Nobody said this was going to be easy, though a lot of people have been acting as if it will be.
A well-regarded front office, an exciting new manager and a spiffed-up cathedral of a ballpark? Who wouldn’t want to play for the Cubs?
Russell Martin, for one.
The former Pirates catcher decided to take Toronto’s five-year, $82 million offer Monday, spurning the Cubs. If you watched Theo Epstein’s boy band of GM wannabes react to the news on Twitter, you know that’s far too much money and too many years for a 31-year-old with a .259 career batting average. The Cubs will be spend able to spend their cash elsewhere, the thinking goes. What a relief!
But wasn’t Martin the first domino for the Cubs as they headed in the direction of a World Series? At a minimum, he was going to be the perfect veteran presence for a team relying heavily on young players, a leader who would eventually mentor catcher Kyle Schwarber, the team’s top 2014 draft pick.
Martin’s decision to sign elsewhere doesn’t mean the Cubs will be unable to land one or more top free agents. It means they have to pony up the right amount of money and then hope those free agents will be intrigued by the thought of a historically woebegone franchise trying to right itself. It means this process will be HARD. And it should be hard. You don’t go through what the Cubs and their fans have gone through and then have the ordeal suddenly turn into a frolic through a flowery meadow. This should be more like coal mining.
Just because the Cubs hired a topnotch executive in Epstein, just because they found a way to grab a star manager in Joe Maddon and just because Wrigley Field is going through a much-needed renovation doesn’t mean free agents will come running to the North Side.
There are other teams that want to win just as much as the Cubs do and that likewise have lots of money to spend. There are teams that are ready to win now, a component that is important to players desperate for a championship ring. The Cubs might be in that position in a few years, but they aren’t now, no matter what the chatter might be around town.
If the money is equal, Maddon could be the deciding factor for some free agents. He has a wonderful reputation for working with players and getting the most out of them. But even with that, it’s going to take a leap of faith on the part of free agents to come to the Cubs. Selling fans on the idea of promising minor-league talent is one thing. Selling veteran ballplayers who have seen highly touted prospects come and go is something completely different.
Now the attention turns to Jon Lester, reportedly the Cubs’ top target among pitchers. The Red Sox drafted Lester in 2002, the year they elevated Epstein to general manager. So there is a connection between the two men, though, again, money usually talks loudest to free agents. Lester has a career record of 116-67 and has stayed relatively healthy. If the Cubs don’t land him, I know certain adults in Chicago who will curl up in the fetal position.
They shouldn’t. If you believe in Epstein, you should believe in his ability to find talent in places that are not so obvious. That’s one of the fallacies about the Cubs’ stockpiling of top minor-league talent. Having highly ranked draft picks doesn’t guarantee success. Baseball history is filled with productive major leaguers who were chosen at the back end of the draft. Don’t be surprised if some late-round pick you’ve never heard of becomes a household name in Chicago under Epstein. Same goes with some of the free agents he might acquire.
Remember, Minnesota had recently released David Ortiz when Epstein got him for cheap in 2003. Give him some room to find players like that for the Cubs.
A little “adversity,’’ as sports people like to put it, isn’t a bad thing for the Cubs or their followers. I know: These fans have had more than their share of hard times over the years. But there is a bad case of inevitability going around on the North Side, as if the only thing the Cubs have to do is get a few first-round picks under Theo and they’ll eventually win it all.
It doesn’t work that way. Monday was a reminder of that.