Why Cleveland Browns studied The Cubs Way before hiring Paul DePodesta

Why Cleveland Browns studied The Cubs Way before hiring Paul DePodesta

A group of Cleveland Browns executives, including owner Jimmy Haslam and general counsel Sashi Brown, visited Wrigleyville last summer to get a better understanding of The Cubs Way.

A star-crossed franchise that began in 1876 – and hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century – can still be seen in many ways as a startup company.

It’s a remarkable transformation, the Cubs now being viewed as a progressive organization and having the second-best record in baseball (14-5) heading into this week’s fattening-up homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, two last-place teams trying to copy their rebuilding/tanking blueprint.

Cleveland officials met with several front offices across Major League Baseball, trying to get a different feel for team-building strategies, hiring practices and how to structure scouting and player-development departments. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and Browns chief revenue officer Brent Stehlik, who also made the fact-finding trip to Chicago, used to work together with the San Diego Padres.

By January, the Browns had hired Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets to be their chief strategy officer, with Brown promoted to executive vice president of football operations. With zero playoff wins since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns must have reached the definition-of-insanity point and decided to go outside the box.

If this move shocked The Dawg Pound, it didn’t at all surprise Hoyer, who also worked with DePodesta in San Diego and will be curious to see what the Browns do with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night at the Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago.

“He is as smart as any person in sports,” Hoyer said. “It takes a lot of courage to go and do what he’s doing with the Browns. But I also think he’s the perfect person for it, because he really sees the big picture exceptionally well.

“They obviously have an organization that’s committed to probably thinking about things a little bit differently.”

DePodesta, who played football and baseball at Harvard University, had been Billy Beane’s right-hand man with the Oakland A’s, declining to let Hollywood use his real name for Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand character in the “Moneyball” movie.

DePodesta also became a valuable sounding board for Hoyer during his first season as San Diego’s general manager in 2010, when the Padres won 90 games and looked ready to capture a division title until running into Mike Quade’s Cubs in late September.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson then made DePodesta an offer he couldn’t refuse. As New York’s vice president overseeing scouting and player development, DePodesta helped shape the Mets team that swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series.

While the New York tabloids and Chicago media speculated about pitching-for-offense trades, it was DePodesta and Hoyer who maintained most of the actual dialogue during those rebuilding years.

The Mets never saw Starlin Castro as a “Moneyball” player, the Cubs viewed shortstop Addison Russell as untouchable and whatever window to deal existed probably slammed shut once Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz became part of a World Series rotation.

The Browns are light years away from the Super Bowl, with one playoff appearance and two winning seasons since 1999. Robert Griffin III is now in position to be the franchise’s 25th different starting quarterback since the NFL returned to Cleveland.

“The fascinating part of the NFL draft is the idea of trades,” Hoyer said, referencing the deal the Browns made with the Philadelphia Eagles last week, giving up this year’s No. 2 overall selection and a 2017 fourth-round choice for five picks in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 drafts.

“There’s a pretty strong likelihood that they’re going to look back on that as a major development point and a very good decision.

“You can accumulate depth, which I think (is) easier to (do) in football, because that depth is playing for your major-league team. So the fact that you get a third-rounder, and if you have a successful pick and that guy’s in your defensive-line rotation, for example, that’s immediate, as opposed to what we have to do.”

But for all the breathless coverage of the NFL draft, how hard could it really be when the NCAA is basically running Double-A and Triple-A showcase leagues? NFL teams don’t really have to make guesses about kids in high school or scout an international talent pool.

But imagine the Cubs getting locked in on Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, only to have a team that ranked him No. 1 on the board – like the New York Yankees – make a Herschel Walker-style trade with the Houston Astros.

“The other thing I always think about the NFL draft is the idea of getting jumped,” Hoyer said. “(It’s) the idea that you could be sitting there with the fifth pick. You know you’re going to get (Player X) and then – bang! – the team ahead of you trades that pick to a team that wants to jump you. That’s a fascinating dynamic of their draft that we don’t deal with.

“That would be a real talent to stay disciplined – and make really disciplined moves – because I’m sure you can’t get caught up in that moment at all.”

Hoyer doesn’t doubt DePodesta’s calm under pressure, which means The Browns Way could lead a new analytics movement in football and become a model for other NFL teams.

But if DePodesta fails and Cleveland remains one of the most dysfunctional organizations in professional sports, then you probably won’t see another unconventional hire like this for another generation.

“Knowing how Paul’s mind works, he probably saw this as an amazing challenge,” Hoyer said. “And a challenge that may not come around again with a group that was as open-minded as the Browns group was.”

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'


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.”