Updated: November 16, 2011 3:49PM
Theo Epstein thought enough of Carlos Pena five years ago to sign him with the Red Sox organization. Does he think enough of Pena now to keep the pending free agent in a Cubs uniform next year?
Pena, for one, thinks the hiring of Epstein as the Cubs’ next GM bodes well for his chances.
“No doubt,’’ said Pena, who hit just .225 in his only season as the Cubs’ first baseman — but whose 101 walks, .357 on-base percentage and left-handed power provided unique value to a mostly free-swinging lineup.
“He is the type of person I definitely appreciate and a professional that I appreciate,’’ added Pena, who played 11 games for Boston’s Class AAA team in August before finishing that 2006 season with the Red Sox. “Even playing against him so many years [for Tampa Bay in 2007-10], and playing for him briefly in 2006, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Theo.
“I’m excited. I’m excited about the ballclub.’’
The Cubs and Epstein have a five-year agreement worth close to $20 million, pending a resolution with the Red Sox over player and/or cash compensation to allow Epstein out of the final year of his contract in Boston. The Cubs and Red Sox began substantive talks on that issue Thursday, and insiders expect a formal announcement of the hiring by early next week.
Meanwhile, the decision two months ago by chairman Tom Ricketts and interim GM Randy Bush to pull Pena off waivers after an August claim by the New York Yankees seems now to offer a glimpse into the team’s thinking about the kind of GM Ricketts sought — if not of Epstein himself.
Pena, who has repeatedly said he wants to stay with the Cubs, fits the general mold of the kind of hitter Epstein has targeted during a run in Boston that included two World Series championships — and a type of hitter rare on the Cubs’ roster.
Whether it offers a glimpse into Epstein’s thinking about the direction he might take with the flawed roster he’s about to inherit, Pena is a believer in the GM widely considered among the smartest executives in the game — and in a culture change he sees on the North Side horizon, whether he’s part of it or not.
“I thought it was very noticeable,’’ Pena said of a winning Red Sox culture under Epstein — which deteriorated late this season, according to numerous reports from Boston. “Every time we went in there, they had a very keen, confident identity, a type of attitude, a mentality they had. I’m a believer that it always starts at the top, and Theo had a lot to do with that.’’
Replicating successes Epstein had in Boston goes far beyond whether Pena stays in lieu of some questionable pursuit of megabucks free agents such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.
How quickly Epstein can exorcise the team of the final year of Carlos Zambrano’s contract — a decision that has been made from an ownership level for months — and start repairs on a broken starting rotation will have more to say about a timeline for reasonable expectations than anything else.
What he does with the final three years of Alfonso Soriano’s bloated contract is another big one — not to mention the major personnel decisions at the top involving front office, manager and coaching jobs.
For now, the only guy on the ’11 team with first-hand knowledge of the new guy trusts what’s coming.
“It’s awesome. He comes from that new school of thought [involving advanced metrics], and the way he brought life to Boston — two World Series under him; that speaks for itself,” Pena said. “And I think he did it very creatively in putting together a good group of guys. … And what a similar challenge he’s got here with the Cubs now. No doubt in my mind that’s the type of guy I think would bring really positive change.”