CHICAGO -- When we last left Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, the Cubs were in last place, and the talk was patience. And now … the Cubs are in last place. And the talk is patience.
Well, being a Cubs fan is the very definition of the word “patience” isn’t it?
“The toughest thing,” Epstein says, “is that fans here feel -- and they’re right to feel this way -- they feel like they’ve already been through enough. So they are saying: ‘Why are you ACTIVELY putting us through more of this?’ And I don’t have an answer for that except that we think it’s the only way we’re going to win.”
Well the Cubs plan IS coming into focus, and it IS exciting, and it IS going to take more time. This is the harsh reality. When Epstein became the Boston Red Sox general manager in late 2002, he was given a team on the brink of doing remarkable things. A few tweaks, some smart acquisitions, a little bit of luck and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Then, some excellent drafting, a few more tweaks, a little more luck, the Red Sox won their second World Series three years later.
It was heady stuff for a young guy who grew up in Boston, but say this for Epstein: He didn’t really fall for his own hype. When he took over the Cubs job, he made it as clear as he possibly could that there he was no miracle worker and he could see no easy or quick fixes. He saw in the Cubs an expensive team that lost 90 games, a minor league system without much talent and a star, Starlin Castro, who could not stop himself from swinging at bad pitches.
In other words, he saw an intense and long rebuilding project.
“It really wasn’t hard to see,” Epstein says. “We took a hard look at the organization and thought that we were in difficult shape and needed to start over. We saw that we needed to take a long view because it wasn’t possible to acquire enough talent to win in the short term anyway. So, if that’s the case, why not do it the right way? Why not look for quality and volume and develop and organizational ethos.”
And so -- Epstein and his GM Jed Hoyer and others in the organization went to work on acquiring talent and building that ethos. And they still work. There have been a handful of high-five moments, like when they traded for first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who Epstein had drafted when he was with the Red Sox. Rizzo is having a superb season and is developing into one of the better hitting first basemen in the league.
“That was the year Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols were both available,” Epstein said. “So we had a decision to make -- do we try to get into those sweepstakes? We decided to get Rizzo. We were thinking there would come a time when their career arcs intersected. And we might have reached it already.”
And a few other good things have happened. Jeff Samardzija asked to become a starter and has turned into a very solid one -- the Cubs are expected to deal him for some talent before the trade deadline. There have been a few nice surprises like pitchers Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel.
But mostly, the Cubs' climb has been a slog -- the Starlin Castro saga is representative. Castro was widely viewed as a superstar in training when the Cubs called him up as a 20-year-old in 2010. He hit .300 his rookie year and in his second, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover. The SI story was headlined “A Starlin is Born.” Bobby Valentine on television likened Castro to Ernie Banks.
Epstein’s biggest belief about baseball is that to win you have to control the strike zone. He sees the strike zone the way football coaches see the line of scrimmage. He wants pitchers who impose their will and compel batters to swing at tough pitches. He wants hitters who impose their will and can get pitches to drive.
Well, Castro could not control the strike zone. At all. In Epstein’s first year, Castro swung at 37 percent of the pitches outside the strike zone. His on-base percentage fell below league average, but more than that he was too often an easy out. He hit the ball hard less and less as he chased pitchers’ pitches.
“We challenged him,” Epstein says. “We said ‘Hey, we’re not trying to make cookie cutter type hitters. Not everyone needs to be on-base machines here. But just think about swinging more at pitches you can drive. Go up there with that mindset: I want a pitch I can drive.’
“For someone with such an aggressive mentality, that was really hard.”
“Really hard” does not begin to cover it. The Cubs almost broke Starlin Castro. His numbers plummeted. He was embarrassed. He was miserable. Everybody around the Cubs organization, it seems, has a story about how dejected and hopeless Starlin Castro felt.
But, he came through it. Castro still doesn’t walk much, but the Cubs don’t care too much about that. His swing percentage outside the strike zone is the lowest of his career, he’s on pace to hit 20 home runs for the first time, and his batting average climbs closer to .300 again. Epstein thinks he’s one of the best offensive shortstops in the game now and he’s still just 24.
“Sometimes,” Epstein says, “you have to have the courage as an organization to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward.”
Well, that has been the overall strategy. One step back. Two steps forward. Epstein’s clear plan is to build a great offensive baseball team, like the one that was built in Boston. Finding and developing pitching is secondary these days: It’s all offense all the time. At the major league level, the Cubs have Rizzo and Castro. In the minors, the Cubs have Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara and Albert Almora, among others. These names may or may not be familiar to you -- but already in Chicago they are talked about like old friends.
-- Baez is an infielder who swings hard and hits the ball a long way. He has had some trouble this year for the first time in his minor league career, but the Cubs haven’t seen anything that changes their mind about his huge future. He has 40-homer power and 200-strikeout aggression and should get better and better with time.
-- Bryant, according to Epstein, is a “freak” and “the lowest-maintenance prospect we’ve ever had.” He was Baseball America’s college player of the year in 2012, hit .336 at three minor-league levels in 2013, and this year has been, well, freakish. At Class AA, he overwhelmed the league by hitting .355 with 22 homers in 68 games that the Cubs had to move him to Class AAA. In his first 15 games in Des Moines, he hit .345 with six more homers. He will be playing third base for the 2015 Cubs.
-- Alcantara has power and speed and seems adaptable to pretty much any position.
-- Almora is an outfielder who has struggled a bit this year -- Epstein compares his learning season to the one Castro had last year -- but people in the organization say he might be the best player of the bunch.
Throw in this year’s draft pick Kyle Schwarber – who Epstein calls “a definite No. 3 hitter” – and you see the strategy. “Yeah,” Epstein says, “we’re trying to build a behemoth of position players.”
“Are you there?” I ask him. He smiles.
“Getting there,” he says. “Obviously we’re a long way off. But that’s the plan. … Ideally, we are trying to build the type of lineup that can change the way opposing teams think when entering series. We had that in Boston, where teams always had an extra pitcher in the pen. If we got 60 pitches deep in the first two innings of a series, I knew we had a pretty good chance to win the series.”
So that’s the idea. Epstein sees the way the game is going, the way pitchers are dominating the game. As of this moment, the Philadelphia Phillies have a 3.86 ERA. In 2006, that would have been good enough to lead the National League. In 2014, it’s only good for No. 13 in the league. We are in a cycle where pitching reigns, which makes hitting so much more valuable. Anyway, that’s Epstein’s bet.
“I would say true offense is a great commodity right now,” he says. “I’d love to be swimming in bats.” He smiles again; he seems to believe the Cubs are just about swimming in bats.
And the pitching can come later. The Cubs actually have pieced together a decent pitching staff this year, with journeyman Jason Hammel and one-time star prospect Jake Arieta finding success. They have a couple of good minor league pitching prospects. But Epstein and company don’t plan on making big bets on pitching until the team is ready.
So far they’re not ready. The Cubs are 37-46, but to be fair they’ve played better than that. They have only been outscored by four runs this year and their record is hurt because for the third year in a row they have been dreadful in games decided by one run. That’s often a reflection of bullpen woes, and the Cubs have had those -- though they now have a bullpen overflowing with power arms and it has been better.
Not that any of that is pertinent to the Cubs’ long-range plan. Epstein and owner Tom Ricketts agree on the main thing, which is: They don’t want any half measures. They don’t want to sign any big-time free agent until that player can help the team win the World Series. They don’t want to take a chance on any great pitcher -- with all the injury threats that go along with it -- until the team is on the brink of greatness.
“We see ourselves as a team with a small market payroll and large market plans,” Epstein says. “Once we sign a TV deal and renovate Wrigley, we’re going to have the payroll flexibility to, let’s be honest, do whatever we want. If we can have a collection of very talented players under cost control, we should be as well positioned as anybody.”
When will that happen? Patience. That’s the buzzword. Tom Ricketts became a Cubs fan back in 1984 when he attended the University of Chicago. He says what all Cubs fans say: When the Cubs finally do win it will be the biggest sports story in the history of Chicago.
“It’s going to happen,” he says. “I’ve watched Theo and his people work. They’re doing it the right way. There are no shortcuts. I think there have been some shortcuts taken here through the years, and that’s part of the reason it has been more than 100 years. But there are no shortcuts now.”
Epstein says the same thing. No shortcuts. But he also adds that he does see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s reasonable to expect Baez and Bryant and perhaps Alcantara to be a big part of the 2015 team. It’s reasonable to expect the Cubs to pick up some talent in trades and free agency as well.
“When those young players are up here and everyone sees how good they are, that is when it gets fun,” Epstein says. And he smiles again.
“And that is also when we will ask our fans to be patient with these young players. But I think that patience will be easier to find. … People have waited a long time for this. I can’t wait until we give them a really exciting product. I can’t wait until they’re rewarded for all their suffering.”
But, for now, he will wait. It’s what the Cubs do. Wait and hope that this time it’s for real.