1st year of Epstein overhaul: 101 losses for Cubs
CHICAGO -- Theo Epstein made a lot of changes during his first season as the Chicago Cubs' president of baseball operations.
Players were traded, prospects were called up, star shortstop Starlin Castro got a big-time contract and front office personnel and coaches were fired.
The season ended this week after player gaffes, fundamental mistakes and losses -- lots of them. The Cubs had 101 as the franchise reached 104 years without a World Series title. Now the overhaul continues and it appears to be a long road ahead.
The Cubs lost 100 games in a season for the first time since 1966 and just the third time in their history. They set a franchise record with 103 losses in 1962 and 1966.
"It was a very disappointing season in terms of wins and losses and ultimately that's what counts," Epstein said Thursday during a season-ending news conference. "It's not like we wake up and we lost 101 games, `How did that happen?' ... we just didn't have quite enough talent on the field most of the time."
The Cubs traded veterans like Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker for prospects they hope will bring brighter days. Oneri Fleita, the vice president of player personnel who had been with the team in some role since 1995, was fired. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was let go in June and third base coach Pat Listach was fired Wednesday.
Calling up first baseman Anthony Rizzo was one the best moves of the season. He proved to be No. 3 hitter they'd been searching for, batting .285 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 87 games.
Castro, who had some mental gaffes like forgetting how many outs there were in an inning, got a seven-year, $60 million contract and batted .283 with 183 hits. Jeff Samardzija, the former Notre Dame wide receiver, became a starter for the future with a relatively strong season, going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA before he was shut down to preserve his arm.
And Darwin Barney is another major piece for what's ahead after setting an NL record and tying a major league record with 141 straight errorless games at second base before a miscue on the final road series ended the streak.
Carlos Marmol rebounded from a shaky start that saw him lose the closer's role for a while and had 20 saves and a 3.42 ERA. Alfonso Soriano had a comeback season that few expected. The 36-year-old left fielder, who still has two years left on his eight-year, $136 million contract, responded from the cleanup spot with a .262 average, 32 homers and a career-best 108 RBIs.
Soriano said he is open to being traded in the offseason if the Cubs don't plan on contending the next two years. Chicago called up two of its top young players for the final two months and they both struggled -third baseman Josh Vitters and center fielder Brett Jackson had trouble with major league pitching.
So what can Epstein tell the fans who had to pay some of the highest average ticket prices in the majors to watch what at times was a tryout for next season?
"I'm not going to sit here and say, `Don't worry about 101 losses because we have a magic plan to win a World Series in 2013, it's going to happen, so be there now," Epstein said.
"That's not the case. I think we're trying to communicate that there is a plan, there is a vision," he said. "It might be a little bit longer-term than we all want it to be, but that we're committed to it, and that there's a great reward at the end. We can't guarantee results, but I can tell everybody that we're not going to be satisfied until we're in the postseason year-in and year-out, and we're in contention every year."
Even though the Cubs' plan is to build a strong foundation with younger players, Epstein said Chicago would likely have to add to its pitching staff through free agency. Chris Volstad, acquired last season in a trade for Carlos Zambrano, ended a 24-start winless streak and finished 3-12. Travis Wood, acquired in a trade from Cincinnati last December, was 6-13 with a 4.27 ERA, and the Cubs went through a host of would-be starters during the final stretch.
All of this was going on while Chicago drew 2.9 million fans to Wrigley Field, the first time attendance was under 3 million since 2003. Those who came saw on-the-field mistakes aplenty. Base-running boo-boos drove first-year manager Dale Sveum batty, leading him to say they were like vitamins -- one a day.
Inattentive players picked off bases was one thing. But twice in the latter stages of the season, the Cubs lost a run on a potential sacrifice fly when a runner was tagged out trying to go from second to third on the same fly ball -- a double play.
Despite the rough start, Epstein said he was convinced that his overhaul is headed in the right direction. He was given a five-year, $18.5 million contract nearly a year ago to see if he would do for the Cubs what he did in Boston, where he ended a long championship drought and helped the Red Sox win two World Series.
"I really feel good about a lot of things that are going on behind the scenes. Sometimes there's a delay in how long it takes that to manifest at the big league level," he said. "We're going through that right now, but I feel really good about our baseball operation as a while. ... This is a very disappointing baseline that we have to grow from. My hope is that years from now, when we're celebrating successes year-in and year-out we look back at 2012 and say, `Wow, look how far we came.' And I think we will."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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