Cubs

Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

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Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

Larry Lucchino had to say something when reached by the worlds most influential newspaper. When asked about Jose Contreras, Bostons chief executive officer lit a match and threw it onto the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America, Lucchino told The New York Times.

This was around Christmas 2002, not long after Theo Epstein had become the youngest general manager in baseball history. The Red Sox had just lost out on Contreras, the Cuban defector who instead signed a four-year, 32 million contract with the Yankees.

To become a free agent, Contreras established residency in Nicaragua, where the negotiations took place at Hotel Campo Real. Dan Shaughnessy, the longtime columnist for The Boston Globe, detailed the back-and-forth in Reversing the Curse, his book on the 2004 Red Sox championship team.

Epstein told Shaughnessy that he never trashed his hotel room after Contreras spurned the Red Sox, and suggested that Yankee officials fed that nonstory to the New York newspapers.

The definitive account of this negotiation is still to be written. The moments of frustration inside the executive offices can be leaked later to the media. Lucchino and Cubs team president Crane Kenney will no doubt have something interesting to say.

But everyone already agrees on the ending: Epstein coming to Clark and Addison as the next head of baseball operations.

By late Tuesday, a source indicated that the Cubs and Red Sox still hadnt found the midpoint as they try to settle on the compensation that will allow Epstein to escape from the final year of his contract. Theyre still in standby mode.

The Cubs may have to ask commissioner Bud Selig to lift Major League Baseballs news blackout and receive permission to hold an Epstein press conference during the next several days. Meanwhile their biggest rival will be playing for their 11th World Series title.

Cubs-Cardinals is not Yankees-Red Sox. But once this is official, Epstein can go about building his own Evil Empire.

The Cubs dont have the winning tradition and they care about public perception. Tom Ricketts is a rational man who doesnt like to make impulsive decisions. The chairman doesnt have George Steinbrenners DNA, the need to create headlines.

But Epstein will be empowered to build an organization in his image. The front office will be expanded, in part because the Cubs have historically had one of the smallest staffs in baseball. Ricketts has identified bringing in more manpower as a priority.

Its unclear exactly how the staff will take shape, though it could have a distinct Boston influence.

SI.com reported Tuesday that the Cubs could make a run at Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014. Cubs people are hearing the same rumors about Josh Byrnes, another Padres executive who also used to work for the Red Sox.

The Cubs will be pooling their intellectual capital at a time when theyll be building new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, which will only help the scouting and player development machine Epstein once built for the Red Sox.

You wont believe it until you see it, but Cubs executives insist that Wrigley Field will be renovated within the next few years.

That project should improve what one player called the worst facilities in the game, and generate more revenue to pour into baseball operations. Maybe all this will sharpen their negotiating skills against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Team officials also hold out hopes for their own television network sometime in the future, which would only widen the resource gap between the Cubs and the rest of the National League Central.

Epstein wont exactly be on the side of the American League East divide that left the Red Sox so frustrated with the Yankees years ago. But he should be able to leverage a significant financial advantage over his rivals.

According to the USA Today salary database, the Yankees allocated almost 203 million to major-league payroll this year, while the Red Sox were around 161 million. In the National League, only the Phillies spent more than the Cubs.

The Cubs had a payroll that was roughly 20 million more than the Cardinals, 40 million more than the Brewers and 50 million more than the Reds.

Money doesnt guarantee happiness. The Cardinals will host the Rangers another team just outside a top-10 payroll for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night in St. Louis.

But if the Cubs ever develop their own Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, their fans will never have to worry about their favorite players leaving because they want to get rich in St. Louis or Milwaukee. It would more likely be Epsteins computers saying its not a good bet on their future performance.

During the Contreras stakeout, Epstein worked alongside Red Sox international scouting director Louis Eljaua, whos now a Cubs special assistant in charge of overseeing the construction of the new academy in the Dominican Republic. The kids there want to be the next Starlin Castro.

The opportunity here is to build an international brand, if not an Evil Empire. If the Cubs have to give up two prospects to secure their next president of baseball operations, remember that they can always find dozens and dozens more around the globe.

Soon enough, Epstein will stand at the podium and tell everyone how he plans to conquer the world.

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

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USA Today

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

Jason Kipnis, who’s potentially the Cubs’ new second baseman but indisputably the pride of Northbrook, said there’s one major reason why his possible reunion with Wrigley Field is so exciting.

“Now I don’t have to hate the 'Go Cubs Go' song,” he quipped.

Kipnis was a late addition to the Cubs’ roster, and still not even a guaranteed one at that. After almost a decade spent being one of the Cleveland Indians’ cornerstones, Kipnis arrived in Mesa on a minor league contract, looking to win a job. Ironically, being with his hometown team is unfamiliar territory for the two-time All-Star. 

“[Leaving Cleveland] was hard at first,” he said. “You get used to the same place for 9-10 years, and I think it’s a little hard right now coming in and being the new guy and being lost and not knowing where to go. But it’ll be fun. It’s exciting. It’s kind of out of the comfort zone again, which is kind of what you want right now – to be uncomfortable. I don’t know, I’ve missed this feeling a little bit, so it’ll be good.”

It was a slow offseason for the second baseman, but the second baseman said that he was weighing offers from several teams. Opportunity and organizational direction dictated most of his decision-making, but Kipnis admitted that the forces around him were all, rather unsubtly, pulling him in one direction.

“They were telling me to take a deal, take a cut, whatever. Just get here,” he joked. “... It made sense, it really did. I think I didn't fully understand it until it was announced and my phone started blowing up and I realized just how many people this impacted around my life. Friends and family still live in Chicago, so it’s going to be exciting.”

The theme of renewed motivation has hung around Sloan Park like an early-morning Arizona chill, and Kipnis said part of the reason he feels the Cubs brought him in is to set a fire under some guys. He talked with Anthony Rizzo during the offseason, who talked about how the Cubs had struggled at times to put an appropriate emphasis on each of the 162 games in a regular season. That’s not a new problem in baseball, and it struck a chord with Kipnis, who himself was on plenty of talented Cleveland teams that never got over the hump. 

“They got a good core here. I’m well aware of that, they’re well aware of that, too,” he said. “I texted him and called him and asked him what happened last year, because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that, and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys roster.’” 

As for his direct competition, Kipnis said he hasn’t had a chance to really get to know Nico Hoerner yet, but doesn’t feel like the battle for second base has to be a contentious one by any means. At 32, Kipnis has been around long enough to understand the dynamics an aging veteran vs. a top prospect, and doesn't feel like it’s a situation where only one of them will end up benefiting. 

“I know he came up and had a pretty good success, so I think [it’s] going to be a competition, but at the same time, I’m not going to try to put him down,” he said. “I’d like to work with him, kind of teach him what I know too and hopefully both of us become better from it.” 

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

According to Javy Baez, the Cubs need to improve their pregame focus

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over and over again, it’s always been framed in relatively vague terms. Perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager who is still well-liked within the clubhouse, specifics were always avoided. It was just a change that was needed.

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why such a talented team has fallen short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” Baez said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Related: What to love, and hate, about the Cubs heading into 2020

The star shortstop's comments certainly track. Maddon is widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that's clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality... until it isn't. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he said. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also promised that this year would be far more organized and rigid. They will stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that may have slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only saying that negotiations were “up and down.” He’d like to play his whole career here and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is on recapturing some of that 2016 drive and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself.

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