Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein received a hero’s welcome in Chicago on Tuesday as he took the reins of the moribound organization. Epstein’s exploits in Boston – most notably two World Series rings – have Cubs fans hoping that Epstein will end the curse of the goat and deliver the Cubs’ first World Series championship since 1908. The parallels between the Cubs of 2011 and the Red Sox of 2002 that Epstein inherited are numerous. Both are large markets, with high revenues. Both play in revered, but decrepit and small ballparks. Both are allegedly cursed, with excruciatingly painful postseason scars – Bartman, Buckner, Bucky “Bleeping” Dent – intermingled with decades of mediocrity or worse.
Unfortunately for Cubs fans, the parallels between the 2002 Red Sox and the 2011 Cubs end when comparing the talent on hand. The 2002 Red Sox won 93 games and finished 10.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the A.L. East and missed the wild card by 6 games. As the table below indicates, Epstein inherited a roster that included a trio of starting pitchers – Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Tim Wakefield – that combined for 17.6 WAR in 2002, and a core of offensive players led by Manny Ramirez (5.4 WAR), Nomar Garciaparra (4.8 WAR), Johnny Damon (4.1 WAR), and Jason Varitek (2.5 WAR). Out of this group only Garciaparra (0.5 WAR) failed to make a significant contribution to the Red Sox 2004 World Series winning team.
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In contrast, the 2011 Cubs won only 71 games and finished 25 games behind Milwaukee in the N.L. Central and 19 games off the wild card pace. The 2002 Red Sox sported five players with a WAR greater than 4, but as you can see in the table below, only Matt Garza (5.0 WAR) met this standard for the 2011 Cubs. Garza is under team control through 2013, and the middle infield duo of Starlin Castro (3.4 WAR) and Darwin Barney (2.2 WAR) is young, promising, and inexpensive. Beyond those three, Epstein is inheriting more bad contracts than useful players. Alfonso Soriano has three years and $57 million left on his contract and is coming off a season in which made outs in 71.1% of his plate appearances and produced 1.3 WAR. Carlos Zambrano is owed $19 million for the 2012 season even though it will be a surprise if he sees the mound for the Cubs. Two of the top three offensive players – Aramis Ramirez (3.6 WAR) and Carlos Pena (2.6 WAR) can be free agents and may not return to the Cubs.
Epstein’s early moves in Boston provided critical pieces to the 2004 World Series run. His remodeling of the Red Sox roster involved several strokes of brilliance. David Ortiz (4.3 WAR), Bronson Arroyo (4.2 WAR), Mark Bellhorn (3.3 WAR), Keith Foulke (2.1 WAR), and Bill Mueller (1.1 WAR) were relatively inexpensive free agent acquisitions and Curt Schilling (7.3 WAR) was acquired in the famous Thanksgiving dinner trade. There is no doubt that Epstein deserves credit for the work he did remodeling the Red Sox roster, but Cubs fans should realize that their roster is more akin to a tear down than a remodeling project.
As for the future, the Cubs farm system has more depth than the one Epstein inherited in Boston, but few if any of these players can be counted on to contribute immediately. This year’s crop of free agents is deep at first base, but lacking in high impact guys at most other positions. It is too early to assess what Epstein’s short term strategy will be for the Cubs, but if Cubs fans are expecting immediate success, they are in for continued disappointment.
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