Cubs

Theo Epstein is hungry for more

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Theo Epstein is hungry for more

MESA, Ariz. Its hard to believe when the building is almost 100 years old, and the customers have been so loyal for generations, but the Cubs might as well be a start-up company now.

On a recent morning, Theo Epstein sat in front of a laptop inside his office at HoHoKam Stadium, sneaking glances out onto the field. He wore a dark Penguin polo shirt and a Nike cap, the casual look youd expect to find in Silicon Valley.

The copy of Sports Illustrated on Epsteins desk with Albert Pujols on the cover predicted that the Cubs will lose 96 games. The Cubs Way manual rested on another corner.

When you think of the Cubs, you can feel warm and fuzzy and picture sunshine and Old Style. But if Epsteins vision comes into focus, this organization will be innovative like Groupon, manage risk the way Aon Corp. does and find efficiencies faster than McKinsey & Co.

Six months ago, Epstein met Tom Ricketts at a residence the chairmans family owns in New York. They had sweeping views of Central Park and talked for six or seven hours. The general manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time said that he didnt walk out of there with a job offer.

I think he wanted to meet me to make sure I didnt have three eyes, Epstein joked. I think his concern, if he was honest, was: Would I bring as much energy to the Cubs as I did to the Red Sox? Or was I sort of kicking myself upstairs, so to speak, and putting myself out to pasture?

When the Cubs run out of the dugout on Thursday for first pitch against the Washington Nationals, it will mark the 163rd day of the Epstein administration. By Opening Day, the president of baseball operations had fired one manager (Mike Quade) and hired another (Dale Sveum).

The front office expanded with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, two high-level executives who had helped build the Red Sox machine and restocked the San Diego Padres system.

Epsteins calls for the best and the brightest included Shiraz Rehman, who has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and pro scouting director Joe Bohringer, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A fresh perspective, Ricketts said over the winter. They just look at the questions a little differently.

So the Bloomberg computer system has been installed, focusing mostly on the amateur scouting side, with a basic major-league version up and running by the trade deadline.

Scouts have been given video cameras to shoot prospects. Spycam was installed at each minor-league affiliate, and you can watch the action in real time on your laptop. Each minor-league player received an individual plan for this year that outlined strengths and weaknesses.

To educate players on how to handle themselves off the field, representatives from Northeastern Universitys Center for Sport in Society ran seminars during spring training. There will now be background reports on potential draft picks that could run four- or five-pages long.

Remember that Moneyball gave away secrets to people like Ricketts throughout the industry. And spending restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement destroyed the financial advantage the Cubs planned to exploit internationally and in the draft.

The longer youre in baseball, Epstein said, the longer you realize that all were trying to do here is shift the odds slightly in our favor. There are no great obvious competitive advantages anymore.

If you have the best evaluators, the best systems, the best people, the best decision-making process, the best you can hope to do is shift your odds for any given transaction from maybe 5050 to like 5347.

Theres not a lot of ground that you can seize against your opponent. So if youre disorganized or if youre doing things by happenstance or if you dont have a sound process, and you sort of luck into a decision here and there and you cant repeat it, youre just losing ground.

Epstein has likened his ideal front office to a boiler room. Assistant general manager Randy Bush who took over on an interim basis when Jim Hendry was fired and is widely respected for how he guided the Cubs through the transition amplified that idea.

Theyve been very inclusive, Bush said. They like lots of opinions. They dont want people who just sit there and nod their head yes.

The same way that Ricketts wants to renovate Wrigley Field in phases, Epstein hasnt taken a wrecking ball to the front office, which contains many key employees who were already signed through 2012.

There is still room to grow, particularly in the statistical analysis and healthcare wings. Throughout the game, keeping players healthy, and preventing pitchers from breaking down, is viewed as the next big thing. For now, the Cubs are taking smaller steps, like bringing in an expert ophthalmologist as a consultant to test each players eyesight.

Everyone gives the same answer to that and everyone says medicine, sports science, and theyre right, Epstein said. But I dont think we quite know what it is yet. Everyones in the R&D phase of that exploration.

Sveum the third-base coach on the 2004 Red Sox team that won the World Series and reversed the curse has noticed Epsteins learning curve from wonder boy to brand name.

Being one of the smartest guys in baseball, hes always challenging himself, Sveum said. (Its): How can I make the team better every single day? (Hes) on a constant grind that way. Its just the way hes built.

But the one thing about Theo (over the years is) he really understands a lot about the mechanics of the game now. (Thats pitching and hitting), why guys succeed with certain mechanics, why guys struggle with certain mechanics. (Hes) almost a coach sometimes when it comes to that now, and I dont know if he had that ability (then).

In the Boston Globe op-ed column Epstein wrote last October (Farewell, Red Sox Nation), he cited football visionary Bill Walsh, and the idea that coaches and executives should seek change after 10 years with the same team. Does that theory still hold?

I think so, Epstein said, pointing out thats about how long he worked for the Padres and Baltimore Orioles combined. There are no hard and fast rules, and thats not for everybody, but (thats) just how Im wired.

Boston was 10 years and you start to get a little antsy. (You) provide your own motivation and your own stimulus as long as you can. But for me after 10 years, you need the environment to kick-start that again, so thats why change is good.

Epstein speaks in full paragraphs, but hes uncomfortable talking about himself. If the Cubs win it all on his watch, he will be on the fast track to Cooperstown, N.Y. If they dont, well, he should still be in the middle of his professional life. From here, you cant get kicked upstairs much higher.

Is this your final job in baseball?

No, I dont see anything as like final. Im 38 right now, Epstein said. I dont know. I honestly dont think in those terms. What I do think about when I wake up is: How the heck are we going to build enough minor-league pitching? Because we dont have nearly enough right now.

Whos going to pitch the seventh inning this year for us? Thats what I think about. I dont think about it in terms like: Hmmmwill it be 10 years for me here and is that the final step?

I dont see it that way. I know how much joy so many people feel when you can win a championship at a place that hasnt won in a long time, and how sustained that period of excellence can be if you do it with the right people and the right systems.

I havent been here long, but I think Ive been here long enough to see thats possible, but its a significant challenge. So were all pouring ourselves into it, because theres nothing better than seeing the looks on those peoples faces when you get there, and knowing you played a small part in it.

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”