Epstein building Cubs into contenders

Maybe the price tag attached to Jon Lester was too high, but that’s irrelevant. It’s only money, and the Chicago Cubs have plenty more of it. Timing is what matters, and in this case it’s perfect.

The Cubs are relevant and readying for a run at the World Series in the near future — and that odd line was written with a straight face.

John Avello, the Wynn Las Vegas sports book director, was heckled like a bad standup comic when he pitched the Cubs as contenders a few months ago.

“I’ve been saying to my staff that the Cubs are going to win the World Series within the next five years,” Avello said. “These guys laughed at that and said, ‘It’s just not going to happen.’ ”

That was before the Cubs went fishing for one of the sharpest managers in baseball and hooked Joe Maddon. And that was followed by the free-agent acquisition of Lester, who caught a six-year, $155 million deal this week to be Chicago’s No. 1 starter.

It no longer sounds like a fish tale.

“Now, all of the sudden, the guys who were saying ‘No way’ are not saying ‘No way’ anymore,” Avello said. “As Cubs fans, you are skeptical, but there’s hope.”

Theo Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations, is bringing hope to Wrigley Field a decade after he built a World Series winner with the Boston Red Sox. His latest rebuilding plan seems to be coming together perfectly, with Lester becoming available at the right time.

It’s October that matters most, but the Cubs emerged from baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego as big winners. Not only did Epstein lure Lester, a steady left-hander who has been sensational in the postseason, he also grabbed All-Star catcher Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Overspending is a trend in the holiday season, but the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 or appeared in one since 1945, so if paying Lester $155 million helps get them there, the reward will dwarf the risk.

“That’s a big number. To me, Lester is not a 20-game winner. He’s the type of guy who probably wins 16 or 17 games,” Avello said. “But if he’s the best out there, I guess you pay it.

“It took Theo a couple years, but I like the way he did it. He didn’t come in and rip the team apart right away. He knew he needed a good manager, and he went out and got one. He knows he’s got a good nucleus of young guys.”

Avello posted a proposition in mid-November: Will the Cubs win the World Series in either 2015, 2016 or 2017? The “No” side opened minus-800 and the “Yes” returned plus-600.

After getting mostly “Yes” bets, Avello has adjusted the prices to minus-600 and plus-450. It could take three years to decide the prop, but that’s a short wait for Cubs fans.

“I’m not betting it, but I think it’s good value,” said Micah Roberts, an analyst for “The Linemakers” on SportingNews.com and a former book director. “I don’t know if the Cubs will make the playoffs next year, but it looks good the following two years.

“Epstein is the perfect guy. He’s got everything going in the right direction. The farm system is ready to blossom.”

The prospects are most important, and Epstein is stockpiling his farm. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler arrived last season and boosted the offense. Kris Bryant, a power-hitting third baseman from Las Vegas, was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft and has the look of a star. Addison Russell, a promising shortstop, was stolen in a trade with Oakland last summer.

And there are more on the way to complement established hitters such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Montero.

The Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off a string of good moves this week, but the Cubs made the biggest splash.

“The best winter meetings I can remember in terms of big names being moved in trades,” said Dave Cokin, a Las Vegas handicapper and ESPN Radio host. “I think the Dodgers have done extremely well in terms of improving the team while actually gaining flexibility for landing another big name that could still be available. The Red Sox have upgraded substantially and are likely not done yet.

“But to me the city that has made the strongest leap forward is Chicago. The Cubs are rightfully getting the big publicity after winning the Lester sweepstakes. I’m not sure they contend in 2015, but with the prospect base still intact, it’s tough to see them not seriously in the mix by 2016.”

Cokin also praised the White Sox. But right now, the hype is all about the Cubs, who are looking to put Steve Bartman and the Billy Goat in the past.

“We’re not even close to baseball season, and people are already betting the Cubs,” Avello said. “You’re going to see a new look in Chicago. You’re going to see a team that is confident and looking to win.”

Wait until next year is the usual refrain with the Cubs. Finally, next year is worth the wait.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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