This time a year ago, I wrote about the state of the Chicago Cubs, America’s lovable losers, who appeared poised to be doing more of the same. Cubs team president, Theo Epstein, and general manager Jed Hoyer, made names for themselves in the game of baseball as general manager and assistant manager, respectively, for the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, the first titles for Boston’s American League ball club since the Wilson Administration. It’s been a slower process building Chicago’s National League club into a winner, and they continued to do a lot of losing in 2014, but they seem to be heading in a better direction, or they have at least picked a direction, which could not be said a year ago.
I pointed out that they had an easier job turning the Red Sox into winner than they have with the Cubs, because they inherited from (current Baltimore Orioles GM) Dan Duquette a pretty good roster that included Boston mainstays like Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon, Tim Wakefield, and Nomar Garciaparra, and I pointed out that the roster already included two guys named Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. Building a championship team is never easy, and there is a lot of luck involved when it comes to actually playing out the games, but it’s a lot easier to get to October with a chance at a title when you already have the best right handed pitcher and the best right handed hitter in the American League (if not all of baseball). While Theo did make his share of moves to put the Red Sox over the top, and he bolstered the farm system through the draft, paving the way for success beyond 2004, Dan Duquette deserved a World Series ring for 2004 as much as anyone employed by the team when they won it.
While I think Theo Epstein is a very smart baseball executive, and he has as good a chance as anyone in the last century to lead the Cubs to a World Series title, his tenure at the top of the Red Sox baseball operations department is overrated for more than just 2004. During the 2005-06 offseason, Epstein resigned as general manager of the Red Sox in a power struggle with team president Larry Lucchino that defined his tenure in Boston as much as the two championships did. He signed back on with the Sox before the start of the 2006 season, but in the interim, the Red Sox made a bold move that Epstein would not have made, and set the stage for the 2007 World Series run. The Red Sox, led by Epstein’s assistant GMs Jed Hoyer (currently serving under Epstein as GM of the Cubs) and Ben Cherington (currently serving as GM of the Red Sox) serving as co-interim GMs, traded highly touted shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez along with Jesus Delgado, Harvey Garcia, and Anibal Sanchez to the Florida Marlins for Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, and Guillermo Mota. Epstein was hesitant to trade Hanley, as the Red Sox have had a bit of a revolving door at the shortstop position, not unlike the Defense Against the Dark Arts professorship at Hogwarts, ever since they traded Nomar in the middle of the season in 2004. Hanley Ramirez became an All-Star, but the Red Sox would not have won the 2007 World Series without Beckett and Lowell.
Epstein left the Red Sox for good after the 2011 season and hired Hoyer (who had left the Red Sox for the San Diego Padres a couple of years earlier) as his general manager shortly thereafter. Since then, they have made trades to cu salary and lose as much as possible to improve draft position. The free agents they have signed have been used as trade bait for contending teams like the Oakland Athletics with deep farm systems. This offseason, however, they appear trying to win for a change. When Joe Maddon opted out of his contract as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Cubs pounced on the chance to hire their third manager in four years. Maddon was annoying to Red Sox fans within the division because of his arrogant personality leading the little ball club that could down in Florida. Annoying and arrogant as he may be, they guy is a winner. By hiring Maddon, the Cubs are showing that they look to take advantage of the chances they get and the breaks they may catch, as opposed to just sitting back and hoping their prospects become big ballplayers.
Building through the draft is great when your prospects are working out. When Epstein was in Boston, they went on a run where almost all of there homegrown talent was panning out. Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen, and Jacoby Ellsbury all turned into impact players for the Sox, but when you go cold, you go cold. The last of those guys made it up to the big league team in the midst of the 2007 title run, and Kevin Youkilis is now 35 and retired from playing. Lars Anderson, Ryan Westmoreland, and Ryan Kalish never became who the Red Sox and their fans hoped they would become. Prospects are nice, but established Major League players are better to bank on. Good teams find a way to strike a balance between building through the farm system, and filling needs through free agency. It is hard, if not impossible, to sustain success doing just one or the other.
The Cubs have decent assemblage of talent that includes former Red Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo (who was traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez Trade), starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who nearly threw a perfect game at Fenway Park last summer, and this week, they signed my favorite pitcher not named Pedro Martinez. Last season, one of the highlights for the Cubs was going into Fenway and sweeping the then-defending World Series champion Red Sox. It must have felt good for Theo Epstein, now that he finally has a chance to call the shots as team president, and it showed how small the margins between the best teams and the worst teams are in baseball, as the Red Sox proceeded on their way to their second last place finish in three years, making a miserable bookend for the magical season that was 2013.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ottoman was the name of an empire, and not just the thing Dick Van Dyke trips over (and I realize that’s a half century old television reference itself), but they just might have the foundation in place for it to happen this century, or even this decade. Or maybe 2015 is the year, after all.