After jam with Eddie Vedder, Theo ponders rocking Cubs’ boat

CHICAGO (AP) Don’t bother asking whether this is the year.

Theo Epstein’s answer to the question that’s haunted Cubs fans for a century-and-counting hasn’t changed. It’s the same one he gave four years ago, when Epstein was introduced as the franchise’s latest savior to great fanfare and pleaded for patience: He has no idea. Neither does anyone else.

When the club broke training camp back in spring, 2016 seemed like a reasonable guess, or maybe `17. But if Epstein’s suddenly fast-filling schedule is any indication, this just might be the one.

For the first time since he took over as the club’s baseball operations boss, Wrigley Field is on full alert. Chockfull of young talent and now managed by wily Joe Maddon, the Cubs finally made it to midseason without being mathematically – or just realistically – eliminated from the postseason.

Small as that accomplishment seems, especially measured against their high-flying division rivals in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, there is the whiff of real possibility in the air on Chicago’s North Side and the anticipation that reinforcements are on the way. With the trade deadline looming at the end of the month, Epstein is thinking about buying players instead of simply swapping or selling them.

All of a sudden, just like it used to be back in Boston at this time of year, he is crazy busy. And not just with baseball: Epstein found time in the days before the All-Star break to step onstage at a nearby club alongside good friend Eddie Vedder and contribute backup guitar licks and vocals to a pretty good rendition of ”Rockin’ in the Free World.” Good enough, anyway, to raise $425,0000 for a youth charity he began in Boston and expanded to Chicago.

When he sat down for an interview, Epstein looked at ease, but he was still hoarse.

”If somebody came up to me in spring training and said here’s where you’ll be (47-40) at the end of the first half,” he began, clearing his throat one more time, ”I’d have taken it in a heartbeat.”

No doubt. Back then, youngsters Kris Bryant and Addison Russell had yet to make their major league debuts and there were plenty of questions about how a handful of added veterans like reliever Jason Motte, catcher Miguel Montero and returning starter Jason Hammel would fit in. Epstein turned that job over to Maddon and he did not disappoint.

”Because we play just about every day, you get into a rhythm right away and then the season becomes a kind of blur,” Maddon said. ”So if your veterans don’t buy in early, it only gets harder and harder to flip the culture.

”I was mostly lucky with this group, because to a man, they bought in really fast,” he added. ”Made my life a lot easier.”

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Maddon also proved masterful at managing a bullpen-by-committee and made sure understudies like Chris Denorfia and David Ross got enough at-bats to be pressed into starting roles when needed. After Bryant struck out three times in his first big-league game, Maddon made sure he didn’t worry about it.

”That’s how Joe is,” Russell said. ”He always says, `If you’re going to make a mistake, make it on the aggressive side.’ … When you’re young, you just want to go, go, go and I was down on myself because I wasn’t stealing as many bases as I thought I should.

”I talked to Joe and he said instead of worrying about that, start picking spots where you can take the extra base,” Russell added. ”It changed how I looked at running. I think it made me smarter and better on the base paths all the way around.”

Successful as the mix has been so far, Epstein is considering mixing it up even more. Back in 2004, when he helped deliver Boston’s first World Series title in 86 years, he was portrayed as the leader of a pack of young general managers determined to build baseball teams that resembled the statistical models they assembled with computers. The truth, at least in Epstein’s case, was never that simple.

His greatest strength was striking a balance between the old and new ways of cobbling together teams and being unafraid to rattle the believers in either camp. During his tenure in Chicago, which has aligned with a shift in the game from hitting to pitching, Epstein has taken the long view and loaded up on dynamic young position players.

Just don’t bet he won’t change course.

Epstein can’t know whether this is the year, but he may be willing to roll the dice at the halfway point to find out.

”We’d like to add starting pitching. We’re already running the risk of being thin heading into the dog days,” Epstein said, breaking into a wide smile after sneaking a glance at his phone. ”We’ll see.”