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.

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half show that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the even of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream