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Theo vs. Evil Empire: How the Cubs move on from the Tanaka fallout

May 20, 2014, 12:16 PM EST

The urban legend had Theo Epstein destroying a hotel room after he found out Jose Contreras decided on the New York Yankees.

The youngest GM in baseball history had been on the job for almost a month when the big Cuban pitcher established residency in Nicaragua just before Christmas 2002. Hoping to freeze out everyone else, Epstein and Boston Red Sox international scouting director Louie Eljaua hatched the plan to rent out all the rooms in the small hotel in Managua.

That’s where Contreras and his agent, Jaime Torres, posted up for the meetings. Together, they smoked cigars and drank booze, selling the idea of winning at Fenway Park, how they would help him adapt to life in the United States, making it seem like a sure thing.

[RELATED – Cubs excited to welcome Yankees back to Wrigley Field]

Until, of course, Contreras wound up taking more money from the Yankees, grabbing a four-year, $32 million deal. That led Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, Epstein’s mentor/nemesis, to tell The New York Times: “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”

“I didn’t trash the room,” Epstein said. “The story was that I picked up a chair and threw it through a window or something. I didn’t. I slammed a door, which didn’t break. That was it.”

Now 40 years old, with two World Series rings and a president’s title, Epstein has thought of the Contreras pursuit while rebuilding the Cubs, trying to channel all the frustrations and stay focused on the big picture.

“It’s more about process and living to fight another day,” Epstein said. “Even if you think you lose, you win sometimes. You think you’ve won, you’ve lost.”

“We don’t know (bleep)”

Masahiro Tanaka is who the Cubs thought he would be when they made a six-year, $120 million offer last winter – someone with the stuff, guts and intelligence to be a frontline pitcher in the big leagues. They just didn’t think he’d be doing it in their pinstripes.

Tanaka is unbeaten in his last 42 regular-season starts and will face the National League’s worst team on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. At 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA – and 66 strikeouts against seven walks through 58 innings – Tanaka will be in the Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and All-Star starter conversations.

[MORE – After rocky start, Travis Wood turns the corner]

Epstein’s front office expected a big-market team like the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers to push the bidding to a place that could cripple a payroll limited by ownership’s leveraged partnership, as well as the uncertainties surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations and the next TV deals.

That final bid didn’t even include the $20 million release fee for Tanaka’s Japanese club, and it didn’t come close to the seven-year, $155 million megadeal the Yankees gave their new ace.

The Cubs did beat the Yankees for $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler with the help of Eljaua, who got hired by the Jim Hendry administration and stayed on as a key presence for the franchise in Latin America.

But mostly it’s been one disappointment after another at Clark and Addison. There was a point where the Cubs thought they were going to sign Soler and Yoenis Cespedes, until the Oakland A’s offered $36 million over four years instead of six.

The Cubs were played by Anibal Sanchez, who got $80 million guaranteed from the Detroit Tigers and led the American League in ERA last season.

[MORE – Edwin Jackson’s dominant effort spoils Matt Garza’s return]

The Cubs were blown away in the Hyun-Jin Ryu bidding, with the Dodgers getting the South Korean right-hander who recently turned 27 and has gone 17-10 with a 3.00 ERA through his first 37 starts.

Driven by rumors and Chicago media leaks, even last year’s manager search had a runner-up feeling, with Joe Girardi staying in The Bronx and Yankees GM Brian Cashman saying: “I never felt he was leaving us.”

In Year 3 of the full-scale rebuild, the Cubs are looking for silver linings.

“(Matt) Garza blacks out a 96 mph fastball to Matt Holliday in the summer of 2012 in St. Louis,” Epstein said. “We think we’re going to clean up in a trade for him. We might be able to get Mike Olt. And then an inning later, he walks off the mound holding his elbow and we get nothing.

“We thought we lost. It turns out we won, because a year later, (Garza) pitched great for five weeks and we were able to trade him for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.”

[RELATED – Wrigley return doesn’t end Matt Garza’s frustration]

So is this the older, wiser Theo?

“I was still pissed,” Epstein said. “But it’s just the more experiences you have, you realize you never know in this game. We had an organizational credo at the Red Sox when I first started, which we would always bring up from time to time: ‘We don’t know (bleep).’

“Basically, as a reminder that when you think you have the game figured out, look closer, because you don’t. There are so many arbitrary aspects to this game, so much luck involved. If you’re on a roll, you’re making good decisions, you think you have something figured out, you probably just got a little bit lucky and karma will get you.”

Keeping the “powder dry”

Epstein left Boston thinking he’d be running another superpower, the Evil Empire of the Midwest.

The Cubs are 15-27 and heading toward another summer sell-off and another last-place finish. All the talk is about the draft and the farm system, questioning why Javier Baez is struggling at Triple-A Iowa and wondering why Kris Bryant hasn’t been promoted from Double-A Tennessee, without realizing the irony.

Tanaka, who’s only 25 years old, would have changed the conversation and given some credibility to the franchise’s business/baseball plans.

Where would the Yankees be without Tanaka? Injuries have shredded the rotation, but they’re still a first-place team, 7-1 on the days he pitches and 16-19 when he doesn’t.

After losing the Tanaka sweepstakes, the Cubs kept most of their “powder dry,” signing Jason Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) to a one-year deal, hoping he can keep boosting his trade value with another strong start on Tuesday against Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter and the Bronx Bombers.

After seeing what pre-DL Jose Abreu had done on the South Side, Cubs fans hope the game-changing moves are still out there. After all, Contreras (78-67, 4.57 ERA) never lived up to the enormous expectations, lasting parts of two seasons in New York before getting traded to the White Sox (and helping them win the 2005 World Series).

[RELATED – Can any Cubs prospect match what Jose Abreu has done?]

“‘We don’t know (bleep)’ is a way to remind yourself – and remind everyone around you – that there is way more we don’t know about the game than what we do know about the game,” Epstein said. “All you can really do is set a vision, hire great people, make sure your processes are really sound and keep trying to get better each day and let things fall where they may. That’s as true now as it was then.”

  1. jimmyt - May 20, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    I feel bad for Cub fans that think Epstein can perform the miracle for them that he did for the other perennial loser, the Red Sox. That was all the smoke and mirrors of PEDs. He stacked that team from top to bottom with cheaters and it’s a lot tougher to get away with that now. Theo is actually pretty ordinary without the tainted part of his resume.

    • 18thstreet - May 20, 2014 at 12:57 PM

      Nonsense.

      Unless you think he had nothing to do with getting Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, which solved — by far — the biggest problems with the 2003 team. Or if you think the two of them are among the cheaters.

    • 18thstreet - May 20, 2014 at 1:04 PM

      And, please, don’t forget 2007. Theo drafted Pedroia, Papelbon, and Ellsbury. Signed Okajima as a free agent.

      Also drafted Buccholz and Bard, Justin Masterson, David Murphy, and Anthony Rizzo.

      Keep imagining that Theo’s success began and ended with David Ortiz or Kevin Millar. Keep imaging that anyone else would have had the guts to trade Nomar. Because it makes you look foolish, and it makes my job — taking you down — easier.

    • TheMorningStar - May 20, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      Which ‘cheaters’ on the Red Sox are you referring to?

      Manny? Nope, he tested positive in LA.
      Ortiz? Nope. He’s never tested positive for anything?
      Paxton Crawford? Nope. He was in the minors when tested positive.

      How about the Yankees? Lets see now:

      A-Rod: admitted to using PEDs
      Giambi: admitted to using PEDs
      Petitte: admitted to using PEDs
      Grimsley: tested positive
      Sheffield: tested positve.
      Garcia: tested positive.

      Looks like the real ‘cheaters’ reside in the Bronx. Cashman knowingly assembled a team of ‘cheaters’.

      • jimmyt - May 20, 2014 at 1:52 PM

        I know the Yankee’s have their fair share as well. I also realise that in Boston cheating (with fan approval) is part of the sports culture. That whole team were as jacked as the origonal PED team the A’s.

      • TheMorningStar - May 20, 2014 at 3:30 PM

        ‘Part of the sports culture’?

        You’re just a hater troll. Back to the forrest, troll.

      • choppynofo - May 20, 2014 at 3:00 PM

        Baaaah. Like Manny just found PED’s when he moved to LA. Ortiz admitted he tested positive in 2003, but doesn’t know what he possibly could have taken. Lou Merloni and Curt Schilling have both stated that they were encouraged to use PED’s, and Remy’s kid was fired from the Red Sox for dealing steroids. Yup, no cheaters there.

      • TheMorningStar - May 20, 2014 at 3:26 PM

        M

    • jrob23 - May 20, 2014 at 2:07 PM

      clueless. Theo knew this was going to be a 5 year process. He has gone about it the right way. Building through the draft. Signing reclamation projects he can flip for prospects. Trading Smardija for prospects and by next season many of them will be up for good and the team will be ready to make a run with a good core of young players. He has the ammunition to go get some players since they are a big market as well. What he did with Boston was truly remarkable

  2. renaado - May 20, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    The Cubs not signin Tanaka is a definite benefit for their team, this is the National League were talkin about and certainly there is no DH. In Japan, the Pacific league where Tanaka’s team is, is same with the American league also with no DH and he has to bat everytime when he’s on the mound where he’s not really accustumed to. What the Cubs need here is their homegrown talent and not waste it, Tanaka is a real damn good pitcher I can tell you that, but wastin tons of money on a winning guy alone doesn’t make a difference when batters in their lineup doesn’t score enough runs to support his outings.

    • renaado - May 20, 2014 at 12:48 PM

      “Check that” Same with the National league also with no DH.

    • 18thstreet - May 20, 2014 at 1:07 PM

      From what I understand, Theo has said that they almost got Anibal Sanchez. And if the 1-2 punch in the rotation were Tanaka and Sanchez, followed by Samardzija I think you’d surely be looking at a playoff team. But they didn’t get them, so you aren’t.

      A guy like Tanaka can transform a franchise. He’s doing it with the Yankees right now. I never believed he’s be this good, though.

      • renaado - May 20, 2014 at 1:27 PM

        “A guy like Tanaka can transform a franchise.”

        I agree with that definitely, not to mention he’s a young guy with a ton of talent. Not to mention the popularity of this Cubs team will be boomin in Japan right now if they’ve signed him, but for me I’m glad they didn’t cause if they did even if he have his current era with the the Cubs team right now shall we say, won’t still make a difference if they’d keep loosin like this.

        Their pitchin staff is good I can tell you that combinin a 3.59 era overall and bein 12th in the MLB based on that category. But what they really need to improve here is their hitting, even with the greatest team of starting rotation is there but when that team doesn’t score enough it’s stll a falldown. If they improve what is needed to improve, I can tell you this team will be team to contend with.

      • chicagocubsno1baseballfan - May 20, 2014 at 11:45 PM

        Wow… Dunno why someone would dislike his statement, seems legit though.

  3. perryt200 - May 20, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    the Cubs are going to suck until the fans quit coming and paying the money to see crap play. then they will either get better or sold.

    Wrigley Field is not really a ball park as much as it is a great party were sometimes a baseball game breaks out. and as long as that is all the fans want, that’s what they’ll get.

  4. stac266 - May 20, 2014 at 7:21 PM

    Nice article.

  5. crackersnap - May 20, 2014 at 7:32 PM

    “The Cubs were played by Anibal Sanchez, who got $80 million guaranteed from the Detroit Tigers…”

    What’s THAT story? I don’t recall that one.

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