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Theo Epstein’s success with Red Sox doesn’t ensure success for Cubs

A medimob surrounds Cubs president Theo EpsteWrigley Field before first game an interleague series which his new team plays his

A media mob surrounds Cubs president Theo Epstein at Wrigley Field before the first game of an interleague series in which his new team plays his old one, the Boston Red Sox. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 17, 2012 12:46PM

Will Middlebrooks is just the latest poster child for what Theo Epstein can do with a few scouting visits, a laptop and a fifth-round draft pick.

Before Middlebrooks was picked by the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 draft, there was Jonathan Papelbon in 2003 and Dustin Pedroia in ’04. And few in Red Sawx Nation can forget the 2005 draft, in which Epstein — then the team’s general manager — drafted Jacoby Ellsbury 23rd overall, Clay Buchholz 42nd and Jed Lowrie 45th.

“I think Theo’s a smart guy, obviously,’’ Middlebrooks, the Red Sox’ up-and-coming, 23-year-old third baseman, said Friday. “I mean, look at his resume. As far as the poster child for what Theo did, I’m not a front-office guy, I don’t know the ins and outs of all that, but I do know that he seems to have produced good players in the past. Is it development, is it coaching, is it him? I don’t know, but somehow he ends up getting good players.’’

It’s that “somehow’’ that the Cubs were banking on when they named Epstein the president of baseball operations last offseason.

It’s that “somehow’’ that still trumps all the “What the heck is this?’’ taking place on the field for the North Siders.

But with the Red Sox in town to face the Cubs, it’s not all a “Best of Theo” mix tape.

Pedroia was asked about his former GM several times before the opening game of the series, and he was almost standoffish about being labeled a product of Epstein.

“I won [American League] Rookie of the Year, I was an MVP, I wasn’t a bad player [coming out of Arizona State],’’ Pedroia said half-jokingly, half-dead serious.

Then there’s the stain of the Red Sox’ great collapse of 2011, and it’s not rubbing out with club soda anytime soon.

The Red Sox were on pace to win 100 games and strut into the postseason, but a 7-20 September crippled those chances. That was the state of Boston baseball when Epstein left for the Cubs. It was a mess, and it included ugly contracts held by John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

“I take responsibility for the team not getting to where we were supposed to go,’’ Epstein reiterated Friday. “From what I could tell, a lot of the people involved have taken responsibility and have learned from it and moved on.’’

Not without a scar or two.

“I remember stuff from 2003,’’ Epstein said. “I sit there and see Aaron Boone coming to the plate sometimes. Anytime you have a chance to advance and do some damage in the postseason or get to the postseason and you don’t, that always stays with you. And last September in particular, we not only failed to perform in the standings, but we lost our identity as a team.’’

That’s also why there are some who still believe Epstein is more snake-oil salesman than savior, despite winning two World Series with the Red Sox.

How should Epstein be viewed? He’s your typical GM who falls into the category of very good, albeit with a bigger title and a better parking spot. He’s not turning Wrigley water into wine or reinventing the wheel like some have said.

All you can hope from a GM is to have more hits than misses, and there’s no doubt that Epstein accomplished that in Boston, no matter how poorly the last chapter read.

He’s accountable, he’s bright and he has a plan.

At the same time, that doesn’t guarantee anything. It gives the Cubs direction for the first time in a long time, but Epstein’s presence doesn’t mean a trophy is waiting at the end of it.

“A lot of the work is similar,’’ Epstein said when asked about the culture he has tried to instill in both cities. “Here [in Chicago] I think there is clearly a mandate for change.’’

Yeah, 104 years and counting will do that to an organization.

So there it was Friday, ­Epstein’s past staring across the field at his present.

Both last-place teams, both hoping for a better tomorrow.

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