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The First Moves for Cubs GM Theo Epstein

News broke this morning that Red Sox President of Baseball Operations (the de facto Red Sox GM) Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs have agreed to, though not finalized, terms which will bring the Yale grad to Chicago’s Northside. The deal appears to be worth $20M over five years, but the Cubs will undoubtedly need to send compensation (say, a prospect or some Benjamins) the Red Sox’s way — which may well escalate the cost beyond what’s beneficial to the Cubs.

If the compensation package includes a number of significant prospects, this may well result in Theo Epstein starting from scratch as the Cubs GM. So, let’s assume he is starting with a largely depleted farm system (one that was half-depleted in the Matt Garza trade). What moves does Epstein need to make immediately? And no, extending John Grabow is not one of them.

1) Fill the Front Office
The Jim Hendry regime nearly took pride in how small their front office was. They had scouts, sure, but their “statistics department” had long consisted of one man, Chuck Wasserstrom, until Cubs owner Tom Ricketts doubled their staff, bringing in Ari Kaplan and presumably purchasing a few more bristles for their push-broom.

From what we have heard so far, it sounds like most of the Red Sox front office would remain in tact, everyone shifting one seat up, in the event Epstein leaves. This means he will likely not bring a full staff of his own men with him.

So he has the monumental task of building a whole new front office from the disparate front offices from around the league. A few names I would try for: Gerry Hunsicker, former Astros GM and current Senior VP of Baseball Operations in Tampa Bay. He could make an invaluable assistant GM, though prying anyone away from the Rays seems impossible these days.

There is also a deep pool of near-GMs who might be looking for a change of scenery. Kim Ng could be a very powerful asset, having likely ingratiated herself with the MLB headquarters and the decision-makers therein. Guys like Rick Hahn would be good gets, but difficult to acquire because the movement would be more lateral than vertical.

Also I would strongly consider, slash, desperately pursue bringing in the likes of Tom Tango (Tango Tiger) or Mitchel Lichtman (MGL) for chief analyst or even assistant GM roles. If the Red Sox were able to get Bill James, why wouldn’t these standard of baseball research be within reach?

Guys in the minor league department, such as VP Oneri Fleita, appear relatively safe in the coming overturn, but no one can say for certain right now. Epstein may choose to just obliterate the whole Thing and start fresh.

2) Trade Zambrano, Trade Soriano, Trade Byrd, Trade Soto
It’s time for the Cubs to have an old-fashioned, South Coast Boutique fire sale. Granted, last year’s team was not really 71-wins bad, but it certainly was in no way 88-wins good.

Surprisingly, the NL Central had two teams in the 90-win bracket this year, meaning the Cubs will likely need a lot — a LOT — of overhaul to assemble a playoff team. Frankly, I don’t see that much true talent floating out there for sale.

It’s safe to anticipate Carlos Zambrano, beleaguered, will not be a Chicago Cub next year. The Marlins have an interest in reuniting dinner buddies Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen, but the Cubs owe Big Z upwards of $18M in 2012, and they’d be liable to pay $10M of that to make the trade appealing.

Meanwhile, Alfonso Soriano, earning $19M until the mid-season elections of Sarah Palin’s first presidential term, appears now to be an outfielder of the 3-WAR-ceiling variety and most likely a lefty-mashing platoon partner, nowhere near worth his bloated contract. Theo could conceivably wrangle a Vernon Wells-type trade, absorbing some of the contract hit while receving a few mid-level prospects in return.

Also, Marlon Byrd — under-payed and well-loved — could net a dandy return, as could Geovany Soto (age 29 next year), who is near his peak and could be out of his prime when the Cubs are finally competitive again. Both these guys definitely help the Cubs win games, but neither are world-beater, franchise players, yet they could potentially bring in some 18 or 19-year-old who becomes one.

3) Say Good Bye to Ramirez, Pena, and 2012
Aramis Ramirez does not get enough credit around the league, it would seem, for his mash-tastic ways. He had another crazy good season with the bat in 2011 (133 wRC+), but the $12M $16M mutual option (I knew something seemed fishy!) for 2012 does not make a lot of sense for a team unlikely to see October. The Cubs could attempt a sign-and-trade, but it would most likely result in Ramirez staying in Chicago for another year.

Meanwhile, Carlos Pena, who put up a strong season after a Greenland-cold start, could come to the Cubs cheap, but the team’s situation — and the presence of relatively young Brian LaHair — makes Pena a better fit elsewhere.

Altogether, this proposed to-do list looks like a fully-booted 2012 season — and that’s precisely what it should be. The Cubs 25-man roster is old (ignoring Mr. Andrew Cashner and Sr. Starlin Castro) and not competitive. The only solution to that is trying to turn as many of those old guys into cheap, young farm upgrades.

Given the Cubs $130M budget range, they could conceivably be in contention in 2013 or 2014, but with their present dearth of pitching depth and elite players (the Cubs haven’t had a 7 bWAR player since Sammy Sosa, and only 1 time in 19 years; the Cardinals have had at least one for 11 of the last 14 years), they would need quite a few Jose Bautista-type surprises to win anything meaningful in 2012.

If and when Theo Epstein becomes the next Cubs GM, the Northside faithful need to fully anticipate lots of personnel changes and — more importantly — a very rough and young 2012.