Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

578516.png

Cubs year in review: We stinks to Theo-mania

Carlos Zambrano towered over the reporters surrounding his locker inside Dodger Stadium. The postgame interview was just about over when a local blogger who had scored credentials wanted to know what Zambrano was like as a kid in Venezuela.

Have you always been this emotional?

Where you been the last nine years? Zambrano wondered.

Everyone started laughing on May 4 after the Cubs won a getaway game in Los Angeles. Less than 48 hours earlier, Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin had stood outside the clubhouse grumbling about the state of his team, calling it a big bowl of nothing.

Perhaps youve been too busy playing winter ball in Venezuela. Or maybe you stopped listening near the end of spring training, like Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah).

Really, there wasnt much reason to pay attention. The season was essentially over by the first week of April, when 40 percent of the rotation (Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner) went on the disabled list. But that was only the most obvious and convenient excuse.

The Cubs had already made the wrong bets on big contracts. Ownership instability had forced the front office to cut corners in the draft and player development. There would be a natural regression for an aging core of players.

There would be consequences for the Win one for the Tribune! mentality that came out of the Tower years ago.

Chairman Tom Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry and gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom. Epstein fired manager Mike Quade, hired Dale Sveum and told the industry the Cubs were open for business. No player in the clubhouse could feel all that safe anymore.

Where you been? Hopefully, you got that (Bleep) the goat T-shirt you wanted for Christmas. What follows is a look back on a year that may (or may not) change the franchise forever.

We stinks

Zambrano reported to spring training in Arizona and joked that he was cured after anger-management therapy: I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.

Zambrano had no other choice after cleaning out his locker and walking out on his teammates. The Atlanta Braves had planned Aug. 12 to be a night for Bobby Cox, their beloved former manager, but all that was overshadowed once Zambrano got lit up and threw at Chipper Jones.

Zambrano left Turner Field during the middle of the game and headed toward the teams downtown hotel. He was texting and telling people that he felt like he was stealing money and thinking about retirement. The Cubs called his bluff.

Epstein knows this history and has publicly allowed for the possibility of Zambrano earning his way back onto the team. But privately people on both sides would admit that he could use a change of scenery.

With good friend Ozzie Guillen now running the Miami Marlins show, it makes sense for Zambrano to take his talents to South Beach.

You cant fight change

Hendry must have been going through the stages of grief when he suspended Zambrano. Ricketts had already fired his general manager on July 22, leading to what Hendry would later call one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history.

By the time Zambrano blew up, Hendry was approaching acceptance. In the days leading up to the Aug. 19 announcement, Hendry was holding court at Houstons Minute Maid Park, telling all the old stories and spitting out rapid-fire expletives and one-liners.

Hendry was the guy with the loudest laugh in the dugout. He got his start coaching baseball and teaching English at Columbus High, a Catholic school in Miami. He rose to become the first general manager in franchise history to see the Cubs make the postseason three times during his tenure.

In one role or another, Hendry lasted almost 17 seasons in the Cubs front office. His big personality inspired a tremendous amount of loyalty among the people who worked for him. At the end of the news conference announcing his firing, he stood up inside the Wrigley Field dungeoninterview room.

Hours before first pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hendry jokingly asked the beat writers to deliver a message to interim general manager Randy Bush: Tell Bushie to go hug Albert for me.
Theo-mania

Pujols wasnt going to embrace the Cubs, though that didnt stop the national media and a new front office from feeding the perception that they were in on all the big-ticket items this winter (Prince Fielder? Yu Darvish?).

This came 12 months after the Cubs had to spread Carlos Penas one-year pillow contract across three fiscal years. Ricketts made the splash when he lured Epstein from the Boston Red Sox with a bigger job and a better title.

Ricketts, who had already sat through two forgettable seasons, knew his family had to make a game-changing hire and send a message to a skeptical fan base that was tired of hearing about bison dogs and urinal troughs.

They put up THEOLOGY and In Theo We Trust T-shirts in the storefront windows on Clark Street. The president of baseball operations has already waved goodbye to veterans Aramis Ramirez and Sean Marshall, and shipped out Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, two homegrown players who were supposed to be part of the youth movement.

A new collective bargaining agreement will limit what the Cubs can spend in the draft and internationally, and you wonder if they found religion too late. Epstein had already begun pooling intellectual capital by bringing his boys Jed Hoyer (general manager) and Jason McLeod (senior vice president) into an expanding front office.

The Red Sox were ahead of the curve almost a decade ago, but the baseball world is now essentially flat. The entire industry is accessing most of the same data and looking at the game through similar prisms. Ricketts has to hope hes paying for future results and not past performance.

Epstein has built up a reservoir of goodwill that should last until the first three-game losing streak. Guillen put it this way: In two years, I hope the fans in Chicago love Theo the way they do now.

Im not a lunatic

Quade was dealt a bad hand after waiting his entire professional life for this chance. No one was going to win big with this roster.

Quade rode the El. He could walk through Wrigleyville with a hat pulled down over his bald head and no one would notice. He was a Chicago guy who could talk about Da Bears. But as the season wore on, he seemed to become an increasingly isolated figure.

The players who once lobbied for their interim manager to keep the job didnt say much near the end. Just before the All-Star break, the television cameras captured a shouting match with Ryan Dempster inside Pittsburghs PNC Park dugout. That was a revealing look behind the curtain.

This was a group that had to separate Silva and Ramirez in the dugout after the first inning of the fourth game in spring training.

Sveum rides motorcycles and has tattoos all over his skin, which will stand out inside the corporate culture at Clark and Addison. The Milwaukee Brewers made him their interim manager for 12 games late in the 2008 season and won the wild card.

Thats the extent of Sveums experience managing at this level, but he has several advantages over Quade: The instant credibility that comes after playing 12 seasons in the big leagues; a stronger voice in assembling his coaching staff; and a secure, stable front office that expects him to grow into the job.

It is what it is, man

For Matt Garza, the year ends exactly where it began, trying to ignore all the trade rumors.

Garza remains under club control for two more seasons and what Epstein does with the 28-year-old pitcher trade or contract extension figures to be a bellwether for this franchise. It could reveal just how long they think this rebuilding process will take.

Garza has already made his bones in the playoffs (and been traded twice). He has electric stuff (and a 52-54 career record). The centerpiece to last winters eight-player deal with Tampa Bay made a strong overall impression during his first season on the North Side.

Teammates appreciated Garzas energy, work ethic and competitiveness (and loved wolfing down Popeyes fried chicken in the clubhouse before his starts).

The two building blocks for the future are Garza and Starlin Castro, a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop who led the National League with 207 hits. But if Epsteins blown away by an offer, he wont hesitate to trade Garza for multiple young players to surround Castro in 2014 and beyond.

We dared to dream

People who never met Ron Santo felt like they knew him just by listening to him on the radio. There was laughter and groaning and none of it was phony. His emotions were always extreme. It was either joy or agony.

One year after his death, his family learned that Santo was voted into the Hall of Fame by a Golden Era veterans committee led by old friend Billy Williams. It was a measure of the man both on and off the field.

It was a bittersweet feeling for Cubs people, who still crack up and double over in laughter telling the same Santo stories.

It was the final chapter for a year in which the players wore No. 10 uniform patches and the organization celebrated his legacy. Fans gathered to see the unveiling of a magnificent Santo statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.

Santos widow Vicki found a lesson in the waiting for Cooperstown. It spoke to a fearless style of play and the lives impacted by a rainmaker for juvenile diabetes research.

It should resonate with the romantics who follow this team and the cold-blooded analytical types charged with rewiring this franchise: You cant give up.

Report: Aroldis Chapman returns to Yankees on five-year deal

Report: Aroldis Chapman returns to Yankees on five-year deal

After helping bring a World Series title back to the North Side, Aroldis Chapman is headed back to New York.

The former Cubs closer signed a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees, according to FOX's Ken Rosenthal.

He was acquired by the Cubs in July in exchange for pitcher Adam Warren and prospects Rashad Crawford, Billy McKinney and Gleyber Torres.

Chapman notched 36 saves and owned a 1.01 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and recorded 90 strikeouts across 26 2/3 innings with the Cubs during the regular season.

He appeared in 13 postseason contests, where he registered a 3.45 ERA,1.09 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. 

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Before making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees, the Cubs checked in with the Kansas City Royals about Wade Davis and found the asking price to be Kyle Schwarber. 

The psychology and the supply-and-demand dynamics are different in July. Schwarber had been damaged goods, still recovering from major knee surgery and months away from his dramatic return in the World Series. Davis also could have impacted two pennants races for his new team instead of one.
 
By the time a $10 billion industry reconvened this week outside Washington, D.C., for the winter meetings, the small-market Royals could compromise with Jorge Soler, betting on his long-term upside and facing the reality that their World Series closer could have been part of a mass exodus of free agents after the 2017 season.

The Cubs also checked into the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center knowing that Soler is a diminishing asset for a loaded team at a time when his best attribute – right-handed power – could be found on the free-agent market in sluggers like Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo.  
     
“I think there’s some great baseball ahead for him,” team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday night after the Cubs finalized the Soler-for-Davis trade. “I think it’s more likely that he reaches his ceiling now than it was 24 hours ago, because he’s got a chance to play every day.” 

Soler became a top priority within the first weeks of the Epstein administration as Cubs officials scouted the Cuban defector in the Dominican Republic before Thanksgiving 2011, picturing him as a building block for future playoff teams at a renovated Wrigley Field. 

Even chairman Tom Ricketts met with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cubs won the bidding war and the prospect signed a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012. 

Years later, manager Joe Maddon would describe Soler as Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline, the kind of talent who would be drafted No. 1 overall if he had been born in South Florida. 

Soler showed flashes of superstar potential. He absolutely crushed the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2015 playoffs (2.341 OPS) and will get a well-deserved World Series ring. But he didn’t look like a complete player or an athlete the Cubs could count on to stay healthy, profiling more like a designated hitter in the American League.

“When George was playing sporadically, he became a little bit more of an all-or-nothing power threat,” Epstein said, “because it’s hard to get into a good rhythm and you’re not seeing pitches as much. You’re not recognizing spin the same way. 

“When he’s locked in, he can work really good at-bats. And he’s a hitter – not just a power hitter. So I think it’s more likely now that his potential gets unleashed at some point. We’re rooting for him.”

[SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here] 

Maybe Soler – who still hasn’t turned 25 yet – can avoid some of the leg injuries as a part-time DH and put it all together in Kansas City as the Royals try to balance the present, the future and their financial realities. But the Cubs are a win-now team that believes Davis could get them the final out of the 2017 World Series. 

An October legend (Schwarber) and a $184 million Gold Glove defender (Jason Heyward) would keep blocking Soler at the corner spots in Wrigley Field, where a National League MVP (Kris Bryant) and a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) can move away from the infield. Javier Baez is another versatile, well-rounded player who would continue to marginalize Soler. 

“It became tough for us,” Epstein said, “with Schwarber looking like he’s destined to play quite a bit of left field. Not ruling catching out as an option to some extent, but he’s going to play a lot of left field. 

“And with Javy’s emergence – and what that means for Zobrist’s possible role in the outfield as well at times – it just became tougher and tougher to see George getting regular at-bats with us. 

“We felt like he needed to play – and it would have been a tough fit.”

It would have been even tougher to trade a spare outfielder during his fourth season in the big leagues. Stashing Soler – who has 27 career homers in less than 700 big-league at-bats – at Triple-A Iowa wouldn’t have been the answer. 

The Cubs saw this day coming. Schwarber wrecked his knee in early April and Soler injured his hamstring two months later and wound up missing two months.

“He just couldn’t quite stay healthy enough,” Epstein said, “and kind of slumped at the wrong time and started to get hot right before he got hurt.

“That was kind of how we envisioned it: ‘Hey, if there’s an opportunity, this guy can take the job and run with it – and then we have an even more valuable trade chip – or we’ve got an everyday leftfielder/middle-of the-order bat.’ It just didn’t quite come together. 

“But I think this trade – despite that – recouped a lot of his value. It made sense for him, for us and for the Royals.”