Making his own luck

The billy goat is starting to sweat.

The Chicago Cubs, perennially the punch line to a bad World Series joke told over and over again since before World War I, are beginning to build something legitimate behind the crafty mind of front-office savant Theo Epstein.

When Epstein was hired away from the Boston Red Sox in 2011, I scoffed at the idea that he could reverse the curse of two historically-doomed baseball franchises.

I’m not laughing anymore.

Epstein started his reclamation project by going rural and revamping the Cubs’ farm system. Ranked anywhere from the middle- to bottom-half of baseball when Epstein took over, the Windy City’s north-siders now boast a consensus Top-5 minor league organization.

Balancing out the equation came next. Epstein replaced manager Rick Renteria with venerable Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon, then found a cornerstone for his starting rotation with the signing of two-time world champion and left-handed ace Jon Lester. Veterans Miguel Montero, Jason Hammel, Tommy La Stella and Jason Motte were also acquired to make sure the roster wasn’t just kid friendly.

The Cubs currently sit behind only the Dodgers, Red Sox and Tigers on the list of 2015 World Series favorites. They sport better Vegas odds than the defending world champion Giants, defending American League champion Royals, and ’14 playoff participants St. Louis, Baltimore, Oakland and Pittsburgh.

Now I’m not about to go out on a limb and declare the Cubs a frontrunner to reach next year’s Fall Classic for the first time in seven full decades. After all, this is a franchise that hasn’t won more than 75 games or finished anywhere other than last place in a single season since 2009.

I will say this, though: nothing would surprise me anymore moving forward with this team. In my book, Epstein has correctly blended blue-chip young talent with proven commodities who are still motivated.

With the average MLB salary now flirting with the $4 million mark, the sport is littered with bloated contracts and little incentive to actually win. That shouldn’t be a problem at Wrigley Field anytime soon. Like the Red Sox under Epstein’s guidance in 2004, the Cubs’ roster will be loaded with players who have something to prove.

We’ve all seen what kind of crapshoot the playoffs can be. Granted, the Cubs are still an arm or two short both in their rotation and their bullpen, and they’re likely at least a bat or two away in their lineup. Don’t assume for a second that Epstein is done wheeling and dealing, though. Chicago is still far from a finished product.

One thing is certain: there won’t be a more polarizing ballclub in the sport moving forward. Some baseball fans will write off their resurgence as fool’s gold. Die-hard Cubbies, on the other hand, are chomping at the bit. They see the potential and think next year is finally the year.

Time will tell if Chicago has what it takes in 2015 and beyond. I do believe a playoff run will happen on Epstein’s watch sooner rather than later. It may not be inevitable, but thanks to Epstein’s foresight and planning, he certainly isn’t leaving anything to chance.

Or luck – and the franchise’s long-standing lack thereof.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net