Cubs

What is Theo Epstein getting himself into?

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What is Theo Epstein getting himself into?

Theo Epstein convinced himself that hes ready for the platform that could one day put him in Cooperstown. The only way this ends as a total success is if hes cruising down Michigan Avenue on a float during the championship parade.

Andy MacPhail was a hotshot executive with two World Series rings from his time with the Minnesota Twins, but he never got it done here. Jim Hendry had the Cubs one victory away from the pennant in 2003, and assembled a 97-win team five years later, but he couldnt sustain it.

Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella are two of the best managers of their generation, and both could wind up in the Hall of Fame, but each man was worn out by the end.

Epstein is sold on the challenge, with only the final details to be worked out between the Cubs and Boston Red Sox. The deal will give him almost absolute power over baseball operations for a franchise that hasnt won a World Series since 1908.

But at some point across the next five years perhaps after what Piniella once termed a Cubbie occurrence Epstein will almost certainly pause and think: What did I get myself into?

This is the lay of the land youve inherited.
Take the power back

As baseball czar, you will have to unify a divided front office. There are Hendrys buddies, the numbers guy (Ari Kaplan) hired by chairman Tom Ricketts and the new people Epstein will inevitably bring into the organization. There is a team president (Crane Kenney) who awkwardly inserted himself into baseball matters, but should now be focused solely on business operations.

Fans dont want to read anymore about how ownership instability undercut Hendry, but its foolish to think that it didnt impact the on-field product, and nave to think that freezing the major-league payroll wouldnt have consequences. The Cubs have paid the price after going all in when Tribune Co. had the team up for sale. The worst of it seems to be almost over.

Look in the mirror

Ricketts wanted an adaptable leader, not some slash-and-burn executive who would fire everyone. There are some capable people already in place, but it will be up to Epstein to decide whether Mike Quade is the right manager to lead this team. The Cubs view Ryne Sandberg as having a problem with Hendry not a grudge against the entire organization after being passed over for the job last year.

Bench coach Pat Listach has a presence in the room, and players trust hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. First-base coach Bob Dernier has institutional memory and good relationships with the young, homegrown players after being a minor-league coordinator. You have a reputation as a good guy to work for, someone respected by the people on the ground. They all deserve answers as soon as possible.

Build an empire

The Cubs were late to the game in the Dominican Republic, and slow to expand their international scouting operations, but they essentially cover the globe now. You have to pour more money into those efforts. Ricketts already gave a four-year contract to vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, to maintain a sense of continuity and keep some major projects moving forward.

Even if Fleita doesnt keep the same title or portfolio, he has a valuable network in the Dominican Republic, where the Cubs will soon break ground on a new academy, and family roots in Cuba. Ricketts loves Jose Serra, Fleitas Latin American coordinator, the scout who signed Starlin Castro and the godfather to Carlos Marmol. All the kids Serra scouts want to be the next Castro. You must capitalize on that buzz.

Invest in the future

Roughly 48 hours before the 2007 draft, scouting director Tim Wilken still didnt know exactly which direction his staff could go or how much money would be allocated for their picks. The sale of the team, and the uncertainty at the top of the organization, handcuffed the department. If the next collective bargaining agreement doesnt bring major changes to the amateur draft, you should spend big.

Wilken is signed through 2012 and has been assured by Ricketts that there will be a place for him in the organization next season. Wilken once worked for future Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick, back when the Toronto Blue Jays were winning World Series titles, and signed Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter out of high school. Find the next big thing in the draft.

Feed the beast
Hendry went underground when he had to, but he also built up goodwill by talking with the media and telling his side of the story (and a steady stream of off-color jokes). Despite his silence during this search, Ricketts slowly seems to be learning this lesson: You have to be accessible. Otherwise the offhand quotes a guy to watch my baseball guy never go away.

Just like in Boston, the narrative will play out almost 12 months a year. Maybe the local media wont be as obsessed with your personal life, because you didnt grow up here. But all the questions exhausted even Piniella, who came of age in the middle of the New York tabloid newspapers wars, while the Bronx was burning. This wont be a holiday weekend on Marthas Vineyard.

Act in cold blood

As much as Ricketts appears to be committed to player development, the chairman really finds comfort in numbers. He wants data to drive more decisions. Hendrys interpersonal skills enabled him to close deals and bring in talent, but he sometimes got too close to the players. Then again, you made some of the same mistakes with free agents.

This could mean fewer no-trade clauses, holding off on the extra year tacked onto the contract, perhaps telling Aramis Ramirez to find a multiyear deal elsewhere. If you have any questions about the office politics and turf battles to come, you can always call Hendry, who thought highly of your work in Boston.

Soon it will be time to build a new machine here in Chicago.

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Cubs are due for a win...right?

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Cubs are due for a win...right?

The Cubs are "due."

That's a funny thought in general. For anybody or any team to be "due," that's saying that everything will even out eventually.

That's often true in baseball. But that's over the course of a 162-game season, far and away the longest sample size in professional sports. 

In an abbreviated postseason series, there really is no such thing as "due" because the season's over before you get a chance to see things even out.

The baseball gods don't ensure that everybody gets the same amount of luck at the same time. The sample size is absolutely too small for that. Plus, the Cubs have had plenty of luck and caught their fair share of breaks already this postseason.

So while it's easy to point to some of the Cubs numbers and say things like "they're not going to hit .162 as a team forever," that's not necessarily true because there are only two guaranteed games left in the 2017 for Joe Maddon and Co. It is absolutely possible the Cubs' season is over before they get a chance to correct their offensive woes.

Though, it would be pretty stunning to see the Cubs offense finish a 9-game October stint with Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as the team's leading hitters (both are 1-for-4, .250 average). 

Like a deliriously-happy, champagne-soaked Theo Epstein said early Friday morning in our nation's capital, "we always hit eventually."

So if I'm a betting man (which I'm not, unless you count fantasy sports), I'm betting on the Cubs offense finally waking from their fall slumber. 

They're simply too good to continue these numbers. This team has combined for a .513 OPS, which is essentially a team of Andres Blancos, a 33-year-old backup infielder who defined "light-hitting" with a .192 average and .549 OPS in 144 plate appearances this season.

The urgency is now a very real thing with the Cubs, and that's something — maybe the ONLY thing — that has really motivated this 2017 squad. They've really only played well when they've had a sense of urgency and they did not have that the first two games in Los Angeles.

Which is understandable. After such a physically, emotionally and mentally draining Game 5 that didn't end until early Friday morning, the team had to travel all the way across the entire continental U.S. only to wind up getting diverted to New Mexico where they sat on the tarmac for five hours.

Every single starting pitcher on the team was exhausted and working on short rest, and that's not to say anything about Wade Davis, who gave everything he had just to get the Cubs to the NLCS.

The Cubs have now had a full day off to clear their heads, get back to center and find their mojo again.

I'm betting that's exactly what they've done, because this team has proved over and over again how resilient they are. I mean, really, a 2-0 deficit is nothing for a team that stared down a 3-1 deficit in the World Series a year ago.

Prediction

Cubs 5, Dodgers 2

The Cubs started out the two-game set in LA by having a few good at-bats against the game's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) before things got awful against the Dodgers bullpen.

But if we're talking about being "due," that Dodgers bullpen is due for a regression on some level. They've been absolutely incredible this postseason, allowing only one baserunner to the Cubs in eight innings thus far.

Breaking things down individually, there are positive signs for several guys:

—Kris Bryant struck out only three times in 8 at-bats in LA, which is actually an improvement considering he struck out 10 times in 20 at-bats in the NLDS.

—Addison Russell lined a homer to left off Rich Hill for the Cubs' only run in Game 2. He had some really good at-bats in Game 5 and the game's biggest hit when he doubled home two runs off Max Scherzer.

—Javy Baez walked in Game 2. I mean, if that's not enough of a reason for positivity, what is??

Either way, the Cubs offense has their hands full against Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) and Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) the next two games and if they win one of those two, Kershaw awaits in Game 5 Thursday.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.