Theo Epstein has agreed to become the new general manager of the Cubs. While he helped guide the Red Sox to two World Series titles, let's remember the state of that franchise when he became GM in 2003: Boston had won 93 games in 2002, and was coming off five consecutive winning seasons.
The Cubs, on the other hand, are coming off a 71-91 season and are saddled with two bad contracts, most notably Alfonso Soriano ($19 million per year through 2014) and Carlos Zambrano ($19 million in 2012). Once you get past 2012, however, it's actually not that bad of a situation, as the Cubs have just $28.8 million of commitments in 2013 (Soriano and Carlos Marmol) and only Soriano in 2014. So at least Epstein will have the ability to essentially start over, with a team that has some talent to build around and a franchise with a strong revenue stream (the Cubs had the sixth-highest payroll in 2011). No, it's not Boston or New York, but it's not Tampa or Pittsburgh.
How soon before they can win again? Since the Cubs won 71 games, I looked at all teams that won between 68 and 74 from 2004 to 2008 and tracked their records for the following three seasons. This gave us a group of 27 teams. Several of these are "repeat" teams, like the 2005, '06, '07 and '08, but if we consider team as an individual entity, here's what happened on average for those 27 clubs:
Year 1: 77 wins (four teams made the playoffs)
Year 2: 77 wins (five teams made the playoffs)
Year 3: 76 wins (five teams made the playoffs)
Here's the chart of all 27 teams:
One advantage for the Theo, as you can see from the chart, is most of these 68-to-74 win teams were not high payroll teams. But let's look closer at the teams that did make the playoffs in a three-year span and how they did it.
2008 Braves: This team had a strong offense (Mark Teixeira, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson) but a terrible rotation and bullpen. By 2010, Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens had been joined by Tommy Hanson (draft pick), Derek Lowe (free agent), Billy Wagner (free agent), Jonny Venters (draft pick) and Craig Kimbrel (draft pick). The farm system also produced Jason Heyward and Martin Prado. That's a lot of talent that came up from the farm system in a two-year span.
2008 Reds: Basically, a young team that improved. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto were rookies in 2008; Edinson Volquez was in his first full season. Drew Stubbs joined the club in 2009. Veterans Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez helped supplement the young players.
2007 Giants: The Giants finished last in the NL West, ranking 15th in the NL in runs scored, but third in run prevention. The bright spots: Matt Cain was in the rotation, Tim Lincecum made 24 starts as a rookie, Jonathan Sanchez was a rookie reliever and Madison Bumgarner was drafted that June. Barry Bonds retired, but the pitching foundation was already in place, Barry Zito was the only bad long-term contract and Buster Posey was drafted the following June.
2004 Tigers: The '04 and '05 Tigers make our list and in 2006 they reached the World Series. After losing 119 games in 2003, GM Dave Dombrowski managed to rebuild the Tigers in just three years. The '04 club already featured Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson in the rotation, and Justin Verlander would be drafted that June. Curtis Granderson debuted in September of 2004 as well. Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez were on the '04 team and Dombrowski would sign Magglio Ordonez as a free agent in '05 and Kenny Rogers in '06. Placido Polanco was acquired from the Phillies for Ugueth Urbina. A mixture of young talent rising (throw in reliever Joel Zumaya), good free-agent signings and an astute trade.
2008 Tigers: By 2008, however, Dombrowski's team had fallen off to 74 wins. The team had Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Ordonez and Granderson, but not too much else. Dombrowski was essentially able to rebuild an entire pitching staff in three years: Max Scherzer/Phil Coke (Granderson trade), Doug Fister (trade), Rick Porcello (first-round pick in 2007), Jose Valverde (free agent, 2010), Joaquin Benoit (free agent, 2011), Brad Penny (free agent, 2011), Ryan Perry (first-round pick in 2008). Throw in the free-agent signings of Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta and the development of Alex Avila and you get the 2011 Tigers. This may be Theo's best-case comparison: Buy the right free agents, develop a couple pitchers, steal a starter for some second-line prospects and you can rebuild. Of course ... the Cubs don't have anybody as good as Verlander or Miggy.
2005 Dodgers: This was really just an aberration, as the Dodgers finished over .500 every season from 2000 through 2009 except this one.
2004 Mets: This is an interesting comparison, because like the 2011 Cubs, the Mets had a bloated payroll and 91 losses to show for it. But their two big contracts, Mo Vaughn ($17.1 milllion) and Mike Piazza ($16 million) were gone by 2006, replaced by big free agents Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, and the trade acquisition of Carlos Delgado (a salary dump by the Marlins). But the big key was two young players who debuted halfway through 2004: David Wright and Jose Reyes. The Cubs may have their Reyes in Starlin Castro, but they don't have their Wright.
2004 Rockies: This was pretty much a complete overhaul by 2007, when the club reached the World Series. The '04 team had Todd Helton, Matt Holliday and Jeff Francis, a group that was supplemented by Troy Tulowitzki (2005 draft), Garrett Atkins (2005 rookie), Brad Hawpe (2005 rookie) and Ubaldo Jimenez (2007 rookie). Closer Manny Corpas had his one good season in 2007 and the club put together a good veteran bullpen. Basically, a World Series with homegrown products.
The takeaway from all this: If there Cubs are going to reach the playoffs in three years, it's probably going to result from spending money on the right free agents, since prospect experts don't rate the upper levels of the Cubs' very highly right now. On the bright side, if Brett Jackson is a legit center fielder and the Geovany Soto develops some consistency, they at least have the chance to be strong up the middle with those three. What they need for starters -- well, besides a couple starting pitchers -- is a big booming bat ... anybody available who fits that bill?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.