Next Cubs GM will face great expectations

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Next Cubs GM will face great expectations

Cubs monitoring Epstein, Friedman
With or without Theo, Cubs will copy Red Sox

The executives at Clark and Addison and inside the Tribune Tower knew that there would be a reckoning.

When the Cubs decided to go for it, they chose to deal with the consequences later. They came close to being bulletproof, winning 97 games in 2008 before the bad contracts and the ownership instability caught up with them. They just probably didnt think that the window to compete would close this hard and this fast.

In a sense, the Ricketts family bought the team just as the bubble was about to burst. The Cubs had won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. The future Hall of Fame manager held court in the dugout. Every day at Wrigley Field turned into a block party.

Team officials actually thought Lou Piniella might have done his best job managing the 2009 team, which was still in first place in early August before settling at 83-78. The crash over the next two years wore out Piniella and cost Jim Hendry his job.

Chairman Tom Ricketts now has two fifth-place finishes on his watch. If you are a Cubs fan, you have every right to be skeptical.

You pay some of the highest ticket prices in baseball. Your team hasnt won a World Series since 1908 and has gone a combined 146-178 across the past two seasons. But, really, the worst of the storm may have passed.

Whether or not its Theo Epstein, the next general manager will face great expectations. Because this really could be a franchise-changing hire, if its the right man at the right time. The organization shouldnt feel paralyzed anymore.

One club official laughed at the idea of giving Starlin Castro to the Boston Red Sox as compensation, and sources made it sound like the Cubs havent seriously discussed a list of players to make available, if thats even where this is heading.

WEEI, the Boston radio station, has been promoting an interview with Red Sox principal owner John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino scheduled for Friday morning. They will have to address the Epstein rumors.

Amid the silence, everyone has been projecting things onto Epstein, speculating about his legacy, his family, his ambitions.

Epstein would be able to shape the team in his image, even if he wont necessarily be working with a blank canvas. The expiring contracts for Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome and John Grabow will clear around 33 million.

Ryan Dempster only has a player option for next season worth 14 million, and Marlon Byrd will be in the final year of his backloaded contract. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol are the only two players already signed for 2013, according to the online database at Cots Baseball Contracts.

There should be enough flexibility with major-league payroll that the new general manager wont have to spread Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years, the way Hendry did last winter.

The next general manager also shouldnt be getting calls late at night from reporters asking for comment about Carlos Zambranos latest meltdown. The expectation is that the Cubs will pay him to pitch somewhere else next year, or not at all.

Taking a wide-angle lens, the Cubs expect to open new player-development facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic within the next few years. Ownership authorized close to 20 million in expenditures for draft picks and international signings last summer.

The Wrigley Field renovation plans, and the public support for it, seem very far away. But if this becomes a destination job you keep for the next decade-plus, maybe youll get a new office and realize the competitive advantage of an improved stadium.

The Cubs already have a frontline starter (Matt Garza) who one teammate described as having Cy Young potential, and a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop (Castro). There are building blocks in place.

With or without the architect of two World Series winners in Boston, the turnaround doesnt have to take five years.

Ricketts has pointed to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went from worst to first this year. Theyll play the Milwaukee Brewers a team that won 77 games last season on Friday at Miller Park for a spot in the National League championship series.

I know on the outside looking in (we) might seem a lot farther off, utility man Jeff Baker said at seasons end. But I know the talent and the character of some of the guys in the room. Were not that far. You look at teams around the league, what theyve done.

I know its clichd, (but) thats the only way you can really look at it positively moving forward. Look at Arizona I dont want to say terrible but they were pretty bad last year. (They added) some key pieces (and) were able to get on a roll and go. Hopefully, we can be able to do that.

Andrew Friedman, another executive the Cubs have discussed, has built a sustainable model with the Tampa Bay Rays. At Thursdays end-of-season media session, Friedman talked about the teams 2012 plans and said he looked forward to working with Rays manager Joe Maddon for a long time.

The idea Maddon repeated to reporters has to be rattling around the mind of any candidate.

The working relationship here is unique, Maddon said. This is different in all the best ways. To think that the grass is going to be better fertilized or greener anywhere else is incredibly wrong.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

CINCINNATI – From top to bottom, the Cubs now have all the pieces in place to make October baseball at Wrigley Field a reality, year after year, with family ownership, rock-star executives and blue-chip players.

“It’s nice to keep the band together,” manager Joe Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s announcement that general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod had finalized contract extensions, matching up their timelines with team president Theo Epstein’s new monster deal through the 2021 season.

Those architects constructed what’s already a 102-win team, a division champion and the National League’s No. 1 seed, making the Cubs right now the biggest story in baseball, if not professional sports.

The lineup for a 7-3 win over the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds featured two MVP candidates (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo), a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and marquee free agents (Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler). The last two games of the regular season at Great American Ball Park will feature Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks making their final cases for the Cy Young Award. 

“It always starts with ownership and then it goes into the front office and eventually gets to us when you have that kind of stability,” said Maddon, who led a stunning turnaround with the Tampa Bay Rays despite all the uncertainty that came with small-market payrolls, a charmless domed stadium (Tropicana Field) and speculation about relocation and contraction.

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“We have a great product on the field,” Maddon said. “We have the best ballpark in the world. Our fans are spectacular. The city itself – there’s no more interesting place to live than Chicago. All those factors play into the success.

“I know in the past the Cubs haven’t been as successful as they wanted to be. But I don’t know that all the different ingredients have been put into place this well.

“So looking ahead, you just want to build off what you’ve done. Last year was a good building block coming into this year. And we want to keep moving forward. Of course, our goal is to play the final game of the year and win it. Under these circumstances, I think it becomes more believable on an annual basis.”

Since Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod reunited in the fall of 2011 – updating their World Series blueprints with the Boston Red Sox – the Cubs are just the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season. The Cubs have now qualified for postseason play in consecutive seasons for only the third time in franchise history.

“We had some good pieces,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But the organization itself was not in a position where you could believe that there was sustainability and consistency and success on the field. Obviously, Theo and the guys that he brought with him five years ago kind of took the organization down to the studs and started rebuilding.

“The time and energy to do it the right way has paid off with a team that should be successful for years to come.”

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