The Cubtober Diary: Theo’s great five-year plan

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CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 24: Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, speaks to the press during Media Day for the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 24, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND – When you hear about five-year plans it mostly comes on campus.

That usually refers to someone who takes an extra year to complete their college education – one more than the typical four which many students follow. Sometimes that’s because of a challenging major or majors, other times it’s making up for a light year.

In baseball, such a timetable for success is a bit of a luxury. Often teams aren’t patient to go from the bottom to the top and just a few years can be too many.

That was not the case for Theo Epstein on the day he was hired by the Cubs to be their President of Baseball Operations. Owner Tom Ricketts, who saw a team built with free agents fall short of a World Series title, was hoping to build a franchise from the ground up to beat its tough history.

Epstein was the guy to do that, coming to town with a five-or-so-year plan to build the Cubs back up just as he’d done in Boston.

“I don’t believe in curses, (and) I guess I played a small part in proving they don’t exist, from a baseball standpoint,” Epstein said on the day he was hired. “I do think we can be honest and upfront that certain organizations haven’t gotten the job done. That’s the approach we took in Boston.

“We identified certain things that we hadn’t been doing well, that might have gotten in the way of a World Series, and eradicated them. That’s what we’ll do here.”

That day was October 25, 2011. Yes, that is five years to the day that the team he built will play in the franchise’s first World Series game in 71 years.

Perhaps it’s fitting that it falls on the date which officially began a new Cubs era. It was a diligent rebuilding process that started at the bottom with the team losing 101 games in 2012.

But the team didn’t rush success. They built with the two talented younger players they inherited  and kept around – catcher Willson Conteras and infielder Javier Baez. Both discovered by the Jim Hendry and acquired by the Jim Hendry regime were the pair that continued development in the Epstein system for sustained success.

“Jim Hendry and his lieutenants did a great job of finding those,” said Epstein of Baez and Contreras. “Talent was obvious and like any other player in the low minors, some of the tools stand out and some of the challenges are there.”

Epstein conquered those, too. His first three first round draft picks (Albert Almora Jr, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber) made up a young core of players that progressed through the minor leagues. Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arreita were talented early pieces to the puzzle added through trades as the team slowly added productive players.

Two manager changes finally brought Joe Maddon late in 2014. Major free agent Jon Lester joined him after that for 2015 when the team broke out for 97 wins and a berth in the NLCS. Add John Lackey and Jason Heyward with some prospects moving from the minors to the majors and you’ve got a World Series team.

Epstein will watch that finished product in the stands at Progressive Field on Tuesday night, five years to the day he took the job. It takes a collective effort to create arguably one of the strongest Cubs’ teams in history – and don’t think Epstein has forgotten that.

“We’re just looking for players who can help the Cubs win and who want to be here and it doesn’t matter who brought them in or whether they are drafted guys or traded guys or they’ve been here a while or they just go here,” said Epstein. “Winning is so hard, you can’t try to do it a certain way, you just look for players who can help you win.”

That’s exactly what he did. Happy Anniversary Theo, enjoy the World Series.