Cubs: Andy MacPhail knows what Theo Epstein’s going through

Cubs: Andy MacPhail knows what Theo Epstein’s going through
December 20, 2013, 5:15 pm
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Hey, you were Theo before Theo?

“I was,” Andy MacPhail said. “And I got traded for, too, which I think the Cubs got the bad end of that deal.”

The Epstein administration hasn’t exactly energized the base this winter, shopping in the discount aisles for free agents while waiting for the post-Christmas sales. 

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The Cubs have become an easy target for super-agent Scott Boras, the beat writers who need something to write about and pretty much anyone with a Twitter account. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is telling them to finally get started with the Wrigley Field construction, probably with a few F-bombs dropped in there.

MacPhail’s a conservative guy with fair hair and thin wire glasses, not exactly the image of a “rock star.” But he understands the Chicago market’s idiosyncrasies, the City Hall machine and all the corporate politics at Clark and Addison.   

Before his 40th birthday, MacPhail had already built two World Series winners with the Minnesota Twins. He had a Cooperstown pedigree – his father, Lee, and grandfather, Larry, are in the Hall of Fame. He had previously worked in the Cubs front office, beginning his career at a minor-league affiliate after graduating from Dickinson College. 

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Tribune Co. made the home-run hire in 1994. The new Cubs president was supposed to be the savior.

MacPhail’s not looking for the Epstein comps or trying to defend his legacy. He walked and talked with three Chicago reporters at last week’s winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. He headed down a side staircase at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort and spoke for almost two minutes before being whisked into a shuttle bus with the rest of a Hall of Fame committee.

“I am a huge believer in no comments from the peanut gallery,” MacPhail said. “I was never a great fan of getting comments from the peanut gallery when I was in the fray.

“They got to do it the way they’re comfortable and the way that they think most guarantees their success. And I know that’s what that group’s doing.”

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That group is waiting for the revenues from a renovated Wrigley Field and the new television deals. While the business/baseball plans make sense, you can’t just flip a switch.

As Epstein said: “We have to guard against this perception that we believe that once our most talented prospects come up to the big leagues, all of our problems are solved, because that’s not the way it works in baseball.”

There’s the feeling this is a franchise that keeps moving the goalposts. That’s been frustrating for both sides in the Jeff Samardzija negotiations. The breakthrough year’s supposed to be…2015? 2016? 2017?

That won’t be part of the marketing blitz at next month’s Cubs Convention, where everyone figures to be talking about Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

“Once our players get to the big-league level, development starts anew in a lot of ways,” Epstein said. “There’s a period of ups and downs and struggle that can be hard for organizations to go through, hard for the players to go through, hard for the fans to go through.

“There’s no panacea with just three or four prospects coming up at the same time. That doesn’t solve your problems. It might make things more interesting and it’s the start of something significant. But it doesn’t mean you instantly become a contender. 

“We invoke that all the time internally: ‘Let’s not think that we’ve reached the finish line just when we get a few prospects to the big leagues.’ In some ways, that’s the starting line.

“There’s a period of adjustment that we have to be prepared for – and hope our organization is prepared for – (so) we can support our players the best way possible. Maybe shorten that adjustment period, make them feel comfortable, (let them know) it’s OK to not succeed instantly at the big leagues, which is unrealistic if your name’s not Mike Trout. 

“Also prepare our fan base somewhat. It’s going to be a heck of a lot more interesting, I think, when it happens. But it doesn’t necessarily mean right away all our players in their early 20s are going to be the cornerstones of a World Series club. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that.”  

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MacPhail and former general manager Jim Hendry thought they were laying The Foundation for Sustained Success. They were five outs away from winning the 2003 National League pennant and still had a rotation revolving around 20-somethings Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. 

“It could have been,” MacPhail said. “We weren’t the luckiest birds in the world, health-wise, with our starting pitchers. But most people forget – I think we had a better won-loss record in ’04 (89-73) than we did ’03 (88-74). So we were kind of building towards it.”

MacPhail resigned in October 2006 and eight months later took another president’s job with the Baltimore Orioles. He oversaw four last-place finishes and stepped down in October 2011. But his fingerprints were all over the team that won an American League wild card in 2012.

MacPhail hired manager Buck Showalter, traded for core pieces Adam Jones, Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy while the organization drafted another future All-Star in Manny Machado. The Orioles have won 178 games across the last two seasons, making Camden Yards relevant again.

The landscape is completely different now. New television money has flooded the game, closing the gap between bigger and smaller markets. Teams are locking up young core players with extensions, diluting the free-agent market. All 30 clubs use analytics and maybe 25 teams value players in roughly the same way. A restrictive collective bargaining agreement limits how much you can spend internationally and in the draft. Drug testing has changed how the game’s played. 

Welcome to Chicago.

“You always have to kind of contour your plan to the real facts on the ground,” MacPhail said. “You can’t make a plan that doesn’t really fit with the dynamics that are going on around you. I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group that they’re going to do it the way they think is going to most assuredly get them the end goal. Because that’s the prize – winning the whole thing. We got close. But ultimately you aren’t successful until you at least get to the World Series.”