Cubs have their thin-skin moments and certainly try to shape public opinions, but they really don’t care what you think about this trade or that contract or make baseball decisions based on TV ratings or the next morning’s headlines.
The Cubs also have a foundation that appears to be stronger than the White Sox and Padres teams that won last year’s winter meetings — and wound up finishing 37 games out of first place combined.
Lackey probably won’t be amused by the Chicago media or have patience for nonsense questions. It was also interesting to see the mixed reactions to the Lackey signing on Twitter from Cubs fans ready to rubber-stamp any Theo move.
But Maddon worked as Mike Scioscia’s Anaheim Angels bench coach when Lackey beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Epstein already drew up a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Lackey in Boston, where he reshaped his image after the fried-chicken-and-beer stuff and Tommy John surgery by helping the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.
Maddon and Epstein insist Lackey brings an edge to the clubhouse, takes charge of the rotation in between starts and pushes teammates to get better.
Zobrist is one of Maddon’s favorite players ever after spending nine seasons together with the Tampa Bay Rays and transforming a last-place team into a World Series contender.
Heyward is getting paid like a superstar now, but the Cubs really just need him to be a supporting player who does the little things, grinding out at-bats, getting on base, going first-to-third and performing at a Gold-Glove level.
The idea of “don’t try to be something you’re not” probably appealed to Heyward after being surrounded by so much hype with the Atlanta Braves. This lineup already has 40-homer threats in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.
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This didn’t create a splash, but the Cubs are feeling optimistic about Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade — and insurance policies like Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. Because, as Epstein said: “We’ve been walking a tightrope with our lack of starting-pitching depth.”
The Cubs still haven’t really mortgaged their farm system yet, meaning there should be plenty of trade chips available to get whatever they need leading up to the July 31 deadline.
“Organizations that are the healthiest,” Epstein said, “(with) the most talent coming through the pipeline, the fewest holes, the most areas of surplus and depth, tend to have the least active offseasons. And those organizations tend to win.
“It means they’re doing something right. It means they have ways to address their needs internally. It means they have a lot of talent spread out in different areas of the organization. The teams that sometimes quote-unquote ‘win the offseason’ do so in response to a glaring need to infuse talent in a number of different areas.
“A healthy organization is not made by virtue of one busy offseason. It’s really years and years and years of planning, hiring scouts and development people and putting processes into play and seeing that approach manifest over time.”
Whether or not the Cubs are paper tigers, the only guarantee is they will be the biggest story in the baseball world in 2016.