With the winds of change blowing through the north side during the offseason, Theo Epstein faced his first important decision: offer top dollar to a prized free agent such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, or take a different direction by building for the future.
Regardless of which option Epstein and the Cubs' new front-office brass elected for, the cornerstone of the franchise would be that big-bopping first baseman, but they needed to make a calculated decision.
With Pujols and Fielder still available in the free-agent market, the Cubs acquired 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a trade with the San Diego Padres. It was a statement that the Cubs were all in on building in-house -- the way Epstein was successful in Boston -- rather than spending big bucks.
A final verdict remains years ahead, and it's still very early in Pujols' and Fielder's 10-year deals, but the results thus far show the Cubs may have made a wise decision.
Both Pujols and Fielder are mired in career-low seasons, especially the Angels' $240-million superstar, who is hitting .195 with just one home run on the season. Fielder has been marginally better than his counterpart, though his current .747 OPS is a career worst.
Rizzo, on the contrary, has dazzled with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. The left-hander has slugged 11 home runs and 34 RBIs, while posting a .351 batting average and a league-leading 1.073 OPS.
There were numerous, obvious draws for Epstein to avoid a big-money signing such as Pujols or Fielder. Both collected giant contracts as they appear to be on the decline, making it a risky estimation, especially for Epstein, who made several high-priced mistakes with the Red Sox.
Rizzo isn't a sure-fire guarantee, though he comes with plenty of promise; a young, high-ceiling player who continues to improve. Of course, the immediate reward is not risking record dollars on an aging veteran, the Cubs' greatest flaw under Jim Hendry.
An added variable, working in the Cubs' favor, is the performance of current major-league first baseman Bryan LaHair. The 29-year-old journeyman is leading the team's offensive output, which in return buys Rizzo ample time to develop in Iowa. Pujols and Fielder have no margin for error as a Cub, which frustrated fans in Anaheim and Detroit could attest to.
Baseball is an unpredictable game, so it would be unjust to judge two of baseball's greatest sluggers on a small sample size. However, it appears the Cubs are on to something.
The Northsiders are committed to winning, though the plan in place suggests that's more likely down the road. In his first season with the Cubs organization, slugger Anthony Rizzo has left fans drooling over his bright future.
Epstein has laid the foundation for a bright future, and the cornerstone appears in place already.