Cubs

David Kaplan's book "The Plan" goes behind the scenes on how Tom Ricketts hired Theo Epstein to turn Cubs around

David Kaplan's book "The Plan" goes behind the scenes on how Tom Ricketts hired Theo Epstein to turn Cubs around

In David Kaplan's book "The Plan," the CSN Chicago and ESPN 1000 personality chronicles the Cubs' journey from Lovable Losers to World Series Champs thanks to the blueprint of Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff.

The book includes a forward by Anthony Rizzo, the face of the franchise since coming over in Epstein's first major trade with the Cubs in January 2012.

This excerpt is from Chapter 5 entitled "Getting Theo" and explains Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts' thought process as he went out and hired Epstein to be the president of baseball operations on Chicago's North Side:

It was late in the 2010 season and the Chicago Cubs were struggling on the field. Manager Lou Piniella had resigned to spend time with his family and his ailing mother. With the Cubs business plan starting to take shape, it was time for Tom Ricketts to take a much closer look at the state of his entire baseball operations department.

At the major league level he saw a team headed in the wrong direction with an aging roster and very few long-term assets that could be part of a championship-caliber team. He also found a crumbling foundation throughout his minor league system. There were very few impact-caliber prospects and the Cubs most recent drafts had produced very little in the way of future stars.

In fact, the Cubs’ first round draft picks dating back to 1998 would all struggle to be major contributors at the big league level for various reasons. From injuries to potential stars Mark Prior and Corey Patterson to picks that were complete busts, the Cubs’ minor league system was one of the game’s worst. This despite the fact that the team had picked in the top six of the draft an astounding five times in 11 draft classes.

Tom Ricketts commissioned a study of every franchise’s minor league system and their draft records to find out who in Major League Baseball was making the most of acquiring young, controllable talent. He found several teams that had done a very good job but one team stood out above the rest in his evaluations.

The Boston Red Sox had built a perennial contender through multiple avenues of player acquisition including the draft, international free agency, trades, and major league free agency. In the same period where the Cubs had struggled, the Red Sox had hit pay dirt throughout the draft, which is as big a hit or miss proposition as there is in the sport.

To evaluate a player aged 18–21 (depending on if they were a high school prospect or a college player) and to project his level of success against the very best players in the world is at best an inexact science. However, the Red Sox had landed All-Stars at that time like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and future all stars like Anthony Rizzo, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and several others who were making a major impact throughout baseball.

A productive farm system is the key to building a successful franchise because not only does it provide a pipeline of young talent but it is talent that is extremely inexpensive. MLB players are not allowed to test free agency until they have completed six full seasons in the big leagues. This system keeps them relatively cost-controlled, which allows franchises to spend bigger money on veterans who are free agents.

However, free agency is fraught with risks because teams are paying top dollar for a player who is almost always near or older than 30 or 31, which is when most players start to see a decline in their productivity. Players older than 30 are a big risk to sign to deals that are longer than three or four years because of the cost to acquire them and the chance that the back end of the deals will not see the productivity of the player to justify the large salary that they are almost always receiving.

Taking all of this into account, Tom Ricketts knew that he needed to hire a general manager who could rebuild the Cubs’ substandard farm system. For far too long the Cubs had swung and missed in the upper rounds of the draft despite picking in the top ten on several occasions. Missing on a high pick can set a franchise back for years. Missing on multiple high picks can keep a team near the bottom of the standings for an extended period, which is just where the Cubs found themselves on multiple occasions including the 2010–14 seasons, after a poor draft record from 2000 to 2010.

“I knew what I was looking for after I made the decision to part ways with Jim Hendry. We needed to rebuild our farm system and start producing young talent that could make an impact at the major league level. I commissioned two of our front office guys to study every team in Major League Baseball and to see who was doing the best job in the draft and in each of the various ways that a team goes about acquiring talent.

“Every study that we did kept coming back to Theo and to the Red Sox. They did the best job at drafting and developing players who were making a big impact at the major league level. But until we made the decision to change our baseball operations hierarchy I had no idea who we were going to hire. In fact, until Jim’s departure was announced in August I had not made one call or conducted one interview,” Ricketts said.

However, all of that was about to change. There were rumblings in the industry that Epstein was unhappy in Boston and that his differences with Boston’s ownership group could pave the way for his departure from the franchise possibly as soon as that fall.

Ricketts quietly went about his business talking with different baseball people who all gave him advice on what he should do with his suddenly vacant baseball operations post. He spoke with Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, former Dodgers GM Dan Evans, and White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, among other qualified baseball men in the industry.

However, according to Ricketts, the only man that he ever formally interviewed for the post as the head of the Cubs baseball operations department was Theo Epstein. And the first person to recommend Theo Epstein to Tom Ricketts? That was none other than baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who knew that Epstein was looking for a fresh start and that the Red Sox were okay with him departing Boston.

“I knew the Cubs were making a change and I knew that Theo wanted out of Boston. That relationship had run its course and as the season was winding [down] I talked with Tom about what he was looking for in a new GM and I knew that Theo would be a perfect fit in Chicago. The Cubs got permission from the Red Sox to talk with Theo once the regular season ended and I knew that once they met it would be a perfect fit,” Selig told me.

This excerpt from The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty by David Kaplan is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/ThePlan.

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."