theo epstein getty

Theo vs. Evil Empire: How the Cubs move on from the Tanaka fallout

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The urban legend had Theo Epstein destroying a hotel room after he found out Jose Contreras decided on the New York Yankees.

The youngest GM in baseball history had been on the job for almost a month when the big Cuban pitcher established residency in Nicaragua just before Christmas 2002. Hoping to freeze out everyone else, Epstein and Boston Red Sox international scouting director Louie Eljaua hatched the plan to rent out all the rooms in the small hotel in Managua.

That’s where Contreras and his agent, Jaime Torres, posted up for the meetings. Together, they smoked cigars and drank booze, selling the idea of winning at Fenway Park, how they would help him adapt to life in the United States, making it seem like a sure thing.

[RELATED – Cubs excited to welcome Yankees back to Wrigley Field]

Until, of course, Contreras wound up taking more money from the Yankees, grabbing a four-year, $32 million deal. That led Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, Epstein’s mentor/nemesis, to tell The New York Times: “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”

“I didn’t trash the room,” Epstein said. “The story was that I picked up a chair and threw it through a window or something. I didn’t. I slammed a door, which didn’t break. That was it.”

Now 40 years old, with two World Series rings and a president’s title, Epstein has thought of the Contreras pursuit while rebuilding the Cubs, trying to channel all the frustrations and stay focused on the big picture.

“It’s more about process and living to fight another day,” Epstein said. “Even if you think you lose, you win sometimes. You think you’ve won, you’ve lost.”

“We don’t know (bleep)”

Masahiro Tanaka is who the Cubs thought he would be when they made a six-year, $120 million offer last winter – someone with the stuff, guts and intelligence to be a frontline pitcher in the big leagues. They just didn’t think he’d be doing it in their pinstripes.

Tanaka is unbeaten in his last 42 regular-season starts and will face the National League’s worst team on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. At 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA – and 66 strikeouts against seven walks through 58 innings – Tanaka will be in the Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and All-Star starter conversations.

[MORE – After rocky start, Travis Wood turns the corner]

Epstein’s front office expected a big-market team like the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers to push the bidding to a place that could cripple a payroll limited by ownership’s leveraged partnership, as well as the uncertainties surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations and the next TV deals.

That final bid didn’t even include the $20 million release fee for Tanaka’s Japanese club, and it didn’t come close to the seven-year, $155 million megadeal the Yankees gave their new ace.

The Cubs did beat the Yankees for $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler with the help of Eljaua, who got hired by the Jim Hendry administration and stayed on as a key presence for the franchise in Latin America.

But mostly it’s been one disappointment after another at Clark and Addison. There was a point where the Cubs thought they were going to sign Soler and Yoenis Cespedes, until the Oakland A’s offered $36 million over four years instead of six.

The Cubs were played by Anibal Sanchez, who got $80 million guaranteed from the Detroit Tigers and led the American League in ERA last season.

[MORE – Edwin Jackson’s dominant effort spoils Matt Garza’s return]

The Cubs were blown away in the Hyun-Jin Ryu bidding, with the Dodgers getting the South Korean right-hander who recently turned 27 and has gone 17-10 with a 3.00 ERA through his first 37 starts.

Driven by rumors and Chicago media leaks, even last year’s manager search had a runner-up feeling, with Joe Girardi staying in The Bronx and Yankees GM Brian Cashman saying: “I never felt he was leaving us.”

In Year 3 of the full-scale rebuild, the Cubs are looking for silver linings.

“(Matt) Garza blacks out a 96 mph fastball to Matt Holliday in the summer of 2012 in St. Louis,” Epstein said. “We think we’re going to clean up in a trade for him. We might be able to get Mike Olt. And then an inning later, he walks off the mound holding his elbow and we get nothing.

“We thought we lost. It turns out we won, because a year later, (Garza) pitched great for five weeks and we were able to trade him for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.”

[RELATED – Wrigley return doesn’t end Matt Garza’s frustration]

So is this the older, wiser Theo?

“I was still pissed,” Epstein said. “But it’s just the more experiences you have, you realize you never know in this game. We had an organizational credo at the Red Sox when I first started, which we would always bring up from time to time: ‘We don’t know (bleep).’

“Basically, as a reminder that when you think you have the game figured out, look closer, because you don’t. There are so many arbitrary aspects to this game, so much luck involved. If you’re on a roll, you’re making good decisions, you think you have something figured out, you probably just got a little bit lucky and karma will get you.”

Keeping the “powder dry”

Epstein left Boston thinking he’d be running another superpower, the Evil Empire of the Midwest.

The Cubs are 15-27 and heading toward another summer sell-off and another last-place finish. All the talk is about the draft and the farm system, questioning why Javier Baez is struggling at Triple-A Iowa and wondering why Kris Bryant hasn’t been promoted from Double-A Tennessee, without realizing the irony.

Tanaka, who’s only 25 years old, would have changed the conversation and given some credibility to the franchise’s business/baseball plans.

Where would the Yankees be without Tanaka? Injuries have shredded the rotation, but they’re still a first-place team, 7-1 on the days he pitches and 16-19 when he doesn’t.

After losing the Tanaka sweepstakes, the Cubs kept most of their “powder dry,” signing Jason Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) to a one-year deal, hoping he can keep boosting his trade value with another strong start on Tuesday against Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter and the Bronx Bombers.

After seeing what pre-DL Jose Abreu had done on the South Side, Cubs fans hope the game-changing moves are still out there. After all, Contreras (78-67, 4.57 ERA) never lived up to the enormous expectations, lasting parts of two seasons in New York before getting traded to the White Sox (and helping them win the 2005 World Series).

[RELATED – Can any Cubs prospect match what Jose Abreu has done?]

“‘We don’t know (bleep)’ is a way to remind yourself – and remind everyone around you – that there is way more we don’t know about the game than what we do know about the game,” Epstein said. “All you can really do is set a vision, hire great people, make sure your processes are really sound and keep trying to get better each day and let things fall where they may. That’s as true now as it was then.”

Royals pay tribute to late Yordano Ventura during spring training opener

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 12: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on August 12, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The Royals honored former pitcher Yordano Ventura prior to their first Cactus League game against the Rangers on Saturday. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in late January.

Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Gomez paid their respects to the pitcher with a floral arrangement that was laid on the mound. Both teams stood along the foul lines during a pregame video tribute that highlighted Ventura’s tenure with Kansas City. Following the game, Gomez spoke to the media about his relationship with Ventura, describing their frequent conversations during the season and commending the pitcher for having “the same passion that I had early in my career” (via WFAA.com’s Levi Weaver).

A plaque dedicated to the 25-year-old was also presented to club manager Ned Yost as a more permanent commemoration of Ventura’s contributions to the sport. Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reports that the plaque will be mounted in the club’s spring training facilities alongside tributes to members of the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff teams.

The full text of the plaque is below, via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan:

A brother and a teammate, Yordano Ventura, passed away on the morning of January 22 in his native Dominican Republic, at the age of 25. He signed with the Royals as a 17-year-old, eventually making the big league team in 2013 as a 22-year-old. On most days, he could be found laughing and joking with his baseball family in the clubhouse. However, on days when he pitched, that smile was replaced by a quiet confidence and an intense fire, which he brought to the mound for every start. He had many highlights in his abbreviated career, not the least of which was throwing eight shutout innings in Game #6 of the 2014 World Series to force a Game #7 vs. San Francisco.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.