The Cubs keep on winning. Not just games. But organizationally, too.
Nothing underscores this more than the news today that the franchise signed president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to a five-year contract extension.
This gives Epstein the time he needs to finish building what he started in 2011, when the club lured him away from Boston after his work there as general manager was done.
As good as the Cubs are right now there is still much work to be done. The No. 1 goal is of course to end that pesky 108-year World Series drought. With 101 wins, the most of any Cubs team since 1910, the 2016 Cubs are positioned as well as they ever have been to finally reach that elusive pinnacle.
But the fact is they still haven’t accomplished what they’ve set out to do. The news that the club has secured Epstein for another five years, as well as extended the contracts of general manager Jed Hoyer and minor league director Jason McLeod, shows that they are fully committed to reaching that goal. The new extension will reportedly pay Epstein more than $50 million over the life of the contract, more than double what his previous pact was worth.
“In the five years under Theo’s leadership, he has brought in a strong executive team and acquired and developed some of the best players in the game,” Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts said in a statement. “Now, the results are on the field. My family and I have no doubt that we have moved closer to our goal of delivering Cubs fans the World Series Championship they deserve.”
Epstein’s story has been well-chronicled, from being hired in 2002 as the youngest general manager in the history of baseball, at the age of 28, by the Red Sox, to building the team that two years later, in 2004, brought Boston its first World Series championship in 86 years. Three years later, in 2007, with Epstein still at the helm, the Red Sox won it again.
When Ricketts hired Epstein, he gave him free rein to do what needed to be done. That meant tearing down what he inherited and rebuilding it in a way that was designed to win – not just for one year but over time. It was a new concept for long-suffering Cubs fans, and Epstein, the baseball wunderkind, told them that it would not come without pain. Upon taking the job, Epstein asked Cubs fans for the one thing they had little reason to give him: patience.
He sold it by telling them that their patience would one day be rewarded. He didn’t say how long, but Cubs fans, desperate for hope, bought into it. They endured three long years, from 2012 through 2014, of losing at levels that even they had rarely encountered. In all, the Cubs lost 286 games in Epstein’s first three years.
Epstein made the most of all that losing, stockpiling a wealth of young talent through high draft picks and midseason trades.
In 2013, he drafted slugging third baseman Kris Bryant, who would go on to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and become a leading contender for NL Most Valuable Player in 2016. The following year, he drafted another slugger, this one a catcher named Kyle Schwarber, who would make an immediate impact for the Cubs as the hero of the 2015 postseason, setting a franchise record with five postseason home runs, the most homers in a single postseason by a player age 22 or younger.
Through a series of trades Epstein added even more young talent: first baseman Anthony Rizzo, another MVP candidate; pitchers Jake Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner, and Kyle Hendricks, a strong contender for the 2016 Cy Young; and shortstop Addison Russell, an All-Star at age 22.
But more than just stockpiling young talent, Epstein set out to change the culture of the entire franchise. At every level, from the minors to the majors, and even internationally, he worked to make the Cubs organization something that it had never been before: envied. That meant tearing down old, outdated training facilities and building new state-of-the art ones.
In 2015, Epstein’s promise to Cubs’ fans came earlier than expected, when the team surprised the baseball world by winning 97 games and going all the way to the NLCS.
And now it is 2016, and the Cubs, whose unconventional manager Joe Maddon asked his players to “embrace the target” of expectations going into the season, have baseball’s best record going into the postseason.
In just five years, Epstein has miraculously turned around an entire baseball organization, breathing life into a franchise that looked to be dead, and maybe even returning it to its glory years of the early 1900′s, when the Cubs last were champions.
Cubs fans still wait for that next championship. There’s no guarantee it will happen this year or even in the next five. But with Epstein on board now through 2021, Cubs fans have even more reason to believe that their suffering will finally end.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation