With the Cubs likely headed to their fifth consecutive 90-plus loss season, the grumblings from the massive fan base are becoming louder and more prevalent. Questioning the baseball operations department has become commonplace as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer continue to do very little in the offseason to help the big-league club become more competitive, and whoever is added in the offseason is done with trading that asset during the season in mind.
For those surprised by the Cubs plan and lack of instant success, you need to go back and look at the quotes from Epstein and Hoyer from the day they both arrived in the fall of 2011 to see that they have been transparent and are sticking, for the most part, to their long term plan.
Epstein was brutally honest when he was first hired, telling the media that while he was being looked up on as the savior of a franchise that has gone more than 100 years without a title, he was no messiah and that he knew what the short-term reaction was going to be from the fans and the media. In an appearance on Comcast SportsNet, Epstein told me, “I can write your stories for you right now. It may be in three years, it may be in two years or it may be in six months, but when we go through this building process you guys (the media) will be questioning the plan and whether or not it will succeed.”
As he predicted, Epstein is now hearing the whispers of doubt. But both he and Hoyer are holding firm on their plan and their long-term vision of sustained success for the franchise. Said Epstein: “We have to remain committed to our plan, and we have to continue to stockpile long-term assets for the franchise. Every trade we have made has been with that vision in mind. We need waves and waves of impact pitching in our system, and we have to draft as many arms as possible. We also have to hit on our high picks because hopefully we won’t have many more of those.”
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Around the Cubs fan base there has been a combined mixture of anger, apathy and disappointment at the amount of time that the Cubs' plan is taking to succeed. But in speaking with industry sources outside the area, it's apparent the perception of the Cubs is far different. Former Indians general manager John Hart, who now works for MLB Network, is one who has seen the Cubs prospects and is confident that in a short time the Cubs will be one of the game’s best young teams.
“I know that everyone in Chicago is tired of hearing the word 'patience,' but in a just a couple of more years the Chicago Cubs will have an unbelievably good team that will be loaded with high ceiling guys that can lead them to tremendous success," he told me. "Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and a number of other good prospects all have a great chance to be dominant players and part of a contending team."
An anonymous rival general manager believes the day the Cubs are consistent contenders is not far off, and when that day comes it should lead to a long and fruitful run.
“I have evaluated their system and it is absolutely loaded. They have tremendous position player talent and they have some pitching that will be good," he said. "I can tell you that everyone around the game knows that the Cubs day is coming, and it is not that far off.
“The Cubs have a tremendous group of position players, led by Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, and those two should be in the big leagues very soon. I see Albert Almora a year after that and that will give the Cubs a core of outstanding young hitters. Baez and Bryant give the Cubs elite power and run production, while Almora is a great defender, a solid hitter and he has outstanding makeup and leadership qualities. Add in a handful of other excellent prospects and the Cubs long term future looks great," he added.
Hart also drew parallels to his old Indians teams when they were loaded with prospects named Belle and Ramirez.
“When I was in Cleveland, we knew we had a great core of young players who had the potential to be outstanding. We had to be patient until they arrived in the big leagues, and when they did we moved quickly to sign them to long term deals after their first year or so in the big leagues," he said. "The Cubs are now going through that patience stage as they wait for their young players to get to the big league club. However, when they get there the Cubs will have a great group to build around."
Hart also sees a major difference between the Cubs and some of the teams that have developed an elite core group of prospects such as the Tampa Bay Rays or his old Indians teams.
“The Cubs have a tremendous advantage over many other clubs because they will have the ability to spend money to acquire veteran players to play alongside all of the youngsters that will be coming up over the next couple of years," he said. "They will be able to spend big to land pitching and veteran players, and when the prospects are ready to win at the big league level they should have an outstanding team."
A rival executive who has evaluated every level of the Cubs system sees a ton of talent in the system and also sees the Cubs at a crossroads in their decision making.
“What will they do with some of the veterans that they can move for prospects? This year they will struggle again and I really believe that this will be the roughest of the three years that Theo and Jed have been in Chicago,” he said. “They have to make great decisions on a couple of guys, led by Jeff Samardzija. They are asking for a ton in return for him and I’m not sure that they can truly get what they are asking for. He will be 30 next fall and when they are truly ready to contend he will be 33 or so. They need to trade him in the next couple of months and get an excellent package back, but that package may not be as good as they hope to get.
"He will be on the 'back nine' of his career when the Cubs will be ready to have an extended run of success, so if it were me I would move him fairly soon. Why take a chance on an injury if you wait until July? Plus, if you wait until the fall they only have one more year then of team control. He can get you young pitching prospects, but to get those you have to move him fairly soon. Also it is important to remember that prospects are just prospects until they prove they can play at the big league level. There is some risk in moving a guy who has proven he is a big league pitcher and likes the big stage."
Hart praised the Cubs' front office for landing young players in their deals, notably C.J. Edwards in the Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers: “Theo picked Jon Daniel’s pocket when he traded Garza to Texas. He got a lot of good players, but getting C.J. Edwards was a steal. He has a chance to be a big part of their pitching staff,” he said.
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Epstein and Hoyer are not without fault, though, with the Edwin Jackson signing perhaps their worst move since coming to Chicago.
“We probably got a little ahead of ourselves on that one," Epstein told a group of season ticket holders this winter in Chicago.
“We got a little ahead of ourselves. We’re not perfect,” Epstein told a fan who asked to explain how Jackson’s four-year, $52 million free-agent deal fit the baseball development plan. “We didn’t fully understand the scope of our situation, the overall situation with the timing of our business plan, the timing of our facilities and the timing of our baseball plan. And if we had the full knowledge at that time, if we had done a better job of grasping it and analyzing it, maybe we would have been more patient.”
When asked again about the Jackson signing at the Cubs Convention, Epstein again admitted the Cubs jumped too quickly. But he did reveal the reasons behind the signing, saying, “We wanted to add pitching, and Edwin checked a lot of the boxes, so to speak. He was young, had no injury history and he has good character. We look for him to have a bounce-back year in 2014.”
Another move I was highly critical of was the re-signing of third baseman Ian Stewart in 2013. I understood the trade for Stewart, whom the Cubs acquired for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, in Epstein’s first ever trade as Cubs president. LeMahieu has become a solid utility man for the Colorado Rockies while Colvin was non-tendered this winter. Stewart was simply awful as a Cubs third baseman, but what made the mistake worse was the fact that he was re-signed after displaying a less than solid attitude in 2012. He eventually was released in 2013 after a rant on Twitter led to his suspension from the team.
A couple of other mistakes that Epstein and Hoyer would like back are the hiring of Dale Sveum, who was fired last fall after two seasons, and the decision to head into the 2013 season with Carlos Marmol as the team’s closer with no viable option in place if he struggled. Marmol did struggle mightily and was eventually traded in a minor deal to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Add up the pluses and minuses and the organization is obviously light years ahead of where it was when the Epstein/Hoyer regime arrived on the job. And while the articles, blogs, and chatter are exactly what Epstein predicted the day he was hired, the perception of the Cubs from outside Chicago is exactly what Epstein hoped for when he began the building process. As Hart said, "I know it’s been a long time but in a couple of years the Cubs are going to have a team that the fans will love to watch play. They are loaded with young, impact players. Now those guys just have to come up and prove that they can play at the big league level.”
And as Epstein said when he joined us in studio on “Sports Talk Live” last December: “When we are ready to contend, we need to be able to put the throttle down. We have to show patience, though, until our guys are ready to come up. They will tell us when they are ready to play in the major leagues.”
If Epstein, Hoyer, Hart and the rest of the baseball execs who view the Cubs rebuild through a long term vision are correct Cubs fans don’t have much longer to wait until the troops arrive from the minor leagues. And when they do those in the know predict a long and successful run at Wrigley. However, caution is advised because the next year or so will still be painful for those who have their hearts invested in the Cubs.