White Sox

With Theo Epstein running Cubs, no one is untouchable

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With Theo Epstein running Cubs, no one is untouchable

Theo Epstein and Ryan Dempster talked by the batting cage before Mondays game at Wrigley Field.

The team president has a rebuilding plan that looks ahead to the next 10 years. The Opening Day starter just turned 35, will be a free agent at seasons end and has no-trade rights.

That creative tension is the story for this Cubs season.

It was 90 degrees at first pitch, with winds gusting 24 mph. The offense finally came alive in an 11-7 victory over the Padres that snapped a 12-game losing streak.

But any one game or even a bad 12-game sample size doesnt really matter in the big picture.

Dempster loves Chicago and has become an authority figure in the clubhouse and a part of the community. But the Cubs are 16-32 and contenders know all about his numbers (2.14 ERA) and makeup.

I have a pretty good feel for where hes coming from, Epstein said. We have an open dialogue. We just chatted about chatting at some point. Theres nothing to talk about right now. I think I know him pretty well.

Long-term, sure, I think the organizations better for having him. Well have to take a realistic look of where we are. And if there are ways to get better, every option has to be on the table.

At the moment, that doesnt mean calling up top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. Ex-closer Carlos Marmol, who came off the disabled list, will have to earn his job back but could be showcased.

Catcher Geovany Soto, who recently underwent a minor knee procedure, said hes close to returning, that its not a two-month injury, more like two or three weeks.

This front office isnt sentimental, and prides itself on removing emotion from the equation. No one is untouchable.

Ive always operated under that philosophy, Epstein said. I never understood why there would ever be an untouchable. All youre doing is limiting your opportunity.

That said, there are core pieces that its almost impossible to foresee movement. You have to be completely blown away to even contemplate it. I think everyone knows what were trying to do. Were trying to build a nucleus of talented young players who can form a core of an annual contender.

So if you have a piece like that, the only way youd contemplate ever moving him would be if youd get multiples back of that same caliber, and those deals are hard to make.

From here, you could see a rotation fronted by Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, and a lineup built around Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Win or lose, the next 114 games will be about identifying more core players.

Were also very open to making moves, general manager Jed Hoyer said. A lot of our conversations are about what we can do to shake things up, what we can do to change the roster a little bit. Well keep looking at those things.

(But) we dont want to get in a situation where were sort of dumping guys off just to make a point or just to change things up.

Epstein and Hoyer have been on the road evaluating players for the draft, and getting to know their scouts better. They have to get the sixth overall pick right on June 4, and then begin restocking the system.

From there, the focus will shift and the Cubs will assess the landscape. Maybe an extra wild card, some injuries or a desperate executive will move the market.

This time of year is not a big trading time, Hoyer said. People are still filling their team out and deciding where they are. Thats why the solutions have to come from within. This isnt an external time of year (and) we need to fight through this.

The Cubs overcame a poor start from Travis Wood and got home runs from Castro, Darwin Barney, Ian Stewart and Alfonso Soriano to beat a bad Padres team (17-33).

Theyre telling themselves that this will all pay off in the end. Its just a question of wholl be around to enjoy it.

Its torture for all of us, Hoyer said. (But) I dont think any of us would ever hesitate for a second knowing better times are ahead. Theres no question in my mind that were going to build a consistent winner here.

This is a really painful bump that were going through right now on the way to get there. My hope (in the) future (is that) were looking back at this as a character-building thing.

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

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MiLB.com

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

Most minor league managers have graying sideburns, wrinkled skin and a birth date well before 1980.

They’ve been through the battles of baseball and life, placed in rural dugouts across the country to teach the younger generation how to play the game.

But in a town outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the White Sox are bucking this trend with a fresh-faced millennial who one day could be sitting in a major league manager’s office with his name on it.

Justin Jirschele is the manager of the Kannapolis Intimidators, the White Sox Class-A affiliate.  At 27 years old, he is the youngest manager in all of professional baseball.  

Jirschele (pronounced JIRSH-ah-lee) goes by “Jirsh” to those who know him and who play for him, which last season included top prospects like Jake Burger, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease.

When Jirschele played the game, he was a guy every team would have wanted.

Not for his speed: He never stole more than four bases in a season during his minor league career. Not for his power: He didn't hit a single home run in 622 career at-bats.

But because he treated every game like it could be his last.

“I never took a play off. I never took an at-bat off,” he said.

This was his mindset even in his very last minor league at-bat for the Birmingham Barons in 2015.

“I remember walking up and I said out loud to myself, ‘This is it. Do something.’ I’m getting the chills right now thinking about it.”

Jirschele knew his playing days were over. So did the White Sox. They signed him out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. Nobody else wanted him. Over the next four seasons, he played for five White Sox minor league teams. The results on the field were overwhelmingly average.

Then one day, Nick Capra, then the White Sox Director of Player Development, came to Jirschele with an idea and an offer that would change his life.

“He asked, ‘Are you ready to start coaching yet?’ Jirschele recalled. ‘And I looked at him and went, ‘What do you mean?’”

The White Sox offered Jirschele a job to be the hitting coach for the Grand Falls Voyagers, the team’s rookie league affiliate.

“I was in shock. It was the end of May, the season was still young. I was at three different levels. I started at Winston-Salem, went to Charlotte and came back to Birmingham. It was a whirlwind. When he first said it, my first feeling was excitement. That kind of told me right there that it was the right time to do it.”

So Jirschele took the job.

He was 25 years old.

Then he went out and took that final minor league at-bat for Birmingham, which turned out to be a fitting conclusion to his playing career.  

“I think it was the second pitch, right down the middle and I was tardy, hit it off my fist, a dribbler to the shortstop and I bet you I ran as hard as I had in my entire life. It wasn’t that I was fast, but I was running as hard as I possibly could to first and I don’t think there even was a throw I hit it so soft, perfectly past the pitcher.  I just said to myself, that’s it right there.”

An infield dribbler for a base hit to close his playing career.

Coaching made sense for Jirschele. His father, Mike, is the third base coach for the Kansas City Royals. He won a World Series in 2015. His older brother, Jeremy, is the head baseball coach back at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Pretty soon, the younger Jirschele would be leading a team of his own.  

In 2017, the White Sox gave him the managerial job with Kannapolis. Sure, some of his players would be around the same age, but the White Sox looked past the birth date on his driver’s license and recognized a person who was wise beyond his years.

“It was identified early on that he has the leadership qualities we look for in a manager regardless of his age,” said Chris Getz, White Sox Director of Player Development. “He has good baseball knowledge, good communication skills, a willingness to learn and adapt, and carries out a consistent message. We feel lucky to have him and think he has a bright future ahead.”

Although the ages of the Intimidators players ranged from 19 to 25 years old, it didn’t matter that their manager was slighty older than them.

“Never once had an issue with the age thing,” Jirschele said about his players. “I think from Day 1 when I showed them the respect like I’m not going to be the guy that’s two years older than you hammering things down your throat, I’m going to have that respect and you’re going to show it back.”  

While the White Sox prospects spent the season developing their playing skills, Jirschele was honing his managing skills, which go beyond what happens on the field. A big part of the job is handling issues that arise off of it.  

“It’s a long grind season and there are so many things that are going to come up non-baseball related to where you might be in that clubhouse and you might feel alone,” Jirschele explained. “You might feel like you’re on an island all by yourself even if you’ve got three best friends that are going to stand up in your wedding one day, you might not feel comfortable talking to those guys about that.  Come on in, we’ll talk about it at 12:30 in the afternoon or 7:30 at night or midnight. I tell the guys you’ve got my phone number.  Call or text no matter what time if you need to talk.”

Following his thirst for managing knowledge, Jirschele often reaches out to his dad for late-night phone calls, rehashing the game that night. He’ll even text an opposing manager, like Patrick Anderson, a friend who has managed the Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals Class-A affiliate for the last four seasons.

“He’s a guy I could pick his brain about things," he said. "Once the series was over I’d send him a text and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ At the end of the day we’re all in it together and first and foremost it’s all for these players and making them better each and every day and doing whatever we can to get them to the top. But at the same time we’re developing ourselves as well along the way.

“I’m sure I annoy a lot of people of asking questions but that’s how you learn. I was brought up that way.”

Jirschele’s impressions of some White Sox top prospects he managed last season:

Alec Hansen: “When he takes the ball, you feel like you have one of the best chances in the country to get a win that night in minor league baseball.  His stuff is just off the charts.”

Dane Dunning: “It would be the 8th inning, he wanted that complete game and he wouldn’t be too pleased with me coming out there to take him out, but you want that.  You want that out of a competitor on the mound every 5 days. He’s definitely a guy you want in the foxhole with you, no doubt.”

Micker Adolfo: “He has a special, special arm.  I don’t know if there’s a better one right now.”

Jake Burger: “Looking forward, the ceiling is unbelievably high for him. 100 percent no doubt in my mind, someday he will be a captain in the big leagues.”

Like many of his players, Jirschele left an impression with the White Sox in his first season as manager. He helped lead the Intimidators to their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first trip to the South Atlantic League championship since 2005.

Earlier this month, the White Sox named him their Minor League Coach of the Year.

“First and foremost, it means we had good players this year. It’s those guys between the lines,” he said. “As coaches, we can’t go out there and pitch. We were fortunate to have a great group of guys. We came up a little short (winning the championship), but we got there and it was fun.”

Once upon a time, Jirschele’s dream was to make it to the majors. That dream still exists.  Just now instead of having his own baseball card, he wants to get to the big leagues holding a lineup card.

“I think I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a goal, but at the same time I don’t worry about it. I know I’m 27 years old," he said. "I’m just fortunate to have the job I do right now with the White Sox. I go out and do my job every single day and the rest will just take care of itself.”

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast Tracey Myers and Jamal Mayers join Pat Boyle to discuss the teams wins over the Rangers and Penguins.  Have they figured some things out and what is the identity of this team after 20 games?

Jammer weighs in on Artem Anisimov’s big week and are there enough Hawks committed to net front presence?  They also discuss the surging play of the blue liners and did the Hawks fail to send a message to Evgeni Malkin, after he kneed Corey Crawford in the head?