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How Long Before Theo Epstein Can Turn Around the Cubs? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Wednesday, 12 October 2011 15:48

Theo EpsteinWhat has been rumored for some time is on the cusp of becoming a reality: Theo Epstein is leaving the Boston Red Sox and headed to the Chicago Cubs in a deal reportedly worth $15 million over 5 years.

Under Epstein’s tenure, he broke an 86 year World Series championship futility mark, and proved it was no fluke three years later when the Sox won it all again in 2007.

So, can he do the same with the Cubs? Give it all time… give it time. While Epstein is reportedly gaining more powers in Chicago than he had in Boston, he still is left with a team and contracts that aren’t exactly the best. Here’s the challenges:

The Manager

You know as fast as you can say, “Tito”, the discussion of whether Terry Francona will be the next manager of the Cubs crossed your lips today. Makes sense, right? The two were a large reason for the World Series victories in Boston, and Francona once played for the Cubs. Either way, one of Epstein’s first jobs will be to hire a dugout manager, a critical piece depending on the roster he builds for not only 2012, but beyond.

The Bloated Payroll

Here’s Epstein’s biggest challenge. A lot of noise was made when Jim Hendry didn’t do anything at the trade deadline this year, but that was largely driven by the fact that the contracts that the Cubs have to unload are not easy for another team to want. The Cubs’ opening day payroll was $125,047,329, 6th in the league last year. Theo may not want to dump all, but here’s some of what the Cubs are saddled with:

  • Alfonso Soriano (under contract till 2014) $18 million annually
  • Ryan Dempster (under contract through 2012) $14 million
  • Marlon Byrd (under contract through 2012) $6.5 million
  • Aramis Ramirez (club option for 2012): $16 million, or $2 million buyout
  • Carlos Zambrano (through 2012, with 2013 vesting option) $18 million in 2012 (Marlins reportedly interested if Cubs carry a large part of the contract)
  • Carlos Marmol (under contract through 2013) $7 million in 2012
  • Sean Marshall (under contract through 2012) $3.1 million

Renewing and Coming Back

Here’s some who had contracts expire at the end of 2011 that Theo has to consider for the upcoming season:

  • Carlos Pena (earned $10 million in 2011)
  • Matt Garza (earned $5.95 million in 2011)
  • John Grabow (earned $4.8 million in 2011)
  • Geovany Soto (earned $3 million in 2011)
  • Kerry Wood (earned $1.5 million in 2011)
  • Jeff Baker (salary arb, earned $1.175 million in 2011)
  • Ramon Ortiz (signed minor-league deal, but Cubs purchased for $1 million later in the season)

Thin Pockets and More Analytics

Those that have been following the Cubs closely have been hearing for some time that the Cubs were going to get more analytical in their approach. Indeed, a key difference with the Cubs prior to being sold to the Ricketts family was that Tribune was driven to win a World Series at all costs and doled out back-loaded contracts by way of Hendry.

One of the more quiet moves that could pay dividends in the long run was the hiring of Ari Kaplan as the head of the Cubs’ analytics department. While Kaplan doesn’t have the name draw of Bill James, he’s an exceptionally bright mind that had developed a powerful database for statistics prior to coming over to the Cubs. While Epstein is going to get a nice paycheck, with the renovation to Wrigley Field unable to yet get off the ground, Tom Ricketts is going to be working from a “spend smarter” frame of mind. Epstein will likely need to shed payroll to get the Cubs into a spot where they have some flexibility while Ricketts continues to pound the pavement to get the renovation to Wrigley going, a key driver to increased revenues, ala the work that the Red Sox ownership did with Fenway Park.

Why the Astros Matter

It hasn’t happened yet, and won’t be key until 2013, but at some point, look for the Houston Astros to move to the AL West. When that happens, there is one less team to face in the NL Central. That can be good or bad. Certainly, feasting off a team that had a league worst 106 losses helps you on one end. At the other, you have more teams to try and match up with. Still, the Cubs will have their hands full either way. Just because the Astros move doesn’t mean you get away from the Cardinals and Brewers, both of which are in the NLCS, while the Pirates could be, maybe, just a player or two away from being competitive.

When Is There a Possible Turnaround?

It’s baseball. Anything is possible. But, given where the Cubs are at, even Theo Epstein needs time to get a solid team and payroll flexibility under his feet. Next season? Probably too soon. Year after?… maybe. Three years from now? Now we’re talking. Bottom line is, Theo Epstein is a very good GM. He’s not perfect (ahem, John Lackey), but with a good supporting cast in the front office, he was able to do great things. Good enough to break the curse of the Billy Goat? We’ll see.

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Maury BrownMaury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, and is a contributor to Forbes SportsMoney blog.. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).

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