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RICK MORRISSEY: Cubs, Theo Epstein need brains, luck to turn franchise around

President baseball operations Theo Epsteis confident his rebuilding plan for Cubs but thdoesn’t mean it will work. | Sun-Times

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein is confident in his rebuilding plan for the Cubs, but that doesn’t mean it will work. | Sun-Times

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Updated: August 8, 2013 6:40AM



Theo Epstein has spent the last 21 months tearing down and attempting to rebuild a baseball operation, the result being 101 losses last season and, at the pace the Cubs are on, 92 losses this season.

They never have lost more than 193 games during a two-year period. They managed 193 losses twice — during the 1965-66 seasons and the 1961-62 seasons.

It’s possible the 2013 team could go on a second-half tear and make the ugly historical distinction of 193 defeats go away, but I don’t think so, not with the franchise in major reconstruction mode.

I’m not trying to depress you, Cubs fans. You’re already depressed. But I do have some good news: Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations, has a plan and is confident in
what he’s doing.

The bad news is that it might not make a bit of difference.

In a perfect world, all of what Epstein is doing would pay off, but this isn’t a perfect world. This is baseball. This is a crapshoot, all of it, maybe the ultimate crapshoot.

Thus the Cubs are hoping a 16-year-old becomes a star. The Cubs spent $2.8 million to sign Eloy Jimenez, whom many teams considered the top international prospect this year. It’s why his name is on the tongue of many diehard Cubs fans, even though they never have set eyes on him. It probably should be pointed out that Felix Pie’s name used to be on their tongues, too. Then they set eyes on him.

But if I know my Cubs faithful — and I think I do — the player they see when they dream about Jimenez isn’t Pie. It’s the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the Cuban rookie who was hitting .420 with a slugging percentage of .706 in 30 games entering Saturday night. Jimenez, a 6-4, 200-pound outfielder from the Dominican Republic, is supposed to be blessed with exceptional athleticism, the way Puig is.

Go ahead and get excited about Jimenez, but know that Epstein is dealing in bulk here. That’s the important thing. The Cubs spent $6.1 million on international prospects last week. If Jimenez doesn’t succeed, somebody else will. That’s the idea, at least, with no basket containing all the eggs.

Go ahead and get excited about first-round pick Kris Bryant, whom many scouts considered the best hitter available in the draft. But know that some of Epstein’s best work needs to come from lower in the draft, from trades for people such as pitcher Matt Garza and from the young, relatively anonymous players who don’t make headlines now. That’s how baseball works. In the dirty areas, as hockey players like to put it.

No one should be writing off shortstop Starlin Castro just yet, but it’s worth noting that Cubs management and many Cubs fans had him written in as a regular All-Star as recently as spring training. And the ink was indelible. He’s a perfect example of how delicate all of this is:

Castro hit .283 last season and is hitting .234 this season. The drop-off makes no sense, unless you’re armed with the knowledge that baseball doesn’t always make sense.

That brings us back to Epstein, all the losses of the last season and a half and a very opaque future. The century-plus of Cubs futility has given him a fair amount of cushion. Nothing else has worked on the North Side, the thinking goes, so why not let the guy with two World Series titles to his name do his job? It should mean torches and pitchforks won’t be outside his door any time soon.

Nonetheless, some people don’t want Epstein to sell off some parts from the current clunky model to get draft picks. The other approach — signing expensive veterans and hoping for magic — hasn’t worked for the Cubs in, oh, the last 100 years or so. Time to go younger and hope for signs of life.

Epstein is Dr. Frankenstein trying to reanimate his monster. Not the Green Monster, but a blue monster lacking any of the cuteness and cuddliness of earlier versions of the Cubs. So far, no heartbeat has been detected.

I don’t feel for Epstein. I don’t feel for anyone who has a five-year, $18.5 million contract. But I do know he has a hard job. It’s not an impossible job, but it’s a job perhaps sharing a border with ‘‘impossible.’’

‘‘Luck’’ might not be in Epstein’s vocabulary, but he’s going to need a lot of it during the next few years. This is baseball, and it confounds.



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