For Cubs, Prince was the right player at the wrong time

For Cubs, Prince was the right player at the wrong time
January 25, 2012, 5:50 am
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At some point, Theo Epstein will have to go all-in and gamble on the piece that could put the Cubs over-the-top. But it wasnt going to happen this winter. Prince Fielder wasnt the right player at the right time.

The Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world on Tuesday with the news that Fielder had agreed to a reported nine-year deal worth 214 million. Life in the National League Central will be a lot different without the star power of Fielder or Albert Pujols.

Fielder is only 27 years old, with a left-handed swing that would be perfect for Wrigley Field. He plays hard every day and should be good for 35 homers and 100-plus RBI every year through 2016.

But there is so much work to be done at Clark and Addison that it didnt make sense to pour so much money into one player (especially one who looks like a designated hitter).

The Ricketts family plans to control the Cubs for generations. They are still learning the business and dont yet have the same urgency Tigers owner Mike Ilitch showed in trying to win a World Series right now.

They also dont have to worry about capturing a market the way Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno did in giving Pujols a 10-year, 254 million megadeal.

Epstein had just left a Boston Red Sox team burned by the wrong bets in free agency for a five-year commitment to an organization that had been crippled by bad long-term contracts.

For the moment, the Cubs have removed emotion from the equation. Even franchise icon Kerry Wood had to wait until the middle of January to sign a one-year, 3 million deal with a club option for 2013.

Epstein has acknowledged that the Cubs arent at a point where they will make countermoves against the division, the way the New York Yankees roll in their rivalry with the Red Sox. They werent going to make an impulse buy with Fielder or Pujols.

You could hear the ambivalence in Epsteins voice one night last month at the winter meetings in Dallas. The next morning word spread throughout the lobby of the Hilton Anatole that Pujols was heading to Southern California.

Its like that moment after you sign a free agent, Epstein said up in his hotel suite. By definition, you overpaid, because you were the high team, right? The high bidder usually gets the player, so theres a winners curse associated with that sometimes.

That moment when youre at the press conference and youre holding up the jersey, youre sitting there thinking this could be a great moment in franchise history. And then theres a big voice in the back of your head saying: I might be regretting this for the next six years.

You cant get away from it. And that voice is louder than the one that says: This could be a great thing for the team going forward. Because just look at the history of long-term free agent contracts. They tend not to work out.

Thats why it would be a mistake to completely write off the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. These front offices are resourceful and have assembled enough high-end pitching to keep their teams competitive.

And if they had given in and stretched their budgets for their franchise players, it could have paralyzed those organizations for years to come.

The Cardinals squeezed 11 great years out of Pujols and finished under .500 only once during that window, making the playoffs seven times and winning two titles.

The Brewers formed their identity around Fielder, playing with a hard edge that almost got them to the World Series last season. Thats the way this Scott Boras client approached free agency. A good relationship with new Cubs manager Dale Sveum wasnt going to matter much.

The Cubs are prepared to let 29-year-old Bryan LaHair a former 39th-round pick and last seasons Pacific Coast League MVP play first base. Waiting at Triple-A Iowa will be Anthony Rizzo, the top prospect acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Andrew Cashner deal.

Cubs executives Jason McLeod and Jed Hoyer watched Rizzo beat Hodgkins lymphoma as a Red Sox minor-leaguer, and thought he might one day replace Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego. Rizzo is supposed to eventually become a force in the middle of the order and the clubhouse.

For a 22-year-old kid, hes got a lot of leadership ability, Epstein said. (Hes) mature beyond his years. Hes already overcome adversity in his life with the cancer that he beat. I think thats important. Baseballs all about overcoming adversity. Failures inherent in this game, so if youre looking for one characteristic in a player, you want to (see how he handles) adversity.

Even in the minor leagues, he put the team first. He wasnt all about his statistics. Because of his imposing size and his character and the fact that he cared about his team and his teammates, he was kind of magnetic. His teammates even those who were older than him kind of rallied around him.

So Epstein will build around Rizzo and try to collect as many young players as possible, with an eye toward the future. Ownership resisted the urge to make a splash with a box-office draw who would sell tickets.

This doesnt have to be The Year. Maybe, in their own slow, steady way, the Cubs just shocked the baseball world, too.