Theo Epstein promises to stick with Cubs through thick or thin
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter February 20, 2014 10:39PM
Updated: March 22, 2014 6:42AM
MESA, Ariz. — A day after Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts offered little rationale for why the Cubs operate like a small-market club and no timeline for when that will change, his top baseball man expressed faith in the business plan and pledged to see the process through until the team wins a World Series.
But not even Theo Epstein is claiming his baseball plan can be achieved by waiting until the kids get here to start spending on big-league players.
“We’re not saying that you can build a championship team through the minor-league system alone,” he said Thursday. “That would be extremely challenging, if not impossible.”
Is there a fear that if the business plan doesn’t come together quicker, there won’t be a strong-enough support system at the big-league level for the Javy Baezes and Kris Bryants?
“That’s something we talk about all the time,” Epstein said. “We need to make sure that when the next wave of prospects comes up, they don’t take too much of a burden. We hope to have strong players around them, hopefully an impact player or two around them on the club so that they can break in the right way. You don’t want your prospects breaking in carrying too much responsibility. You don’t want them hitting in the middle of the order. You don’t want them having to carry a club or playing an instrumental role on the club.
“That’s important and that’s something that we’ve thought about, and we’re going to have to act on it.”
With payroll levels at a 10-year low and no new revenues on the near horizon, that could take more creativity than he might have imagined even a year ago.
But Epstein has kept aside some payroll flexibility to roll into next winter, and he sounds more optimistic than bitter about the long-range vision.
No matter how long that range might be forced to stretch.
“I have faith that our situation is going to change,” Epstein said. “As the team plays better, and most significantly when the TV deal happens, we’re going to be in a position to hopefully overpower the other teams in our division financially. And if we have a strong-enough foundation built up by then, it could be really special and really sustainable.
“We’re trying to take advantage of this period in the meantime to build up as strong as possible foundation that we can.”
Epstein wouldn’t put a timeline on the projected financial boost, anymore than Ricketts would a day earlier.
Full value of a potential new local TV package won’t be realized until 2020 when the Cubs can offer all their games to one outlet, but the hope of the business side is to strike a deal far enough in advance that might include an up-front shot of revenue into the coffers.
Until then, the Cubs have gone from the top of the National League Central in financial power to the bottom, with Pittsburgh, in less than five years of Ricketts ownership — in large part because of a debt-loaded franchise purchase structure required by ex-owner Sam Zell.
Epstein, who is in the third year of a five-year contract, wouldn’t talk about specifics regarding his budgets or his expectations when he took the job.
But he enjoys the player-development side of the business, and with up to seven prospects on every top-100 list that comes out these days, Epstein says the morale among scouts and instructors is “off the charts.”
“I’m not disappointed in the least bit,” he said. “We know we have something special brewing here. … We really believe in our young players, we believe in ownership, we believe in our business side, we believe in what the Cubs are becoming.
“So we all want to be here to see it through and make sure that leads to a World Series.”
And if it takes longer than the term of his contract?
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It matters that we get it right,” he said. “I’m not planning on going anywhere. I would never even think about leaving until we win the World Series, until we have an organization that sustains success.”