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I'm back after an extended off-season break. I spent more time away than I had planned, and a lot more happened with or White Sox and Cubs than I thought would happen this off-season--and there are still a few weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

During the last several weeks, as I've been consumed by holiday activities and a busier-than-usual freelance writing schedule, I've been silently amassing opinions on what has amounted to an off-season of rebuilding for both teams.

Over the next several posts, I'll try to take a look at just about everything that has happened since Thanksgiving, but I might as well start not with the biggest news, but the most recent news--the Cubs' trade of Andrew Cashner.

This trade is probably my favorite move by the new regime so far--and I say this as a fan of Cashner, who thinks he'll overcome last season's shoulder injury to become a solid starter with a long career. When the Cubs traded Carlos Zambrano (more on that in a later post) earlier in the week, Cashner's spot in the Cubs rotation looked extremely solid. He was almost guaranteed to be the No. 3 starter, and was a Matt Garza trade away from possibly being the No. 2 starter.

But, trading Cashner for 21-year-old slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo is a brilliantly aggressive move. Rizzo's future may be no more certain than Cashner's is, but at a time when Prince Fielder rumors were running rampant, Theo & Co. (or maybe I should start saying Jed Hoyer & Co.) rightly stuck to their rebuilding plan and their commitment to player development. This is something Jim Hendry never could accomplish, as he would always fall for a free agent first baseman rather than commit to a young promising one.

Pitching may win championships, and that is an area the front office will definitely have to start focusing on more, but having a first baseman he who hits for power AND average and is defensively sound is more important than having a good pitcher who plays only once every five days.

At best, Rizzo could turn out to be Rafael Palmeiro. (If so, let's hope he stays in Chicago says no to drugs). At worst, he could be Hee-Seop Choi. We just don't know yet, but I do like the fact that Epstein and Hoyer have been fairly obsessed with Rizzo.

Drafted by Boston, Rizzo was tone of the players Epstein had to trade (and supposedly really didn't want to trade, according to a recent Sports Illustrated story) to Hoyer in San Diego to get superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. When the Padres recently acquired another young first baseman, Hoyer saw the Padres could now be open to moving Rizzo.

Rizzo will start in AAA, but depending on how Bryan LaHair--the first baseman of the brief near future--does, he could be up by mid-summer. The Cubs should be interesting to watch this year, possibly in the same way my six-year-old nephew's baseball team is interesting to watch. Mistakes will be made, frustration will be expected, and possibly a good deal of fun could be had as we get a glimpse at the promising future. Rizzo was acquired not for 2012, but for the rest of the decade.


Some thoughts on recent Cubs news:

-Mike Quade will go down as particularly star-crossed Cubs manager, having been given the job in a no-win situation: He got a job everyone assumed Ryne Sandberg would get, was handed a team of unproven newbies combined with free agents who were either surly or bloated, sometimes both, and was left a dead man walking by the former GM's firing and the hiring of new executives. Quade had his chance, and he often had the right approach and mindset, but too often let the game within the game get away from him. His authority also was challenged one too many times by veterans, and if this speaks ill of the players, it also suggests Quade failed to inspire and motivate them.

-Billy Corgan thinks Ryne Sandberg should have gotten a chance to interview for the job left open by Quade's firing. I'm not sure how Ronnie Woo feels about it, but I would classify Corgan's view of the matter as having roughly the same weight as the Woo-man's. The indication that Sandberg will not be interviewed for the manager job is easily the most controversial decision of the Theo Epstein era thus far. Though, should it be much of a surprise?

Much was made of Epstein having interviewed Sandberg, and possibly having wanted to hire him, for the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox manager job last season. I'm not sure why the next logical conclusion would be that Sandberg would become the favorite for a major league job. Sandberg has the same amount of major league level coaching experience he had prior to the 2010 season--none. I'm betting Theo & Co. would be open to having Sandberg manage in the farm system, or coach at the major league level if the next manager wants him in the dugout (though Sandberg's notoriety almost guarantees that won't happen), but there is no reason for Sandberg to be considered to lead the Cubs. It was a nice idea once, when the Cubs needed a warm body to fill the job for half a season and audition for future work, but not anymore.

Hiring Sandberg would be the easy and obvious thing to do, and a wonderful way for a new regime to win fan support, but that is not the No. 1 thing Theo & Co. is trying to win.

-Ryan Theriot was roundly criticized for landing for saying he had landed on the right side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry when he signed with St. Louis before last season, even though he didn't leave the Cubs by choice the season before last. Apparently, Theriot was right--though in the darkest corner of your Cub fan sould you knew he was. He is now a World Series champion, and though he didn't hit well in the series--only 1 for 13--he did driven in two key runs for the Cards.

So, two of my favorite scrappy players from recent years--LSU products Theriot and Mike Fontenot (I liked to call them the French Connection, though no one else ever pick it up)--both have World Series rings. Yet, they weren't good enough for the Cubs, always on the hunt for the future HoF-er who could do everything and help them win it all.

--Carlos Zambrano is pitching in Venezuela. A lot of us hope he stays right there, though I wouldn't be surprised if Theo & Co find a way to smooth things over just enough and polish up his rough edges just enough to trade him.

--Aramis Ramirez is not in the Cubs' future plans. So says Theo. Is Bake DeWitt taking over, or is Bryan Lahair learning how to play third base as we speak? Or maybe Thepo has something different in mind.


Call it a Theo-cracy

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Finally, officially, Theo Epstein is joining the Cubs, not as GM, but president of baseball operations. It might be the ideal position for a proven winner with a proven system, but who might need others on his management team to balance his recent willingness to risk big deals on big free agents.

You see, the best part of this deal might be the deals to come--the likelihood that Epstein cohorts Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod could be joining the Cubs, too, as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

Hoyer would have been a good choice for Cubs GM with or without Theo, as he has recently overseen San Diego's emphasis on player development and getting top prospects in exchange for big names like Adrian Gonzalez Hoyer may have robbed his buddy in the A-Gon deal--we'll find it over the next few years, as the former Boston prospects rise in San Diego, and Gonzalez toils to help Boston return to prominence. In losing Gonzalez, San Diego had to live with a losing season this year, but the youth movement there is similar to what brought Arizona a division title this year.

In any case, having a three-headed Team Theo is the best possible outcome for the Cubs, and could help Ricketts make up for the debacle of Jim Hendry's departure--though of course Team Theo has to clean up the Hendry mess, which among other things includes a contract commitment to a feast-or-famine first baseman at a time when the two best first basemen of the current era becoming available on the free agent market.

I think Team Theo could bring a more balanced attack than Theo would alone, decisive and aggressive, willing to take selective risks and recognizing that player development is the biggest need before getting the Cubs back in post-season shape.

It's still not clear who the Cubs will have to give up for Theo, let alone for Hoyer and McLeod, but at least we know there is new sheriff in town.


Blame it on Theo

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Theo Epstein appears set to join the Cubs with the title of GM or something better, and like the signing of Andre Dawson, the hirings of Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, and the trade for Nomar Garciaparra, the notion has many Cubs fans feeling like they have gone to heaven.

Let's just hope this thing with Theo is not like the others. In those cases, heaven turned out to be purgatory.

When Theo appeared to be on the outs in Boston, it made Tom Ricketts' job easy. How do you argue against two World Series titles? How do you argue against the combination of youthful energy and years of experience in one package? How do you argue against this: In eight seasons with Boston, Theo's teams never had fewer than 86 wins, and only three times had fewer than 95 wins.?

How do you argue against a miracle-working curse-breaker?

If Ricketts had not tried to hire Theo, and Theo had landed elsewhere, Ricketts would have been vilified. Theo's accomplisments are that hard to argue, so let's not argue them. Let's just look at a few reasons we should perhaps temper our optimism:

--He has handed out long-term, bloated contracts to free agents with little even short-term value. Examples: Daisuke Matsuzaka (which is Japanese for "Mark Prior"), John Lackey, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo. Carl Crawford may end up on this list, too, if he has another off year. Jim Hendry's Alfonso Soriano contract would fit right in here. (Check out this super-helpful spreadsheet analysis at Steal of Home for more on Theo's signings, trades, and draft choices.)

--He has made bad decisions about pitching, which is the Cubs' top need. All I really need to say is that when the White Sox were done with Bobby Jenks, Theo is the one who hired him, and on a multi-year contract. But, the Daisuke fiasco, the Lackey signing, moves for past-his-prime Eric Gagne, eternally-injured Eric Bedard and elderly John Smoltz. Meanwhile, he has traded away young top talent, or let it walk as compensation for free agent signings (Example: Casey Kelly, No. 1-ranked prospect for Boston, who left as part of the Adrian Gonzalez deal).

--On the latter point, much has been made of Theo's drafting capabilities and the role of the Carmine software prorgam in helping the club evaluate talent. But, the Cubs aren't hiring Carmine, are they? Theo has the statistical analysis chops that the Cubs want, but how much of his ability to draft and nurture young talent is his own, and how much of it is Carmine's or Boston's scouts' and minor league coaches'?

--Theo was not entirely the architect of the 2004 World Series winner. He did trade for Curt Schilling, but others like Manny Ramirez, who factored heavily in both the 2004 and 2007 championships, was brought in by a previous GM. So were Boston veterans Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek. Credit Theo with unloading Manny before his steroids scandal, though that also makes you wonder how much Boston should thank the wonders of science for its titles.

All of this is not to say I'm not excited by this hiring. If you go by accomplishments, Theo is the best baseball executive of the last decade. I didn't think Ricketts had the guts, the brains or the decisiveness to go after him, but I was wrong. Theo should be a better GM than Hendry was the last few years in particular, and the Cubs are about to be set to work on all their other needs with the World Series not even having started yet (Your plane is waiting, Mike Quade...)

In many ways, this is a no-brainer, which of course could be taken two ways--either the brain wasn't needed to make this decision, or it wasn't properly used.

Yes, the Cubs have their man. He is ready to take credit for another miracle. Does he have another one left in him?


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