Bears

Cubs: McLeod, Epstein looking for game-changers

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Cubs: McLeod, Epstein looking for game-changers

MESA, Ariz. Jason McLeod is looking forward to checking out his new office at Clark and Waveland. He knows he probably wont see it for another eight weeks.

The Cubs senior vice president, scoutingplayer development will be at Wrigley Field for Opening Day, and then hit the road preparing for the June draft. Flying all across the country, he will have some time to catch up on the Mad Men episodes he enjoys watching on his iPad.

McLeod has a fancy title and a big portfolio in baseball operations. Born in Hawaii and raised in San Diego, he gives off a much more laid-back vibe. He compares the database in a scouts mind to the way a gifted musician can remember what hes heard before, and make sense of how it all fits together, to where the recall becomes second nature.

Theo Epstein viewed McLeod and general manager Jed Hoyer as essential hires when he was offered the presidents job and the keys to the Cubs kingdom.

McLeod had drafted so many impact players for the Boston Red Sox Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and rebuilt the San Diego Padres system into one of the industrys best.

McLeod isnt as corporate or Ivy League, but he believes in all the MBA speak about processes and information management. The executive will be a key engineer for what Epstein has called the machine for scouting and player development.

The Cubs desperately need game-changers. They hold the sixth overall pick in the draft, and five within the first 101 selections.

If the new collective bargaining agreement hadnt restricted the amount teams can spend in the draft, the Cubs would have gone all in this summer and made the 12 million in bonuses they gave out last year look like spare change.

Its now a true scouting competition, and the Cubs are still strategizing when, within the new rules, it makes sense to go overboard and overpay. McLeod will be running meetings in Arizona starting Monday, the spring seasons midpoint, to narrow the focus for a front office where thorough is the new buzzword.

(We) really talk about: If the draft was next week, these are the guys were considering here, McLeod said. Then we really break them down and we start eliminating certain players and thats where we really start steering our coverage now. Were going to roll and rotate in on this group of players. And this next tier of players: This is how were going to attack them.

McLeods iPhone rang the other morning and it played The Whos Baba ORiley (Teenage Wasteland). Remember this is making multimillion-dollar investments on kids who just learned how to drive, in a field where you can be wrong 96 percent of the time and still have a pretty good year.

The Cubs want to know who hangs out with the wrong crowd, and what makes them tick. They want to see how they compete in other sports. Their 25 amateur scouts have been given cameras and must shoot at every game they attend, to create a video library.

Information as a whole is the currency of the draft, Epstein said. So there are different buckets of information scouting information, makeup information, medical information, statistical information, and our goal is to drill deeper than any other team.

The goal is to get to know the kids better than they know themselves, because youre looking at a 17-year-old. Youre projecting how hes going to be at 27. Its very difficult. You need to drill very deep to try to gain that kind of insight.

Everyone talks to the coach and the kids parents, right? Where can you make a difference?

Do you talk to the equipment manager? Epstein said. Do you talk to the guidance counselor? Do you dig deep enough to find out when the kid has struggled and (faced) adversity? What (has been) his biggest failure? How he bounced back from that failure?

Theres a lot of different ways to do it. Do you have a psychologist interview the kid? Do you have him take an objective test? Do you log your entire relationship with the kid, every bit of information that you get, so everyone in the draft room can share it and gain the insight?

You cant just wake up and do it in April and hope to have a good decision. Its like a 15-month process, minimum.

We know this approach gives us a better chance of being less wrong. (Thats) what scoutings about, degrees of being less wrong, when you draft 50 guys and you get two or three right. This isnt just something were doing for like window dressing. It evolved over 10 years in Boston. We feel pretty confident in the system.

Chairman Tom Ricketts has said how the new labor deal could create a new market for scouts, where the best talent evaluators can command higher salaries, because you cant just pay over slot for premium players.

The Cubs recognize they need to care of their scouts. McLeod e-mailed his staff last week to say that later this year scouts will be provided company cars, a benefit he had in Boston and San Diego.

(Its) creating an environment where they know that people care about what theyre doing, McLeod said. Theyre not just 2,000 miles away driving down a lonely highway and no one knows what the hell theyre doing out there. Because it can be a lonely frickin gig.

McLeod has known Epstein since the mid-1990s, when they were starting out in the business with the Padres, one in stadium operations and the other in media relations.

They were in their 20s and started hanging out after games, grabbing beers and talking baseball. They were given chances to drive to USC and Cal State Fullerton, and go watch Adrian Gonzalez play in high school, and began learning how to scout.

McLeod the great-grand nephew of Hall of Famer pitcher Carl Hubbell was drafted by the Houston Astros in 44th round of the 1991 draft and pitched briefly in the minors before taking an internship with the Padres.

But when the Padres first asked McLeod to transition to coaching, they had him as a rookie league hitting coach. So he spent an entire offseason at Qualcomm Stadium, three or four days a week, watching prospects in the cage alongside people like Tony Gwynn.

I would just sit there like a sponge, soak it up, McLeod recalled. Really, its just that old adage: Shut up and listen.

Near the end of a long conversation, McLeod is asked if hed ever be interested in running his own team, if this fast track could one day make him a general manager.

I think everyone thinks about: What would I do in this situation? McLeod said. Certainly, Ive had those thoughts: What would I do here? What would I do there? If the opportunity ever comes up, certainly I would be interested in looking at it.

McLeod paused for a moment and laughed: But were so damn busy here. Plus, The Trio just got back together!

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.
 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.