'The Plan' is falling into place for Theo Epstein and Cubs

Twelve moves that best exemplify the Cubs' rebuilding effort.

It hasn't happened overnight, and it has had its share of painful moments.

But "The Plan" the Cubs began to execute in the fall of 2011 has led to an amazing rebirth of the organization, which appears headed for its first postseason appearance in seven years.

"Obviously it's a process of many years to try to build an organization into a position where we can have the requisite talent and depth and makeup and the right people to try to compete and play the best baseball at the time it matters most," Cubs President Theo Epstein said Monday in Pittsburgh.

"We're part way along in that journey, and the cool part is you get to all be together and write the next chapter. This is why so many people put in so much hard work to get to a position like this."

Epstein has been the man behind the curtain, but he knew he had put the right people in the right positions. He also knew from the outset the plan would have potholes and doubters.

At his introductory news conference, Epstein joked he never would be so popular again.

"I should probably have another press conference right now to resign because my popularity definitely has to be at an all-time high," he said on Oct. 25, 2011. "It has peaked and it's only going to go downhill because, in baseball, when you make moves, if you do a great job, you're right 55 percent of the time. The other 45 percent of the time you're going to tick some people off. I understand that."

Epstein immediately put his plan into place, rebuilding the organization from the ground up. Some of Epstein's moves have worked; others have flopped.

But Epstein's plan to create a "foundation of sustained success" appears to be ahead of schedule. Out of hundreds of decisions Epstein and the Cubs front office have made, here are 12 that best exemplify "The Plan."

Snubbing Ryno: After dismissing manager Mike Quade with a year left on his two-year deal, Epstein said in a news release the Cubs would seek a replacement with major-league coaching or managing experience.

That meant snubbing popular Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, then the Triple-A Iowa manager. It was a signal the Cubs were not going to make moves to appease longtime fans.

Sandberg left the organization and went on to manage the Phillies before resigning in July after lasting less than two years.

Hiring Bosio: After Epstein hired Dale Sveum as his first manager, Sveum's friend and former Brewers teammate Chris Bosio came along as his pitching coach.

"It's going to be agonizing at times and rewarding as well," Bosio told the Appleton (Wis.) Post-Crescent. "That's the rigors of the season. But we're going to try to create some magic at Wrigley."

Bosio helped turn around the careers of several pitchers, including Jake Arrieta, and became integral to Epstein's sign-and-flip strategy of buying low on pitchers, then trading them for prospects. Bosio survived the firings of Sveum and Rick Renteria and is now a possible managerial candidate.

Dumping Zambrano: In an attempt to change the clubhouse culture, Epstein dealt pitcher Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins in January 2012 for pitching prospect Chris Volstad, assuming $15 million of Zambrano's $18 million contract.

In a 14-month stretch, Zambrano was suspended, placed on the restricted list, sent to anger-management counseling, suspended again and finally placed on the disqualified list after walking out on the team and telling clubhouse workers he was retiring. Epstein polled veteran players to see if Zambrano could fit in; the verdict was unanimous.

"People who have been around the situation over the years had heard before there was going to be change, they had heard before there was going to be a new attitude, and they have been burned — physical altercations, deserting the team, that type of thing," Epstein said after the trade. "It made it clear in my mind this wasn't just a sort of mob mentality or unfair momentum to run this guy out of town."

Signing Soler: In June 2012, the Cubs gave 20-year-old Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler a nine-year deal worth $30 million. It's the longest contract in franchise history, given to an unknown prospect with power potential. But Soler has been injured frequently, hitting .271 with only 12 home runs and 135 strikeouts in 432 at-bats. Whether he will make the postseason roster is unknown after he suffered an oblique injury in late August.

Sign-and-flip: Paul Maholm became the first sign-and-flip free agent when he and veteran Ryan Dempster were dealt at the trade deadline. The Cubs acquired injured Braves pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino and two others for Maholm and two Class A players from the Rangers — 22-year-old starter Kyle Hendricks and 21-year-old third baseman Christian Villanueva — for Dempster.

"Organizational pitching deficit is not something you can address all at once," Epstein said after the deals. "It's something that takes years to address."

The Cubs made several sign-and-flip deals and received Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta in a multiplayer trade that sent Scott Feldman to the Orioles in 2013. Jason Hammel was a sign-and-flip in 2014 when he and Jeff Samardzija went to the A's for Addison Russell and other prospects.

Castro extension: In August 2012, Epstein gave shortstop Starlin Castro a seven-year, $60 million contract, making him one of the Cubs' core players. Castro's deal was considered team-friendly and included a $16 million option in 2020. Castro's season had started under the cloud of a sexual assault allegation that ended with no charges filed. Sveum was asked how Castro would handle the expectations.

"Who really knows?" he said. "Twenty-two years old, to get that kind of money is a lot to handle sometimes."

The next season, Epstein gave Anthony Rizzo a seven-year, $41 million extension. Castro's hasn't worked out as planned, while Rizzo's deal looks like a bargain.

Signing Jackson: After the 2012 season, Epstein made his first big foray into free agency, signing veteran starter Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million deal. Jackson didn't perform, going 8-18 his first season and 6-15 in 2014. It served as a cautionary tale for Epstein, who originally went after Anibal Sanchez and lost out to the Tigers.

"We wouldn't do it over again," Epstein told a group of season ticket holders after the 2014 season. "It was a mistake. But to Edwin's credit, he has shown up every day and worked hard."

The Cubs put Jackson in the bullpen in 2015 and released him July 27. Jackson went 16-34 with a 5.37 ERA with the Cubs.

Drafting Bryant: With the No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft, the Cubs selected 20-year-old college slugger Kris Bryant over Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray after Stanford right-hander Mark Appel went first to the Astros.

"If we can make this deal happen, I think I can play in the big leagues now," Bryant said. "I have that type of confidence in myself."

Bryant zoomed through the system and led the Cactus League in home runs last spring but was sent back to Iowa to start the season, allowing the Cubs to get an extra year of service time out of him. He's the front-runner for NL rookie of the year.

Firing Sveum: When Epstein thought Sveum was not getting the most out of young players such as Castro and Rizzo, he fired the manager with a year left on his three-year deal.

Sveum's replacement, Rick Renteria, lasted only one year into his three-year contract before being fired in favor of Joe Maddon. Sveum wound up as hitting coach of the Royals; Renteria has not surfaced since.

Drafting Schwarber: The Cubs surprised everyone by taking Indiana University catcher Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in the 2014 draft. They brought up Schwarber for a cameo in mid-June this year, using him only in a DH role. He returned in July to catch when Miguel Montero was injured and has settled in in left field, providing the lineup with a valuable left-handed bat near the top of the order. The Cubs say Schwarber's future is still behind the plate, but he has proved he belongs no matter what position he plays.

Hiring Maddon: When an opt-out clause in Maddon's contract made the Rays manager available in October, the Cubs pounced. Maddon's arrival brought instant credibility to the organization and helped in its pursuit of $155 million free agent left-hander Jon Lester.

Maddon's rapport with young players has been instrumental in their growth, and he's in contention for his third manager of the year award.

Benching Castro: After watching Castro struggle for four months, Maddon benched his starting shortstop and moved Russell there full time. Despite Castro's contract and status as a core player, Epstein allowed Maddon to audible for the sake of the team. Epstein said it was not a permanent benching.

"Just a recognition of where we are in the standings, how many good options we have with the players we have returning now," Epstein said. "And it's a nod to Joe's ability to push the right buttons and put the best lineup on the field any given night.

Castro has handled the situation well and has contributed as a part-time player at second.

The rebuilding project isn't over, but the foundation of "The Plan" has been laid. The Cubs should contend for years to come.

"The nucleus of the team is in place," Epstein said Monday. "And it's going to be together for a while."

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