Theo Epstein's task: Cubs conundrums

Is it possible to have a ticker tape parade for a new general manager/cool executive title before he actually wins anything? If so, start preparing Michigan Avenue for the arrival of Theo Epstein.

Don't get me wrong -- Epstein could be a terrific hire by Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. Could be.

But I'm not going to blindly and automatically pledge my baseball allegiance to the Cubs just because Epstein has a new address and team logo on his business card. I'm not going to celebrate his hiring until I hear exactly how he and Ricketts plan to repair a Cubs franchise with more holes than a batting cage net.

Forget about the oh-fer-103 years World Series championship collar. Every time a new ownership or management regime steps in front of the microphones and minicams at Wrigley Field, they talk about ending The Curse. And every time, they fail.

So before giddy Cubs fans start spraying bubbly at each other, maybe it's time to put down the champagne bottles and ask some hard questions. Such as:

Is Epstein any better than Jim Hendry, the guy Ricketts fired?

Hendry was bashed -- and deservedly so -- for a number of free-agent acquisitions and big-money contracts that went terribly wrong. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano is on the books for three more seasons at $18 million per year. Starting pitcher/quitter Carlos Zambrano still has another season at $18 million.

But Epstein has had his clunkers, too. He signed Josh Beckett to a four-year, $68 million extension last season. Beckett won 13 games in 2011, meaning, based on his season salary, the Red Sox paid $1.21 million per victory.

John Lackey got a five-year, $82.5 million deal. He went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA. The Red Sox paid $1.27 million per Lackey win.

Epstein gave Daisuke Matsuzaka a six-year, $52 million contract. His win totals the past three seasons: four, nine, three. Those three wins in 2011 cost the Red Sox $3.3 million per. And he still has another $10 million coming his way in 2012.

And Epstein is the guy who signed outfielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal that expires after the 2017 season. Crawford was a disaster area, hitting .255 with 11 home runs, 56 RBIs and 65 runs. If Crawford doesn't recover, it could go down as one of the worst signings in MLB history.

The difference between Hendry and Epstein? That's easy: Epstein's Red Sox won World Series in 2004 and 2007, and Hendry's Cubs hadn't won a postseason game since Oct. 11, 2003. And with Boston, Epstein could buy his way out of his mistakes.

Epstein's Red Sox payroll crushed the Cubs' payroll in all but one of the past eight seasons. There was a $29 million difference ($163 million for the Red Sox versus $134 million for the Cubs) in 2011. A $24 million difference in 2010. A $15 million difference in 2008, $44 million in 2007, $26 million in 2006, $36 million in 2005, $37 million in 2004.

Only in 2009 did the Cubs have the higher payroll, $134 million to Boston's $121 million.

Ricketts isn't going to spend $163 million on players. In fact, don't be surprised if the 2012 Cubs payroll is less than it was in 2011. And remember, $36 million is already designated for Soriano and Zambrano.

So Epstein isn't going to have the free-agent margin of error with the Cubs that he had with the Red Sox.

Who should he hire as the new Cubs manager?

It is semi-assumed that Terry Francona is the obvious choice to join Epstein in Chicago. They won world championships together in Boston. They were shown the door -- passively, if not actively -- together in Boston, although Epstein's departure comes with a year still left on his Red Sox deal. Francona not only didn't have his club option picked up, but he became the object of a curiously orchestrated smear campaign.

Francona will manage again, but I'm not sure the Cubs and an Epstein reunion are the right fit right now. Instead, Epstein could do this: Retain manager Mike Quade (Quade has another year on his deal), and if the Cubs go in the tank by the 2012 All-Star break, replace him with Ryne Sandberg or possibly Francona.

One baseball team executive explained it to me this way Wednesday: "Everybody needs somebody they can blame. If the Cubs get off to a horrendous start or are in last place at the break, then you've got somebody you can dump. If [Epstein] hires a new manager right now and he fails, then that's on [Epstein]. If Quade fails, then he buys time for his new manager."

Cold, but true.

To me, Sandberg is the obvious choice. He's paid his minor league managerial dues. He's done well wherever he's been. He has a Cubs pedigree.

What can Epstein do with Zambrano and Soriano?

That depends on how much of their bloated contracts Ricketts is willing to eat.

These are just ballpark figures, but here's guessing the Cubs would have to pay at least $10 million of Zambrano's $18 million to unload him on another team. Zambrano acts idiotically at times, but, incredibly, he still has some value as a starter.

Soriano, while a better teammate than Zambrano by a thousand times, should be a designated hitter in the American League, not a starting left fielder in the National League. To ditch his contract would cost the Cubs, say, $10 million to $15 million in each of the three remaining years of the deal.

In a perfect world, Epstein would ask Ricketts if he could dump one or both of those contracts. And in a perfect world, Ricketts would say yes.

But I don't see it happening. Instead, I see a scenario in which Soriano and maybe Zambrano are both in Cubs uniforms at the start of 2012 -- unless Ricketts is willing to write very large checks for them NOT to play for the Cubs. Doubtful.

What's a reasonable expectation for the 2012 Cubs and beyond?

Ricketts, with the help of the loyal Hendry, did spend money on amateur draft picks this year. So there seems to be a commitment to build the farm system. And with the possible/probable departures of NL Central stars Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers, the division could remain in flux.

But after a 71-91 record this season, Cubs followers shouldn't expect an Arizona Diamondbacks-like turnaround in 2012. The Cubs don't have what the D-backs have. And, admit it or not, the Cubs have to deal with April and May Frosty-The-Snowman home games and the combo day-night start times.

Instead, 2013 is the season when we can begin to accurately judge the Epstein Effect. Until then, forget about any champagne purchases.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.