Baseball promises to be better on North Side
Epstein, Hoyer have right ideas to remake Cubs for long haul
The appeal of the Chicago Cubs is the promise of a new day. A day that hangs on the horizon.Of course, this is nothing new. Theo Epstein didn't invent the hope that huddles in the hearts of Cubs fans. He's merely the latest -- and, you could easily argue, the most competent -- begetter of their belief in a brighter day. He's also the most eloquent, as he demonstrated on the day he was introduced as the team's new president of baseball operations. "To me, baseball is better with tradition," Epstein said that day. "Baseball is better with history. Baseball is better with fans who care. Baseball is better in ballparks like this. Baseball is better during the day. And baseball is best of all when you win." Poetry, I tell you. And just cheesy ... er, crafty ... enough to become the centerpiece of an advertising campaign. Lo and behold, that's the direction the Cubs have gone, and they've enlisted the New York-based creative agency Brooklyn Brothers to develop a series of ads centered on the "Baseball Is Better" concept. Epstein's version was vague enough to cover the basics of the Wrigley Field experience, and he's right. Baseball is better during the day, with ivy on the walls and an Old Style in your hand. But as Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer dramatically retool the on-field product as part of what is destined to be a multiyear, uphill battle with an end-goal of contention (a.k.a. a "foundation of sustained success," which would certainly be a welcome departure from the current foundation of sustained suffering), I hereby and helpfully submit a few more suggestions for the slogan: Baseball is better when power-hitting prospects are on the 40-man roster. And that's why Epstein and Hoyer were willing to risk watching the hard-throwing Andrew Cashner bloom elsewhere to reel in Anthony Rizzo from the Padres. After two years of clear offensive decline across the sport, it's arguable that the circle has turned to the point where reliable power hitting is becoming the coveted commodity that premier pitching once was. The Cubs haven't developed a left-handed slugger in far too long, and Rizzo fits the mold, provided the .141 average he mustered in his first 49 big league ballgames proves to be a blip on the radar and not an ominous sign of things to come. Rizzo raked at the Triple-A level last year, and the Cubs might use the presence of Bryan LaHair to let Rizzo learn how to rake some more in Iowa. Rizzo was clearly overmatched when the Padres called him up, and perhaps the slow bat speed and high strikeout rate he demonstrated down the stretch are real causes for concern. But he's 22. Moldable. Full of potential. And Cashner's shoulder issues and potential bullpen landing spot made him expendable from the Cubs' perspective. It was a trade worth making. Baseball is better when Carlos Zambrano takes his antics elsewhere. Even if you're still on the hook for $15.5 million of his 2012 salary. And hey, maybe there is something to Big Z trade return Chris Volstad holding the 32nd-best xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) in the Majors going into 2012. Baseball is better when Alfonso Soriano follows Big Z out the door. Contingent, of course, on somebody -- anybody -- being willing to take on three years and somewhere in the neighborhood of half the $54 million remaining on his contract in order to put him at his rightful place at designated hitter. Soriano obviously doesn't fit in with the new regime's long-term (or even short-term) view, but finding a taker is no small task -- especially considering his right to veto any deal. Baseball is better when Dale Sveum lays down the law. Sveum, the motorcycle-riding, tattoo-sporting son of a Marine, would seem an ideal fit on a team that needs to tighten up and toughen up. Ultimately, personnel is what matters most, but the Cubs are trying to create a culture of accountability. A culture where a wild card like Zambrano simply doesn't fit in. We don't yet know a thing about Sveum's skills as a manager, but we know he's approaching the job with an impatience for poor effort or unpreparedness. And that's a start. "People want to be motivated," Sveum said recently. "That's just the way society works." Baseball is better when advanced analytics are in hand. And the Cubs have called on Bloomberg Sports to develop a player evaluation system that will incorporate both the metrics and the motion pictures and be instantly accessible to the club's evaluators via laptop or mobile device. As anyone who has seen "Moneyball" knows, data management has become a cornerstone of any competent front office, and the Cubs will be far from the only ones employing some form of management model in their day-to-day operations. But in enlisting such a cutting-edge company as Bloomberg for its creation and then announcing that step through a news release, the Cubs smartly give their fans the sense that no stone is being left unturned in the search for stability, and maybe that's half the battle in instilling hope. After all, no fan wants to feel his club is behind the curve. The only question is whether it will be available in the App Store. Baseball is better when the Prince Fielder sweepstakes is avoided. The Rizzo acquisition confirmed the notion that the Cubs were never going to be serious suitors for Fielder (or Albert Pujols, for that matter). An investment of that magnitude in a guy who likely profiles as a DH down the road at this stage in the rebuilding timeline lacks sense, no matter how popular a move it might be in the here and now. This club simply doesn't have an adequate supporting cast to surround Prince, and by the time it does, he might be past his prime years. And that leads us to the prevailing theme with the Cubbies these days... Baseball is better when the fans are patient. That's quite a lot to ask, considering the ongoing 103-year wait. And whatever faith Epstein has earned has been earned elsewhere. The "Curse of the Bambino" was nothing when compared with the gloom surrounding the North Side. Frankly, it's easy for those of us on the outside to sit back and assume Epstein and Co., given their past credentials, are steering this thing in the right direction. But it will be years before we know if that's true, and the new Basic Agreement could dramatically affect the way amateur talent is acquired -- and that's certainly a point of interest for a club in need of an overhaul from the ground up. Even Epstein is leery of putting a due date on the Cubs' completion of that so-called "foundation." "I know more about what I want the Cubs to be," Epstein said over the weekend, "than when we're going to get there, to be blunt and honest with you about it." But baseball is better when an actual plan is in place for a long-tortured team. And this winter, in addition to some new marketing machinations, Cubs fans are seeing the first instances of poetry in motion.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.