Cubs' new administration wasting no time in remaking roster
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are trying to turn the Cubs into champions at last
More than one-third of the team's 40-man roster is different since Epstein came in
Chicago is trying to shed payroll and could still trade OF Alfonso Soriano
The new Cubs administration has reached the three-quarters mark of its fertile first 100 days in (front) office and has been nothing short of aggressive with its reformist platform.
Seventy-six days have passed since Chicago introduced Theo Epstein as its new president of baseball operations on Oct. 25, with Jed Hoyer taking over as its new general manager a short while later.
As newly elected politicians quickly dismiss much of the staff and policies they inherited from their predecessors, so too are the Cubs trying to clear the house of dead weight.
There's already been a remarkable amount of attrition. The Cubs have turned over more than one-third of their 40-man roster. With Monday's signing of free agent starter Paul Maholm, they have now swapped in 15 new players, of which 11, more than a full quarter of the roster, are from outside the organization; four others were minor leaguers added internally. It hasn't quite been FDR's New Deal, though the Cubs' century-old World Series drought has induced its own great depression among the club's famously loyal fans.
Reform continued last week with trades of starter Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins for starter Chris Volstad and of pitching prospect Andrew Cashner and minor league centerfielder Kyung-Min Na to the Padres for young first baseman Anthony Rizzo and minor league pitcher Zack Cates.
Those back-to-back trades illustrate the new administration's two-fold priorities: stripping away the past regime's follies and beginning to implement their own programs.
While 100 days is a fairly arbitrary benchmark that can't begin to encapsulate a four-year presidential tenure -- or five years, in the case of Epstein's contract -- the first few months can give an interesting glimpse of methodology into the rebuilding process, particularly given the need for an improvised strategy.
Complicating matters is that the rules of the game -- which, for a GM and president, is roster construction -- changed soon after Hoyer and Epstein took office when the new collective bargaining agreement put more rigid caps on amateur spending and reduced the allotment of compensatory draft picks. It's akin to a U.S. president learning after his inauguration that the Supreme Court was about to strike down as unconstitutional all the legislation he promised during his campaign.
Though Epstein's track record in free agency with the Red Sox is checkered at best, one area where he and his cohorts Hoyer and Jason McLeod (the vice president of scouting and development) did exceedingly well was in the amateur draft, where they made bold picks that often required rich, over-slot bonuses to sign the players. That provided a font of talent as those players developed or were traded for more established players.
While shrewd drafting will still be fruitful, albeit a little less lucratively, the Cubs may need to put more emphasis on other avenues of team building. Despite a heavy bankroll, the club has resisted a heavy-spending free-agent stimulus package, though that's likely more a statement on the front office's assessment of a rebuilding timetable. It could take several years to return to contention, so there's no need to spend wildly now when many long-term deals aren't ultimately worthwhile.
In the meantime, Epstein and Hoyer have already completed four trades. In addition to last week's pair of deals, they also sent reliever Sean Marshall to the Reds for starter Travis Wood and dealt outfielder Tyler Colvin and minor league second baseman D.J. LeMahieu to the Rockies for pitcher Casey Weathers and third baseman Ian Stewart. They've also signed low-risk free agent pitchers such as Andy Sonnanstine and Manny Corpas.
There's a parallel here to Epstein's first 100 days in charge of the Red Sox. He took over in Boston before the 2003 season and quickly added a host of important role players when he brought in David Ortiz -- who, quite unexpectedly, blossomed into a major star -- Todd Walker, Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin, Kevin Millar and, less successfully, Chad Fox and Jeremy Giambi.
Much of the Cubs' acquisitions this offseason have been in a similar vein. They've stockpiled talent from other clubs that was either surplus or had fallen out of favor. Wood, for instance, was squeezed out of Cincinnati's rotation despite good numbers (11-10, 4.18 ERA in 39 big league games over two years), while Stewart, who's still only 26, has shown flashes of promise before suffering through a horrendous 2011 season in which he hit just .156 in 48 games. Not every new player is going to pan out, but if several do, it'll be a helpful start to bolstering a core currently headlined by shortstop Starlin Castro, catcher Geovany Soto and starter Matt Garza.
The biggest headline-grabbing move was the trade of the talented but tempestuous Zambrano to the Marlins, ending an 11-year tenure on the North Side in which Big Z won 125 games with a 3.60 ERA and finished in the top-five of the National League Cy Young three times. But he also earned multiple suspensions, including twice indefinitely, for his volatile behavior. Epstein told reporters that every player he spoke to expressed mistrust in the pitcher.
The Cubs began last season with six players making annual salaries of $10 million or more. Hendry began parsing the eight-figure club when he traded rightfielder Kosuke Fukudome last summer, and the new management team allowed third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Carlos Peņa to leave via free agency and traded Zambrano. Only starter Ryan Dempster, whose contract expires at the end of 2012, and leftfielder Alfonso Soriano, who's set to make $18 million in each of the next three seasons, remain from that cadre of cumbersome compensation, with Soriano reportedly being dangled in trade talks. The team is also apparently listening to offers for Garza, as such a trade could enhance a farm system that has some depth but lacks star power.
Chicago won division titles in 2007 and '08, though it failed to win a single postseason game either year. Since then, the club has spent $407 million in payroll -- $135 million in 2009 (which ranked third in the majors), $147 million in 2010 (third) and $125 million in 2011 (sixth) -- while winning just 229 games in descending amounts of 83, 75 and then 71 last season.
The Cubs need a better rate of return than that. And while there will always be unexpected obstacles, the constituents of Wrigleyville can feel confident in their leadership.