Cubs

Theo putting pieces in place, from coaching staff to front office

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Theo putting pieces in place, from coaching staff to front office

The Cubs gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom and put his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee.

Theo Watch had become a national story last October, beginning in secret when the Red Sox general manager met chairman Tom Ricketts at his familys New York residence overlooking Central Park.

On Yawkey Way, Epstein and his boys in baseball operations had fantasized about what it would be like to field an entire team of homegrown players (like, say, Anthony Rizzo at first base instead of Adrian Gonzalez).

Cubs executives on the business side liked to point out the obvious similarities between Boston and the North Side charming old neighborhood ballparks, passionate fan bases, etc. But the Cubs offered Epstein something completely different a new canvas, hands-off ownership, more personal space, a more relaxed (though still neurotic) media market and the chance to break another curse, which would cement his place in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Twelve months ago, Epstein gave his Baseball is Better speech during a stadium club news conference introducing the new team president. October 25, 2011 was supposed to be a game-changing day in franchise history that would eventually lead to a parade down Michigan Avenue. The fans and the local press corps are still in wait-and-see mode.

I have a lot more gray hair now than I did a year ago, Epstein said Tuesday. My wife reminds me of that all the time. But I do feel really energized by a lot of the things that are going on here.

Think of this like an episode of The Wire. You could put all the mug shots on a big board with branches moving in every direction, all leading up to Epstein at the top, with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod as his inner-circle lieutenants. Tuesdays announcements mapped out where the Cubs are heading and what they are thinking:

Major-league coaching staff

James Rowson is no longer the interim hitting coach and will keep the job next season. David Bell a third-generation big leaguer whose father Buddy is a White Sox executive becomes the new third-base coach.

The rest of Dale Sveums coaching staff remains intact: Chris Bosio (pitching); Jamie Quirk (bench); Dave McKay (first base); Lester Strode (bullpen); and staff assistants Mike Borzello and Franklin Font.

Epstein had tried to hire Bell for Bostons organization. Bell managed the past four seasons in Cincinnatis minor-league system, rising this year to Triple-A Louisville. Bells final season as a player 2006 coincided with Sveums first year as Milwaukees third-base coach.

A native New Yorker, Rowson left the Yankees organization last winter for what was on the surface a lateral move (minor-league hitting coordinator). Rowson is only 36 years old, a fresh voice to explain the approach that drags out those four-hour prime-time games in the American League East.

If theres one thing that I was surprised by in a negative way, Epstein said, it was sort of how pervasive the lack of plate discipline was in the whole organization the major-league level, upper minors, lower minors, draft decision-making and protocol.

It was just something that really has not been a factor here for a long time, and were paying the price for that. Its embedded. Its institutionalized. So we need to be really, really vigilant in turning that around.

The Cubs did lead the National League in on-base percentage (.354) in 2008, when they won 97 games and their second straight division title, but that doesnt fit the new narrative.

Front office

Randy Bush, who remembers the good old days, recently agreed to a three-year extension after what Epstein described as a 15-second negotiation.

Bush has the instant credibility that comes with winning two World Series rings as a player in Minnesota. The assistant general manager helped guide Epstein with his institutional memory and relationships inside the organization. Bushs presence had to be reassuring to the Jim Hendry loyalists.

Mark ONeal will not continue working as head athletic trainer, though hes expected to remain in the organization. ONeal has a family and didnt want to spend so much time on the road. Epstein views keeping players healthy and more accurately predicting who will break down as the next frontier. The job description isnt exactly written yet, but ONeal should still be involved in medical operations. There are plans for a kind of science wing in the new spring training facility in Arizona and a renovated Wrigley Field.

International

The Cubs won the Jorge Soler sweepstakes and want to keep building their pipeline in the Dominican Republic. Louis Eljaua gets bumped up to international scouting director, with Paul Weaver shifting to a role as the international crosschecker and Pacific Rim coordinator. Jose Serra the scout who signed Starlin Castro was promoted to director of Dominican operations.

Player development

Director Brandon Hyde brought in Tim Cossins from the Marlins organization as field coordinator. Alex Suarez who helped close the Soler deal was promoted to another hybrid position as assistant director of player developmentinternational scouting. David Macias whos bilingual and played at Vanderbilt University and in the Cubs system was added as an assistant for those two departments.

Amateur scouting

Tim Wilken got a contract extension and a bigger portfolio with Jaron Madison coming over from San Diego as director of amateur scouting. Lukas McKnight was promoted from regional crosschecker to assistant director of amateur scouting. The No. 3 in this department is an interesting hire Shane Farrell, a former Marshall University pitcher and Cape Cod League scout whose father John is the new Red Sox manager.

Looking at the big picture, the Cubs have recently added three new area scouts, three new pro scouts and two more major-league scouts while making several more promotions within baseball operations.

Within the past year, Epstein and his crew have also fired: perhaps the highest-paid hitting coach in the game (Rudy Jaramillo); the executive (Oneri Fleita) viewed as a father figure by Castro, Carlos Marmol and the Latin players throughout the organization; the popular traveling secretary (Jimmy Bank) who took care of Ron Santo all those years on the road; while not renewing the contract of the third-base coach (Pat Listach) who helped turn second baseman Darwin Barney into a potential Gold Glove winner.

After losing 101 games and laying the framework for what he thinks will become an annual contender Epsteins fingerprints are clearly all over the organization.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”