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Theo Epstein might be able to turn Cubs around, but job will be harder

BostRed Sox's David Ortiz hugs Theo Epsteright senior vice-president general manager Red Sox after Red Sox defeated St. Louis Caridnals

Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz hugs Theo Epstein, right, senior vice-president and general manager of the Red Sox after the Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Caridnals 3-0 in Game 4 to win the World Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:39AM

The most important chapter
in the folklore of Theo Epstein as a curse-busting kid general manager began exactly 21 days after he got the Boston Red Sox’ job in 2002, and it was co-authored by the Minnesota Twins.

On Dec. 16 of that year, the Twins non-tendered injury-prone, rough-fielding slugger David Ortiz after failed attempts to trade him. They didn’t want to risk what for them could have been a payroll-breaking $2.5 million arbitration ruling.

The market for Ortiz was soft, and Epstein got him for half the would-be arbitration price. The rest is Boston history that ranks with midnight rides and the Kennedys.

The Red Sox probably wouldn’t have reached the playoffs in Epstein’s first season without Ortiz, who emerged as an every-day force and one of the bigger power threats in the American League.

They certainly wouldn’t have ended the ‘‘Curse of the Bambino’’ and won the World Series in 2004 without Ortiz, whose walk-off hits in Games 4 and 5 of the AL Championship Series against the New York Yankees sparked the Red Sox’ miraculous comeback from a 3-0 deficit and got them to the Series.

He’s inheriting a mess

‘‘Everywhere I go in Boston, people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, thank you,’  ’’ Ortiz said the next spring. ‘‘They say, ‘You broke the curse.’  ’’

The point isn’t to discount Epstein’s accomplishments in his nine seasons in Boston. He did, after all, put together a second World Series winner with a much different, younger roster in 2007.

And, to be fair, not many in baseball in December 2002 seemed to recognize the commodity suddenly bestowed on the market with Ortiz, who lingered into January with mostly minor-league/spring-invitation offers until signing with the Red Sox.

The point is that while timing isn’t everything, it’s often a powerful force in making history and writing legacies, if not constructing saviors.

And the timing now is nothing like 2003 in Boston as Epstein prepares to take on the dual challenge of the 2012 Cubs and the expectations created by his own mythology.

According to players, agents, rival executives and associates, Epstein — still a relative kid for this job at 37 — is as smart and shrewd as it gets in the business. And he brings confidence and a plan.

He also inherits a mess.

When he was named the Red Sox’ GM, he had two 20-game winners (Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez) returning from a 93-victory team that was building on five consecutive winning seasons.

The Cubs? They have a big-game pitcher in Matt Garza and an error-prone, strong-hitting shortstop in Starlin Castro.

The rest of it? As Garza said about anything and everything he experienced in his first season with the Cubs: ‘‘It is what it is.’’

So what’s the most reasonable expectation as Epstein takes over? What it’s not is a goat-buster season in 2012 or 2013.

The good and the bad

The upside is that he will be working in a division that doesn’t feature the Yankees or any team that resembles the Tampa Bay Rays. Plus, division rivals are likely to lose Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols — or maybe both — this offseason.

Another upside is that the cupboard isn’t bare in terms of quality people already in the front office, including widely respected interim GM Randy Bush, when he seeks to put together his staff.

On the other hand, once top prospect Brett Jackson joins the major-league roster next April, the pickings in the farm system get very slim at the higher levels. And the free-agent and trade markets for the Cubs’ greatest need — starting pitching — might be nearly as slim.

And this fifth-place team has miles more ground to make up than Epstein’s first-year Red Sox did, especially if he uses the
$50 million coming off the books to make the kind of swing-and-whiff signings — right-hander John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million) and outfielder Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) —
that plagued him in recent years
in Boston.

And non-tendered players such as Ortiz don’t come around twice.

So enjoy the next few weeks and months as the Cubs’ latest, greatest franchise-changer digs into the new job with reputed vision, front-office team-building and hard work.

Just leave the folk-hero stuff for the fairy tales.

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