Cubs

With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

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With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

The Cubs were back at Fenway Park for the first time in almost 93 years, since Babe Ruth and the Red Sox were winning the 1918 World Series. No one wanted to miss out on this scene.

Ownership, team executives and staffers traveled to Boston to see the franchise they hope will become a mirror image. Even players posed for pictures with the Green Monster in the background and squeezed through the narrow opening to get behind the left-field scoreboard.

As much as the Cubs want to model themselves after the Red Sox, these two teams appeared to be heading in completely opposite directions on May 20. Now The Boston Globe is reporting that the Cubs have asked for permission to speak with Theo Epstein.

Terry Francona, who had managed the Red Sox to two World Series titles, filled out the lineup card that day. What were the odds that he would be unemployed before first-year manager Mike Quade? About the same as a home-run ball landing in the Green Monster seats right by Cubs president Crane Kenney?

This was 26 days before Tom Ricketts would express 100 percent confidence in Jim Hendry, nine weeks before the chairman would fire his general manager and three months before they would reveal the decision publicly.

There are so many variables to this search process. The Rays saw their miracle season end on Tuesday, perhaps clearing the way for the Cubs to also ask for permission to speak with Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman.

But the Cubs and Red Sox are now both trying to come up with answers for disappointing seasons. You can try to find reassurance in the numbers, but emotions and egos always get in the way. This is an unpredictable, volatile business.

What are the odds that Epstein would leave his hometown? The fact that people are even asking that question probably says something. Whether or not the Red Sox general manager actually quits his dream job, the Cubs will be seriously looking at this model.

That could mean asking about assistant general manager Ben Cherington, whos listed directly below Epstein on the organizations masthead. Cherington, who graduated from Amherst College, has been with the Red Sox since 1999 and is seen as another young rising star in the industry, deserving of the chance to run his own team (maybe even in Boston).

Either executive would fit the criteria Ricketts outlined when he announced Hendrys firing. The next general manager would be committed to player development, fluent in statistical analysis and from a winning culture.

On that clear, cool night in Boston, the Red Sox gave the ball to Jon Lester, an All-Star whos only 27 and has already won the clincher in a World Series. They had an elite closer in Jonathan Papelbon, another homegrown pitcher who saved that game in 2007.

Their lineup began with Jacoby Ellsbury, a 2005 first-round choice who played with Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney at Oregon State University. Then there was Dustin Pedroia, a 2004 second-round choice out of Arizona State University who would emerge as the American Leagues MVP four years later.

The anchor was Adrian Gonzalez, the kind of left-handed run producer the Cubs have long coveted. The Red Sox were able to pull off that blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres last winter because they had created enough assets in their farm system.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Red Sox brought sabermetrics pioneer Bill James into their front office as a senior advisor. A recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Moneyball showed how the Red Sox have bridged old-school scouting and the new wave of numbers.

The Red Sox value traditional projections based off what their scouts see and hear, as well as information systems, and thats how Ricketts envisions his baseball operations department running.

As Cubs employees settled into their seats that night at Fenway Park, they watched a team that would completely collapse by the end of September. Who knew it would be the Red Sox?

There was a moody starting pitcher who made 18 million the year before and would sabotage this season. There was the Japanese star who never lived up to the hype. There was a 142 million leftfielder who will always be judged harshly because of his huge contract.

That would be John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford. Those descriptions, almost word-for-word, sound eerily similar to Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano.

So even the geniuses get it wrong in the free-agent market, and its fair to wonder how someone like Friedman would react outside a small market, if he really would do more with more.

To grow revenue and give themselves a better chance to compete the Cubs have extensively studied the Red Sox business plan.

Theyve noticed the power of a regional sports network (NESN). Theyve broadened their entertainment portfolio with non-baseball events, the way the Red Sox have hosted Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the NHLs winter showcase.

Theyve consulted with the architect (Janet Marie Smith) who oversaw the transformation of Fenway Park. Theyve wanted to shut down Sheffield Avenue and create their own version of Yawkey Way.

Theyre hoping a new administration at City Hall will be as receptive to their renovation plans as the city of Boston was to the Red Sox.

On and off the field, the Red Sox are everything the Cubs are striving to be.

There are plenty of people in the Cubs organization across several different departments who grew up in the Boston area, went to college there or used to work for the Red Sox. They can see the parallels and know the history.

But the biggest advertisements are still the 2004 and 2007 banners hanging outside Fenway Park. Luring the architect of those teams to the North Side would be a huge boost for public relations.

With or without Epstein, you already know what the Cubs are going to build their 2012 tickets plans around. The Red Sox are scheduled to come to Wrigley Field on June 15-17. Wonder who will be in the general managers suite that weekend.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”