Cubs

The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

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The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are undefeated. They won the press conferences. They began uniting the front office. They passed on Ryne Sandberg without any blowback.

But the Cubs executives know that the real work is ahead of them. They feel an obligation to put a good product on the field every year. Its not in their nature to just punt the entire 2012 season.

Epstein has talked about the parallel fronts the Cubs will be working on, improving the big-league team you pay a lot of money to see while assembling the scouting and player development machine.

So the Cubs wont be the Miami Marlins, who seem to be wooing almost every free agent of consequence, hoping they take their talents to South Beach. They wont cut corners in the amateur draft or the international market, because they have the luxury of time and ownership stabilitysupport.

You cant put Run Prevention in lights across the Wrigley Field marquee, the way you could Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

But thats the direction Epstein and Hoyer appear to be heading. Pitching and defense will be a focus when they gather for the general manager meetings this week in Milwaukee.

That plans probably going to evolve a little bit because we dont know the personnel quite as well as we will in years to come, Hoyer said. Its no secret we need to get some depth in the rotation. Depth of pitching hurt the team last year.

We need to find ways to improve the defense and we need to probably find a little bit more athleticism on the bases. Those are all things were going to try to solve.

The Cubs witnessed a system-wide breakdown last season. Their rotation finished last in the National League with a 4.79 ERA, and near the bottom of the majors in innings pitched. They blew 24 saves, committed 134 errors and gave up 66 unearned runs.

The Cubs will need to plan for when its 42 degrees in Chicago and theyre playing 3-2 games. More team speed and smarter base-running will help manufacture runs in April and May, when the skies are gray and Wrigley Field plays like a totally different ballpark.

This thinking will factor into the search for a manager. Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. spent two decades as a big-league catcher, learning the psychology of pitching, game-planning for lineups and looking out across the whole field.

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux could be another difference-maker. Bud Black (San Diego Padres) worked closely with Hoyer the past two seasons, while John Farrell (Toronto Blue Jays) has connections with Epstein. They have set the template.

The game is so much about pitching and defense, Hoyer said. From my experience in San Diego, the relationship between Bud Black, (pitching coach) Darren Balsley and (bullpen coach) Darrel Akerfelds, its almost like having three pitching coaches. Buddy did a terrific job of also relating to position players. Certainly my sense from Mike was that hed do the same thing.

Right now youve got Bud Black and John Farrell as excellent managers who are pitching coaches and I think that trend is something that youll probably see continuing down the road.

Sources said the Cubs have made contact with Kerry Woods camp. Wood has said that hell only pitch for the Cubs or else retire but it shouldnt come to that. Theres optimism that he will return to strengthen the bullpen and mentor the younger pitchers.

The Cubs have essentially wished Aramis Ramirez good luck and told him goodbye. They could look for a defensive upgrade at third base. Hoyer declined to comment specifically on Carlos Pena and whether or not the first baseman fits into their plans.

Weve had a number of conversations, about both free agents and trade targets, Hoyer said. Its exciting to go up to Milwaukee and start having face-to-face conversations with teams about our guys. Ive been trying to make as many GM phone calls as I can (to) lay the groundwork.

Itll be interesting to see what ideas other teams have, what players have interest. (Theo and I) are really excited to get up there and get started.

Eventually, the buzz will start to fade from these franchise-changing hires. There will be negative headlines. The hard decisions are coming. But Epstein and Hoyer have a plan, even if they dont want to share the specifics. Let the second-guessing begin.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.