In this division, next Cubs GM will have a chance

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In this division, next Cubs GM will have a chance

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011Posted: 8:45 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow@CSNMooney
CINCINNATI - The Cubs don't have to compete with the Red Sox or Yankees, and that might make this job appealing to the next general manager.

The Cubs only have to be as good as the National League Central demands. That meant 83 wins for the 2006 Cardinals, enough to sneak into the playoffs and ultimately win a World Series title.

That also happens to be the last time an NL Central team won a postseason series. Since then, the last four division winners have been swept out of the playoffs in three games. (The 2008 Brewers, a wild-card team, managed to win one first-round game.)

Assuming the Brewers are spraying champagne sometime during the next several days, that means four different teams will have won the division in the past four years. There are no dynasties here.

The window closed hard and fast on the Cubs after that summer of 2008. They are paying the price for those big-money contracts, years of ownership instability and the perfect storm of injuries this season.

During the interviews, this will not be the time to highlight your background in statistical analysis. But if you take this job, you will believe that you will be the one to defy more than a century worth of history.

Fans are right to be skeptical. The Ricketts family hasn't built up much equity yet, and none of these projects are really beyond the planning phase.

But if you have enough imagination - or are willing to suspend disbelief - then you see new player-development facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, a renovated Wrigley Field and a Cubs television network in the future.

Theo Epstein or not, this organization is obsessed with the Red Sox business model and could be positioned to be the next economic superpower. They should have more resources than anyone else in the Midwest.

Cubs pitcher Randy Wells glanced at the American League East standings. The Blue Jays are having a pretty good year, building toward something. They still woke up on Tuesday at 74-73 - in fourth place, 15.5 games out in a brutal division.

"You never know what kind of moves are going to impact you and which way (they're going to go)," Wells said. "It's kind of a crapshoot. Whoever the new GM is (will) be determined to put together the best team possible.

"(But) the Giants proved last year (that) no matter what you got on paper, it's just the right team (that) gets hot at the right time. (When) guys pull together, I think any team can win it. ... I don't see why we can't be one of those teams."

When Wells talks about adding a few pieces and getting guys on the same page, he echoes what the clubhouse thinks, the plan Jim Hendry probably would have followed this winter.

"(It's) the right state of mind, the right mentality we want to play (with)," Matt Garza said. "It's getting there. (It's) gonna turn. It might not turn this year, but if we can finish strong and finish on a high note, it's always a great step toward spring, especially for the young guys."

Garza, who will be a huge building block on the North Side, was part of the Tampa Bay team that went to the 2008 World Series a year after losing 96 games. If you needed a reminder of how quickly things change, you could look around Tuesday night at all the empty seats at Great American Ball Park.

The Reds were last year's feel-good story. Now the defending division champs are just another sub-.500 team playing out the string.

Mike Quade got a lot of bad publicity for his "I'm not a lunatic" declaration this summer that the Cubs were still in the race. Even some in the organization snickered. But the manager still believes this will be a winnable division in 2012.

"Yeah, absolutely it is," Quade said. "(The Reds) still got good young talent. ... St. Louis is still hanging around and people better not put them away yet. But I think right now if everything stays intact, (it's) the Milwaukee club, because they've added the pitching, (which) has made a huge impression. And where were they a year or two ago?

"So there's always reason to believe (that) if you put the right things together, improve in the areas you need to, (then) you can compete."

With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder poised to become free agents, and the Cubs hoping to land some hotshot executive, the Central landscape could change dramatically.

But if Tom Ricketts gets this hire wrong, then the scouting and player-development infrastructure Hendry built could crumble. This organization could be set back for years to come, and starting all over again later this decade.

It's a risk the chairman's willing to take. The rest of the division will be rooting against the Cubs.

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

Theo Epstein tops Fortune's list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders

Theo Epstein tops Fortune's list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders

The Cubs keep raking in the accolades.

Theo Epstein is the latest to be honored, with Fortune naming the Cubs president of baseball operations No. 1 on the newly-released list of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders.

Epstein — the architect of the Cubs team that ended a 108-year championship drought — beat out such names as Pope Francis, John McCain, LeBron James and Joe Biden.

Fellow Chicagoan and White Sox ambassador Chance the Rapper also made the list at No. 46.

The rationale for Epstein includes:

In his book The Cubs Way, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci details the five-year rebuilding plan that led to the team’s victory. The Cubs owe their success to a concatenation of different leadership styles, from the affable patience of owner Tom Ricketts to the innovative eccentricity of manager Joe Maddon. But most important of all was the evolution of club president Theo Epstein, the wunderkind executive who realized he would need to grow as a leader in order to replicate in Chicago the success he’d had with the Boston Red Sox. In the following passages, Verducci describes how a deeper understanding of important human qualities among his players—the character, discipline, and chemistry that turn skilled athletes into leaders—­enabled Epstein to engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports.

For more on why Epstein and the Cubs topped the list, head to Fortune.com.

Epstein had a classic reaction to the honor, texting ESPN's Buster Olney:

"Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house. That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball - a pastime involving a lot of chance. If Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I'm not even the best leader in our organization; our players are."

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

MESA, Ariz. — Now what? Ryan Dempster believes these Cubs are young enough, hungry enough and talented enough to become the first group to win back-to-back World Series since the three-peat New York Yankees built a dynasty with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

But Dempster already understands the expectations at Wrigley Field this season, especially after pitching on disappointing Cubs teams that got swept out of the playoffs and working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein's front office.

"Nothing can top it," Dempster said. "You can win 162 games and sweep everybody in the playoffs and it won't be as exciting for people, other than maybe the guys playing it."

That's why Jon Lester isn't putting up the "Mission Accomplished" banner at his locker, even though the Cubs had the parade down Michigan Avenue in mind when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history at the time. Dempster — who also earned a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox — had given Lester a scouting report as the Cubs went all-out in their pursuit of the big-game lefty.

There are still four years left on Lester's $155 million megadeal. It has been less than five months since the Cubs finally won the World Series and unleashed an epic celebration.

"Now the hard part is you don't get complacent," Lester said Wednesday after throwing six innings against an Oakland A's minor-league squad at the Sloan Park complex. "I talk about these young guys — that's where that helps. Even though you've accomplished things personally, you still want these guys to accomplish things.

"That's where that drive still gets you. You don't want to let your teammates down. You still want to be accountable for what you do. And that means showing up and doing your work in between starts and in the offseason."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Lester believed so much in Epstein's vision, the pipeline of talent about to burst and the lure of Chicago that he signed with a last-place team. The Cubs needed a symbol to show they were serious about winning, a clubhouse tone-setter and an anchor for their rotation.

A new comfort level in Year 2 of that contract helped explain how Lester performed as an All Star, a Cy Young Award finalist and the National League Championship Series co-MVP. But Lester wants to make sure that the Cubs don't get too comfortable — or feel like they're playing with house money.

"You enjoy that, you learn from it," Lester said. "The biggest thing is not getting complacent with yourself and with your teammates. That's what drives me, making sure I'm prepared to pitch.

"I'm called upon every five days, and I have to be there. That's where that goal of 30 starts and 200 innings comes into play. I feel like if I do that, then I've done my job, for my teammates and this organization.

"The championships and the World Series — that's stuff you can't predict. It's stuff you strive to do every single year. So that's all we're going to focus on again. Our team goal again is to win a World Series."