A National League player shook his head at the idea of the Cubs building from within: "You're going to have to buy it."Yes, there is skepticism about Theo Epstein's plans for Wrigley Field, just how patient this market will be and whether the baseball operations department will be at cross purposes with the business side that has to sell tickets and worry about television ratings.Epstein likes the cold, analytical New England Patriots model, and has quoted NFL wiseguy Bill Parcells: If you listen to the fans in the stands, pretty soon you'll be sitting with them.But you didn't see the dead-fish handshakes and disinterested body language that gets psychoanalyzed when Bill Belichick faces off against one of his ex-assistants.Around the cage on Friday at Wrigley Field, there was Epstein next to Jon Lester, Adrian Gonzalez chatting with general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development executive Jason McLeod hugging Dustin Pedroia.The cameras closed in during batting practice and invaded their personal space. But for the Cubs, this was promotional material, advertising for the future, winning by association.So even while the Cubs threaten to break the franchise record for losses this season (103), they can still look back on the past few weeks and feel pretty good about selecting Albert Almora with the No. 6 pick, drafting 22 pitchers, winning the Jorge Soler sweepstakes and seeing Anthony Rizzo move closer to the majors."We have the long-term view," McLeod said. "It's hard to wake up every day, see our record and go through these losses. But, yeah, you feel good about the draft, you feel good about what you're doing on the international market and we understand it's a process. We have to abide by it. We believe in it."That process, which has evolved over the years, yielded Pedroia with McLeods first pick running the draft for the Red Sox in 2004.Pedroia is now one of eight major-league players who have won Rookie of the Year, MVP and Gold Glove awards, as well as a World Series title. The other seven: Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Albert Pujols.Pedroia who declined to be interviewed was an Arizona State University infielder who isnow listed at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. A finalist for the Golden Spikes Award college baseball's Heisman Trophy he fell to No. 65."We actually didnt think he'd be there," McLeod said. "We had lined up our board in a manner of having 20 to 25 guys (thinking): OK, these players are probably going to be gone, so let's work on this (other) board. And if any of these guys are still left, we'll come back and just take them over anyone (else)."It was a surprise to us, because (Pedroia) was such a good college player and he dominated year in and year out. Obviously, the knock on him was his height and he's in much better shape now than he was in college. He was a little thicker through the hips and that's my only explanation for it, because you couldn't find many people that could stack up against him performance-wise."McLeod said it was a "short discussion" between Pedroia and Cal State Fullerton catcher Kurt Suzuki, who went two picks later and has enjoyed a productive career with the Oakland A's.Epstein joined the Red Sox as assistant general manager in 2002 and watched the team win 93 games and miss the playoffs. Not long after that, he was promoted to general manager and watched his team make it to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS."Maybe it was a little bit more of a subtle process," Epstein said. "But we did make moves at the big-league level and had some success right off the bat. That bought us time to commit to 'The Red Sox Way' of doing things, which we established there in scouting and player development."A lot of the work is similar here. There is clearly a mandate for change. That's why new ownership brought in new people. So we didn't have to do much convincing. We just got everyone together in the same room and talked about how we want to teach the game, what we're going to stand for as an organization and how we're going to execute it at the minor-league level."Forget reversing the curse in 2004 ex-Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon has said that wasn't really Epstein's team. Papelbon, now with the Philadelphia Phillies, thinks that the 2007 title validated Epstein's system.As much as Epstein says it's all about wins and losses, he doesn't do it as convincingly as he talks about the process."If you dig a little bit deeper," Epstein said, "you see a manager and a coaching staff that set high expectations and goals and players are working hard to live up to those expectations."We're very prepared, day in and day out, and they play hard day in and day out. So there's just a little bit of a talent deficit right now, but hopefully it will be addressed as we move forward. (I) like what's being established in the clubhouse and I think that will pay dividends down the line."
In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”
The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.
But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.
The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.
Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.
Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:
* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist
Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.
Pace predilections: “stat” players
Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.
Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.
Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).
Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.
Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.
MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.
But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.
With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.
The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.
The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.
The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.
Boom. There’s your 25.
Joe Maddon, do you agree?
“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.
“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”
It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.
Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.
“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.
“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.
“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”
Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.
Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.
That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.
There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.
“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.
“So I think the better teams are like that.”
The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.