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Task for Epstein is decidedly difficult

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 25, 2011

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CHICAGO - Media people who have covered Chicago sports for years are calling this morning’s news conference to announce Theo Epstein as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations “the biggest press event ever.’’

At least as far as the Cubs are concerned.

Epstein is being hailed as the potential savior of this storied but failed franchise. So while there may not be pressure during the coronation, there will be if he doesn’t end 103 years of Cubs futility in a short time.

The Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, and have never won a championship at Wrigley Field, which turns 100 in 2014.

Epstein brings his philosophy of team-building to Chicago and he appears to have the authority to make any moves he deems necessary.

Will he have the blank check to purchase free agents that he had in Boston? Probably not, but the budget he will have shouldn’t prevent him from being able to rebuild.

Epstein has brought aboard faces familiar to him: Jed Hoyer will be his general manager and Jason McLeod will be his assistant GM, with an emphasis on amateur scouting.

Epstein first will have to decide what to do with manager Mike Quade, who likely won’t be retained, necessitating the search for a new skipper.

He will have to deal with the Carlos Zambrano situation, upgrade the corner infield positions, decide on Ryan Dempster’s $14 million option, and determine whether he wants to make a splash and land one of the coveted free agent first basemen, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

The National League Central is entirely different than the American League East. Sure, baseball is baseball, but the Cardinals and Brewers have proven you don’t need a superstar at every position. You just need the right combination of players.

Epstein had difficulty choosing shortstops in Boston, but he’ll have Starlin Castro as his long-term piece in Chicago. He stuck with second baseman Dustin Pedroia after Pedroia got off to a poor major league start. The young player he now inherits at that position, Darwin Barney, did just the opposite last season - he got off to a great start but then fizzled in the second half.

Epstein always has been of the belief that most of a team’s nine hitters, including the catcher, have to have some offensive ability. But will that thinking be altered with no designated hitter in the NL?

It’ll be interesting, too, to see whether Epstein is entering this job with preconceived opinions about some of the players he’s inherited. How does he feel about Alfonso Soriano, for instance? Did his opinion of Carlos Pena change from the time Pena spent a month with the Red Sox in 2006, through the productive years in Tampa Bay, to last season with the Cubs? Can Epstein deal with such a hit-or-miss type?

What about Aramis Ramirez? Will Epstein decide to bring him back, or does he have other ideas for the position, such as Kevin Youkilis or David Wright? And at the end of the bullpen, is Carlos Marmol and his 10 blown saves a little too risky for Epstein’s taste, or would he make the devil he knows, Jonathan Papelbon, a free agent offer?

It’s obvious that Epstein will want to add to his starting rotation, particularly if he feels the emotionally explosive Zambrano must go. How much of that contract would he be willing to eat? If he had a player such as that in Boston, he probably could swallow the majority of it. That might be one example of where not having as many resources would hinder him a bit.

Doug Melvin, who was the GM of the Rangers under owner Tom Hicks when they signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $250-million deal, now will be one of Epstein’s biggest competitors as GM of the Brewers.

“There are differences in being a GM in the American League and National League,’’ Melvin said. “I think the biggest thing is that the talent pool of players is smaller. You have to have a player who can play the field on your bench. There are so many pinch-hitting opportunities and double-switches that the type of player you seek for those roles has to be a little bit different.

“You have to have deep bullpens because of the pinch hitting, and that’s probably no different for Theo because he’s had good bullpens in Boston, but you definitely need that,’’ Melvin said.

Melvin said he went from having an offensive philosophy in Texas to having to think more about defense in Milwaukee, even though his Brewers had Ryan Braun and Fielder, arguably the best middle-of-the-order combo in the majors.

“There’s definitely an adjustment,’’ Melvin said, “though Theo came from San Diego, so he probably gets it.’’

Would Melvin find it interesting if Epstein’s Cubs competed for Fielder?

“I’ll pass on that one,’’ Melvin said. “We do compete in the same division now.’’

Melvin said he sent Epstein a text yesterday congratulating him, and “I welcomed him to the National League Central Division.’’ He said he also sent a congratulatory message to Ben Cherington, who will be named Red Sox GM today. Melvin worked with Cherington when Melvin served as a consultant for the Sox under Mike Port before Epstein was hired to be the GM.

“With Theo here, we’re going to have a competitive division,’’ Melvin said. “We have some nice rivalries between the Cubs, Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals. The Astros and Pirates are rebuilding, but they’re going to provide a lot of competition for us in the future.’’

Epstein no longer has to worry about the Yankees. In fact, in the NL Central, Epstein likely will have the largest payroll. But the disparity between the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers won’t be as big as it is between the Yankees and Red Sox.

And so this morning Epstein, who brought a World Series to Boston for the first time in 86 years in 2004, becomes a Cub.

Savior in Boston to savior in Chicago?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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