“No,” Theo Epstein said, he didn’t see the Cubs being able to do two deals in the $100-million range this offseason. “You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond…that’d be a big winter.”
This was Nov. 9, the beginning of the general managers meetings, when the idea of signing Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million megadeal – without cutting corners everywhere else on the roster and handcuffing future Cubs teams – sounded like a fantasy.
Dressed in a T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers, Epstein had just finished a workout when a few Chicago writers stopped him near the registration desk of the Boca Raton Resort & Club. The president of baseball operations had brought his wife to South Florida and looked and sounded like he would rather be anywhere else on the waterfront property than a hotel lobby crawling with reporters and agents.
Epstein has a law degree and always chooses his words carefully, but this wasn’t a misdirection play, because other teams always think the Cubs are playing with Monopoly money anyway. Epstein also has a wicked sense of humor, but he wasn’t trying to punk the media, because it’s always been in his best interests to explain The Plan.
The calculus changed within the last few weeks, leading up Friday’s reports that Heyward had turned down $200 million offers elsewhere. A payroll picture that looked murky on Sept. 1 or Oct. 1 or even the middle of November came into sharper focus before the winter meetings at Nashville’s Opryland complex.
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Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer pried open the franchise’s financial black box, working with chairman Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney’s business operations department to grab money generated during a surprising run to the National League Championship Series.
The Cubs would reinvest in a team that has: two more seasons before Jake Arrieta hits the free-agent market; a ticking time bomb in Jon Lester’s $155 million contract; and no stud pitching prospects anywhere close to making The Show.
Next winter’s class of free agents also didn’t look very appealing, so the Cubs wanted to binge this offseason instead of throwing money at the wrong players.
For years, the Cubs have been a rigid, conservative operation, limited by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (in a deal that included a piece of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago). The big-market spending power would only be back in full force with the anticipated launch of a new Cubs channel in 2020 (assuming the cable bubble doesn’t burst before then).
A front office that sometimes tends to overthink things absolutely pounced on big-game pitcher John Lackey, super-utility guy Ben Zobrist and Heyward, bankrolled by a business side that got good reviews for Wrigley Field’s Video Board Era after initially handling the rollout of the restoration plan in such a clumsy manner.
Whatever business vs. baseball tensions exist, the Cubs just dropped $272 million on Heyward, Lackey and Zobrist, taking two valuable players away from a 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team, trading former All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees and getting creative with the structure of those contracts.
Even if you get The Plan, this is still a stunning transformation for a franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908 and finished in fifth place every season between 2010 and 2014.
Cubs fans burned by overhyped prospects before can now watch Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant play here through the 2021 season, because a calculating front office drafted the right guy with the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 and manipulated the service-time system. (The Houston Astros packaged underwhelming pitcher Mark Appel – the first pick that year – in Saturday’s 5-for-2 trade with the Philadelphia Phillies for closer Ken Giles.)
A team that seemed to have a new manager every year – Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria since 2010 – now has three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon. All those sign-and-flip deals for the future ultimately yielded a Cy Young Award winner and multiple key contributors to a 97-win team.
Now add Heyward, who clearly fits Epstein’s vision of a well-rounded athlete, someone who can grind out at-bats, run the bases, play Gold Glove defense in the outfield and look good on the actuarial tables at the age of 26.
“The season that we had as a team was something that not many people expected,” Arrieta said after the Cy Young announcement. “Most of those people were outside of our organization, people that didn’t necessarily know everything that we were about, and the types of guys we had, and the character we had overall.
“To have the pieces that we have aligned for next season – and (a) number of years to come – it looks like we’re going to have a pretty bright future.”