MLB

Epstein leaves Cubs after franchise transformation and World Series title

By Sports Desk November 19, 2020

November 2, 2016 was a night many Chicago Cubs fans never thought they would see.

After generations of fans witnessed their beloved Cubs come up short, the 2016 team ended the franchise's 108-year title drought by capturing the World Series.

The events that transpired that night in Cleveland – as well as the raucous celebrations taking place 350 miles to the west in Chicago – were set in motion five years earlier when the Cubs named Theo Epstein the team's president of baseball operations in October 2011. And just over four years after the Cubs hoisted the championship trophy, Epstein determined that his time with the franchise had come to an end, announcing Tuesday he would be stepping down from his position.

His contract was set to expire at the end of the 2021 season, and he was then expected to move on with general manager Jed Hoyer filling his position. Over the last few months, however, Epstein decided that since the franchise is facing several big personnel questions this offseason that will shape the future of the team, and that the one making the decisions should be around for the long haul, so Hoyer will take over now.

Epstein will forever be remembered in the Cubs' storied history – as well as the Boston Red Sox's – for delivering a championship to a long-suffering fan base. Though a Cubs dynasty never materialised like some fans envisioned after the 2016 title, Epstein successfully transformed a team known as the loveable losers into perennial contenders.

"The best part of this journey with the Cubs has been the feeling of togetherness: the friendships, trust, camaraderie, and collaboration inside the organisation as well as the deep connection with the fans," Epstein wrote in a letter to Cubs fans.

"Nine years ago, after I laid out some lofty goals at my introductory press conference — a pledge to create a foundation for sustained success that would mean playing baseball regularly in October as well as a promise, over time and together, to build a team that would ultimately win the World Series — our first act as a baseball department was to set out a collective vision for how we could meet those goals and make our fans proud."

Building a contender began with "The Plan".

Epstein had no intention in competing immediately, his vision was a complete tear down to rebuild with high draft picks of position players, develop those picks into a core of the team and acquire pitchers.

As far as being bad in those first few years under Epstein's watch, the Cubs excelled.

In his first three seasons at the helm, the Cubs had the league's second-worst winning percentage at .412. Chicago's poor play, however, led to high draft picks, and Epstein and the Cubs drafted Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ with top-10 picks from 2012-15.

Over that same span, the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, and prior to the start of the 2015 season, they signed free agent Jon Lester. Also before the 2015 season, they landed highly coveted manager Joe Maddon.

With the core in place, the Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 victories in 2015 and a berth in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) – their first since 2003. Over the last six seasons, their 505 wins are the third most in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (528) and Houston Astros (510).

Excluding the 2020 season because of the truncated 60-game schedule amid the coronavirus pandemic, the five-year stretch from 2015-19 was also one of the best in franchise history – the 471 wins only behind the 530 between 1906 and 1910.

Four straight 90-win seasons from 2015-18, helped the Cubs pile up many of those victories. Since 2015, only the Dodgers have more 90-win seasons.

What makes the Cubs' recent success even more incredible is that it followed a particularly forgettable four-decade stretch. Chicago had the fewest seasons with 90-plus wins between 1970 and 2014 with four, only the Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies (both two) fared worse.

With the exception of the Cubs, every other team on the list – including the San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays – started in the division era, and the two clubs with fewer 90-win seasons than the Cubs did not even begin play until 1993. So, Chicago had 23 more opportunities than the Rockies and Marlins to reach 90 wins in a season, 28 more seasons than the Diamondbacks and Rays (both started in 1998) and seven more than the Mariners and Blue Jays (both started in 1977). The Padres first season was in 1969.

Chicago's turnaround was a result of Epstein's moves and the team's player development. Bryant would go on to win the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Award, while Arrieta took home that year's NL Cy Young Award. A year later, Bryant earned NL MVP honours, Lester finished second in 2016 NL Cy Young voting while Hendricks finished third.

While Arrieta signed with the Philadelphia Phillies after 2017 and Epstein inked Yu Darvish prior to 2018, the tandem of Lester and Hendricks has been one of the most reliable in the majors over the past six seasons.

Since 2015, the Cubs' pitching staff has posted the majors' third-best ERA at 3.66, while Lester (77 wins), Hendricks (62) and Arrieta (54) are also one of just two trios to have at least 50 wins for one team - along with the Cleveland Indians' Carlos Carrasco (69), Corey Kluber (67) and Trevor Bauer (61).

With Hendricks, Lester and 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up Darvish heading the rotation, the offense has compiled the majors' second-highest on-base percentage since 2015 at .332 behind a familiar line-up.

Rizzo and Bryant have each made three All-Star teams, while shortstop Javier Baez – the Cubs' first-round pick from the year before Epstein took over in 2011 – has earned two trips to the Midsummer Classic. Those three stars along with Schwarber have provided consistent home-run power only two other teams can match over the past six seasons – the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros with four players with 100 or more homers since 2015.

The Cubs have had an incredible run since 2015, reaching the postseason five times – one of four teams with at least five playoff berths in the last six seasons, along with the Dodgers, Astros and New York Yankees. Not every move Epstein has made worked to perfection like signing Craig Kimbrel or trading Eloy Jimenez for Jose Quintana. And the team have not won a playoff game since 2017 with their offense inconceivably scoring two, one, one, three, one, one, one and 0 runs in their last eight postseason games, but the last six years overall will still be considered one of the best stretches in Cubs history.

''If you look at my track record in Boston and then here, in the first six years or so, we did some pretty epic things,'' Epstein said Tuesday. ''And then the last couple years weren't as impressive. Maybe what that tells me is I think I'm great at and really enjoy building and transformation and triumphing. Maybe I'm not as good and not as motivated by maintenance.''

Epstein is not sure what the future will bring, but will take the next year off of baseball. At least, working at the ballpark. He did say he plans to buy season tickets for the Cubs to enjoy the game as a fan.

"Getting dropped into this situation nine years ago, feeling like a stranger, Chicago, the Cubs, Cubs fans all being foreign to me," Epstein said. "And now I look, nine years later, and I feel like it's in my blood too. I don't think that would’ve been possible elsewhere. The closeness of the connection with the fans as you go through the Cubs experience, that stands out to me."

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    "It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

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    Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

    Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

    "They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

    "They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

    The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

    Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

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