MLB

Buying in on what Epstein's selling

Carlos Zambrano
Volatile pitcher Carlos Zambrano is on his way to Miami and not looking back.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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It’s all about faith now for Cubs fans. Theo Epstein isn’t a theory anymore. He is cold, hard fact.

JOIN THE CIRCUS

Ken Rosenthal wants to run to South Beach to cover MLB's center ring.

So far, the plan has been to trade away and give up on the Cubs’ best, most expensive players, and replace them with guys who have live arms, were on the glee club in high school, showed talent before an injury, once were the hope of franchises. Does Epstein know something we don’t know?

We’re counting on it. On Wednesday, Epstein “traded’’ Carlos Zambrano to the Miami Marlins. I use quote marks because this wasn’t so much a trade as a cast-off. The Cubs reportedly will still pay $15 million of Zambrano’s $18 million salary next year. In return, the Cubs got, well, it doesn’t matter. This trade wasn’t about getting, but about giving. Or dumping. For the record, they got pitcher Chris Volstad, a former first-round draft pick who has a live arm and hasn’t been around quite long enough yet to call him a bust.

Epstein hasn’t been here long, but has already gotten rid of his biggest run producer, Aramis Ramirez, and his best relief pitcher, Sean Marshall. He has taken a pass on Albert Pujols, and instead apparently plans to go with minor leaguer Bryan LaHair at first base.

“I think hitters hit no matter where they are, and this kid has hit,’’ Epstein said the other day on WGN radio, the Cubs station. “He’s hit everywhere he’s ever been. You can’t dominate the Triple-A level more than he did this year.’’

Do you believe, Cubs fans? Because I’m starting to.

There is no way I just said that. Please let me take it back. When will I learn? The Cubs have spent decades selling faith, and only suckers keep falling for it. Lou Piniella was a genius, too. I bought into him. Dusty Baker was a winner. Corey Patterson was a superstar. Felix Pie, Gary Scott. Too many others.

The thing is, Zambrano sells tickets. His craziness sells. And the Cubs just paid $15 million to make him go away. That’s so un-Cublike.

Best of all, it was the right move, even though Zambrano can still pitch.

The fun storyline of the trade will be about the circus of Zambrano and his new manager, Ozzie Guillen. Zambrano went to anger-management courses, Guillen to sensitivity courses.

DOUBLE TAKE

Everyone has a twin, including these baseball-celebrity doppelgangers.

But they’re friends. When Zambrano walked out on the Cubs this season, mid-game, Guillen, then the White Sox manager, was the one who talked to him.

There will be a crazy blowup in Miami. Zambrano can’t control his temper. But he’s smart enough — probably — to know that he isn’t king anymore, and that he isn’t good enough to just behave any way he wants.

With the Cubs, though, Epstein is changing the culture in a hurry.

For the past several years, they tried to win a World Series without actually building anything. Former GM Jim Hendry wanted the best talent available. Now. It didn’t matter how it fit in, or what the players were like from the neck up. It was a rush job after 100 years of losing.

For a Chicagoan, it was so nice to see, because the Cubs had spent decades simply not bothering. You know how it came out, of course.

Zambrano was great for the Cubs for a while, the last time there was hope and belief. I spent years trying to defend him and his passion. Someone on the Cubs had to have some.

But the truth is, he was never there for the Cubs. He was there for Carlos Zambrano. And Ramirez got clutch hits, but was all about Ramirez. Now, Milwaukee is stuck with him.

The Cubs were never a team, and never actually likable, either. It doesn’t matter if Zambrano can still pitch and Ramirez can still drive in runs. They had to go before the Cubs could actually be a team.

Now, if Epstein gets rid of Alfonso Soriano, then it will be the offseason Triple Crown.

On Epstein’s radio appearance this week, he talked about Zambrano. They had met, with Zambrano apologizing and claiming he’d learned.

MUSIC TO THEIR EARS

Closers carefully select the tune that accompanies them from the bullpen to the mound. See MLB's playlist.

“The Carlos Zambrano from 2011 and the years previous can’t fit into the culture that we have here,’’ Epstein said. “So change needs to happen and change will happen. Either he’ll change and buy in and fit into this culture — and I understand there are a lot of skeptics about that, and frankly, I’m skeptical about it as well. I think he needs to prove to us he can change, or we’ll change the personnel and move forward with people who are proud to be Cubs and treat their teammates with respect and treat the fans with respect and can be part of a winning culture in the Cubs’ clubhouse."

So far, so good for Epstein. Except for dumping Marshall. That’s the only kink in belief. Well, that and generations of experience. The Cubs got hopefuls and prospects, and Epstein noted that Marshall is a free agent next year. So, he said, it was better to get something now instead of nothing later.

True. Or, the Cubs could have signed him again, right?

This is the new faith for the Cubs. Whatever charts and science Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer are using, they seem to be about getting underpaid talent. They are about building a system and an attitude.

That’s not what the Cubs have been about lately … or ever. Epstein said it’s a sign of commitment to success when a team walks away from big money. That’s what they did with Zambrano.

Now, it’s Soriano’s turn. He’ll turn 36 Saturday, and the Cubs still owe him $54 million over three years.

Just do it, Theo. Trade Soriano for a bag of balls and pay for the whole thing. Even for the balls. That would be a statement of faith.

We don’t really know how good the players are that Epstein is bringing in. But at least we can believe in what he’s throwing out. With the Cubs, any kind of belief is good.

Tagged: Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, Sean Marshall

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