Cubs

Epstein plans to build his own empire with Cubs

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Epstein plans to build his own empire with Cubs

Theo Epstein isnt looking for the cameras red light. He doesnt really want to see his name or picture in the newspaper. He prefers to remain in the shadows.

Epstein has already said dont bother looking for him in the lobby of the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, where the industry will begin checking in on Sunday for the winter meetings. Expect him to order room service and make deals in his hotel suite.

Epstein is polite and polished with an Ivy League pedigree. He can sound like a politician at the news conference, saying all the right things. But people who know him well also describe him as almost insanely competitive.

This is the man who took down the Evil Empire.

He is as down-to-earth a guy as youre going to find, general manager Jed Hoyer said. But I will say when he turns it on, its pretty clear hes got a gear that the rest of us dont have.

Co-workers have joked about the hype surrounding the new Cubs president of baseball operations. There are the T-shirts in the shop windows on Clark Street: THEOLOGY and IN THEO WE TRUST.

Theo-mania, chairman Tom Ricketts said with a bemused look.

Epstein may seem weary of the spotlight, but he absolutely wants the power and responsibility that comes with it. This title gives him total control over the baseball side, without interference from ownership or business operations, and that almost certainly isnt part of the job description in Boston.

Along with the rise of the Red Sox, those kinds of turf battles forced Brian Cashman to confront George Steinbrenner a few years ago. The Yankees have headquarters in New York and Tampa, Fla., and their general manager realized that he had to unite the factions and build their own scouting and player-development machine.

I saw what Theo was doing in Boston, Cashman said. I had a heart-to-heart with George and I had told The Boss I wasnt going to stay because I didnt like how we were going about our business.

I said: Listen, theyre over-slotting in the draft. Theyre going to have a great farm system. Theyre spending money like we are in free agency. (Theyre) going to pass us up.

(Steinbrenner) said, Go ahead, man, and you take it over and you do what you think you have to do. I basically tried to match everything they were doing to get us back on line.

Now its on Epstein to change the way the Cubs do business.

After Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry last summer, he consulted around 20 people throughout the industry. In private conversations with owners, agents and executives, Theos name was the one name that just kept coming up.

Ricketts also had two analysts study the efficiency of every other major-league organization, breaking down payrolls and farm systems, but this was a pretty obvious choice. They just werent sure if Epstein would be available by October.

That was the biggest risk in the process, Ricketts said, because you got to make the phone call before you know. We asked the Red Sox for permission and frankly we could have just got faced. They could have said no.

It was just my gut (feeling) that after everything hes accomplished in Boston, this would just be a great next challenge for him.

Cashman who joined the Yankees as a 19-year-old intern in 1986 and has won five World Series rings since then is one of the few people who could understand the relentless pressure of that job.

But where Epstein became restless after two titles and nearly a decade in Boston, Cashman recently agreed to a new three-year contract that will keep him in New York.

The devil you know is better than the devil you dont know, Cashman reasoned. (Its) taken a long time. A lot of the people I work with are the people I personally hired. Do I want to go through a process of letting certain people go and trying to get permission to hire other people? Thats extra work that Im not afraid of doing, but Ive already done it.

I know our media. I know our fan base. I know our owners. I know my team president. And I know what makes them all tick. Theres power and knowledge in that. Im not afraid of the learning curve going somewhere else, but there is a learning curve, so why volunteer yourself for that? Thats my route.

The Yankees print so much money that Cashman doesnt get as much credit for what hes built. But hes not just a checkbook general manager, spending wisely in the draft, international market and free agency.

Within industry circles, Cashman was mentioned as a potential target for the Cubs, though he cautioned that just because your name gets thrown out publicly doesnt mean its accurate.

They got the guy they wanted, Cashman said. I dont think I was in their plans at all.

At their initial meeting, Ricketts found Epstein to be low-key and thoughtful, someone who could transform not just the baseball operation, but the entire organizations culture.

Epstein wont talk trash, but now hes going after St. Louis and Milwaukee. After taking down one empire, he wants to build another.

We looked at the Yankees, Epstein said, (with) their resources and their baseball smarts (and assumed) that theyre going to win 95-to-100 games every year. That helped us elevate our game. That set the bar really high and I thought that served us well over the years.

Now you look at what the Cardinals are doing, what the Brewers did this year, the bright futures of some of the teams in this division (and) we can take the same approach.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.