The Cubs see an idealized version of the Boston Red Sox. Last Septembers collapse is out of focus, along with the swings-and-misses on big-ticket free agents like John Lackey and Carl Crawford.
Executives, of course, never bat 1.000, or even come close. Theo Epstein believes hes in the business of being less wrong, that the best you can hope to do on any given transaction is shift the odds from maybe 5050 to almost 5347.
Epsteins primary goal now is to identify core players for the future. Near the end of spring training, the Cubs president of baseball operations said theres a subtext to this season underneath the wins and losses.
That meant 2012 would be a failure if the Cubs didnt develop a few pieces and integrate them onto the major-league roster. Epstein also thought it was essential to establish a culture where young players are welcomed, not picked apart for what they cant do, or viewed as pariahs.
Thats kind of the goal, second baseman Darwin Barney said. You want guys to come in and be able to produce right off the bat, and the only way to do that is to be comfortable (doing) your job (and) be accepted by the veterans.
Barney played with Jacoby Ellsbury, a future All-Star with the Red Sox, at Oregon State University. But the story Barney tells involves David Ortiz and ex-Cubs utility man Bobby Scales, who signed a minor-league deal with Boston in December 2006.
(Bobby) had never been to big-league camp before, Barney recalled. He walks in the clubhouse. Big Papi calls him over and goes: Hey, who are you?
Ortiz asked Scales if he had ever played in the big leagues before, and the answer was no. Ortiz responded: That doesnt matter here. Youre in this clubhouse. Youre on this team. Were going to win a championship this year.
More than reversing the curse, that 2007 World Series title validated Epsteins system. For that Game 4 clincher against the Colorado Rockies, Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia were at the top of the order, Jon Lester got the win and Jonathan Papelbon notched the save. Baseball America graded out the Red Sox as the best drafting team of the decade, a credit to new Cubs scouting executive Jason McLeod.
I always think its part and parcel to building a winning culture, bringing guys up through your own system, having their enthusiasm and (the unknowns), said Bobby Valentine, Bostons first-year manager. Sometimes you get a guy youve seen a long time, you start predicting, and rather than being excited, youre disappointed. Young guys can bring more of the excitement and less of the disappointment.
So while the Cubs appear to be on track for 100-plus losses, the agenda for the rest of this season will look something like this: Restock the system through deadline trades. Promote Anthony Rizzo. Give Brett Jackson a taste.
It will be about getting through to Starlin Castro and pushing him to the next level, and monitoring Jeff Samardzija so he stays at the front of the rotation for years to come. There will be opportunities for people like Travis Wood and Steve Clevenger and Welington Castillo.
Manager Dale Sveum will have to keep the peace, hold everyone accountable and show that he can grow into the job and become the next Terry Francona.
Its never easy, Epstein said. You can talk about a vision and a plan and a theory. And then when you have to get in the trenches day in, day out and suffer through some losses, its really tough. It should be. If it was easy, youd be in the wrong game.
You have to strike a delicate balance, because you dont want to talk too much about the future. You have to have complete respect for what these 25 players are trying to accomplish night in, night out.
And thats one thing I am proud of: Our players are working (and) playing really hard. Its very professional. Even though were not where we want to be in the standings, theyre establishing a nice culture there in the clubhouse.
Thats the environment theyre trying to create for the next wave of Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur and players weve never heard of before.
Barney won a state championship in high school, two College World Series titles at Oregon State and a gold medal with Team USA at the 2006 World University Games. A natural shortstop, Ryne Sandberg helped him learn how to play second base while coming up through the Cubs system.
At the age of 26, Barney would like to become a core player here, and make all those intangibles matter.
You felt like you were going to win every game, no matter what, Barney said. You walked into the park and you felt like you had the upper hand, just because you were there in the first place. Its just a swagger.
Thats kind of what you need. You look at a team like the Yankees and why they win every year. They have that professionalism. They have that swagger about them. And thats something that I think we can have here, eventually.