Cubs

Theo Epstein breaks down Cubs' challenges in quest for World Series repeat

Theo Epstein breaks down Cubs' challenges in quest for World Series repeat

Whether it’s building a perennial contender or defending a World Series title, Theo Epstein takes the same clear-eyed view of the situation. Whether it’s remodeling the Boston Red Sox or taking a sledgehammer to baseball operations at Wrigley Field, Epstein cuts through the clutter.

“The primary reason why it’s hard to repeat is just because it’s really difficult to win the World Series,” Epstein said. “In any given year, if you’re any old team, you have a 3-percent chance. If you’re the best team, you might have, you know, a 10- or 12-percent chance. So it’s just hard to do. But there are things that get in the way.”

If the rebuild didn’t obsess over curses, antiquated facilities, too many day games and Chicago’s nightlife temptations — or whatever other theories tried to explain the 108-year drought — then the next phase won’t be consumed with worrying about hangovers or players not being quite as hungry or motivated.

But Epstein’s three-dimensional worldview — his ability to blend scouting and analytics, his people skills balanced against a ruthless streak — won’t completely dismiss those concerns, either. The Cubs will experience their new normal on Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona, trying to become Major League Baseball’s first franchise to repeat since the New York Yankees won it all in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

“When you win, you get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Epstein said. “There can be a tendency — at some point, no matter how high the character — to start thinking about yourself a little bit more.

“You have to work really hard — we all do — to avoid any kind of organizational arrogance. (Or) any sense of entitlement to really understand that of all the great things that happened last year, the most special aspect is that we all got to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

“So it’s important to like opt back into that mindset, to buy back into being a team player, to being a team-centric organization.”

After a short offseason where they were celebrated in front of millions at the championship parade/Grant Park rally, on “Saturday Night Live,” all over the late-night talk shows, at Disney World and in the White House, the Cubs will go back to the grind next week. It begins with a camp lengthened by the World Baseball Classic, followed by 38 exhibitions, the 162-game marathon and what they hope will be three more playoff rounds.

“I don’t worry about our group,” Epstein said. “But with some teams after winning it, other things creep in and get in the way of that bonding.”

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These Cubs have clearly earned the benefit of the doubt so far, from the way they’ve handled the big-market spotlight and shrugged off the weight of franchise history. Instead of coasting, Kris Bryant followed up a Rookie of the Year campaign with an MVP season. After taking the security of a long-term deal, Anthony Rizzo matured into a team ambassador and an All-Star first baseman.

Addison Russell (23), Javier Baez (24), Kyle Schwarber (24 in March), Willson Contreras (25 in May) and Albert Almora Jr. (23 in April) should have so much of their careers in front of them and the carrot of a big contract. Jake Arrieta — who is positioned to become a free agent after this season — is pitching for his Boras Corp.-negotiated megadeal.

Maybe the rotation will finally break down and the Cubs won’t have five pitchers make at least 29 starts, the way they did last season, leading the majors with a 2.96 ERA. Maybe Wade Davis, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon have trouble staying healthy and manager Joe Maddon gets roasted again for his bullpen decisions. Maybe the playoff matchups won’t be so favorable this year, either.

The San Francisco Giants reacted to their bullpen meltdowns by giving Mark Melancon a record contract (at the time) for a closer ($62 million over four years). The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t really seem to trust anyone on their pitching staff beyond Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen. The Cleveland Indians made it to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 without Carlos Carrasco or a full-strength Danny Salazar.

Even if there are elements of luck and randomness, you still have to recognize the muscle memory and give credit to the mental toughness that it took to: eliminate a Giants franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010; recover from back-to-back shutouts in the National League Championship Series; and storm back from a 3-1 deficit in the Fall Classic.

“We took another step forward,” Epstein said. “You gain an inner confidence, a default belief that you and your teammates know how to win. And through hard times, you just have a faith in getting back to what got you there, knowing that you’re good enough not only to compete, but to win and to win the whole thing.

“That kind of confidence is hard to create. That’s why you see teams kind of gradually do better and better and better the more times they’re in the postseason.”

Amid the raucous celebration at Progressive Field — at the beginning of his bender — Epstein compared being part of championships teams to having kids: “You cherish both of them. Different origins, different personalities, but they’re both things you treasure for your lifetime.”

After reversing the curse, the 2005 Red Sox got swept by Ozzie Guillen’s White Sox in the divisional round. The 2008 Red Sox lost an American League Championship Series Game 7 to Maddon’s upstart Tampa Bay Rays.

“Generally speaking,” Epstein said, “I think teams that win it all sometimes face unique challenges where a lot of things come up that pull everyone associated with the organization in different directions. So locking back into a team-first, competitive, connected mindset is really important.

“But that’s where having such great character guys is important. And I really trust our group to get locked back in again.”

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

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USA TODAY

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

Is it possible that the best quarterback in Sunday’s AFC Championship was not on the field, but instead in the broadcast booth?

CBS analyst and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was the talk of Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs. Romo consistently predicted plays before they happened, much to the delight and amazement of those watching the game on television.

MLB superstar Bryce Harper even chimed in on Twitter. Harper, who is still a free agent, jokingly tweeted that he called Romo to learn which team he will play for in 2019.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes delivered an instant-classic game on the field. However, Romo’s performance in the booth deserves recognition and should be remembered as well.

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Overheard at Cubs Convention: A collection of the funniest and weirdest moments from the 2019 fan fest

Overheard at Cubs Convention: A collection of the funniest and weirdest moments from the 2019 fan fest

The only Harper in attendance at the Sheraton Grand Chicago over the weekend was the Winter Storm Harper, not that dude named Bryce.

The Cubs seamlessly jumped from Cole Hamels to Kyle Hendricks in the alphabetical introductions at Opening Ceremonies Friday night, crushing the dreams of anybody who believed there would be a surprise visit from the superstar outfielder.

"The sad thing is it's going to be snowing this much in April too," one fan quipped. And it doesn't look like Harper will be in a Cubs uniform by then, either, as Theo Epstein reiterated it's "extremely unlikely" the Cubs sign a mega free agent of any kind this winter.

But that didn't stop Cubs fans, players, coaches and executives from having a blast at the 34th annual Convention.

Here are some of the top moments from the 2019 fan fest:

♦♦Bryant made headlines and pissed off the entirety of Cardinals Nation when he jokingly said St. Louis is "boring" during the late-night show with Ryan Dempster. 

It wound up becoming the talk of the Convention.

♦♦Kyle Hendricks was asked about any pranks he's played on his teammates and he confirmed he is not a big prankster (big surprise there), but did reference one time last year when a teammate hid in Anthony Rizzo's locker with an airhorn and jumped out to scare the Cubs first baseman.

♦♦Daniel Descalso has been the only real addition to the 2019 roster and the former Cardinal wasted no time endearing himself to Cubs fans.

A young fan asked Descalso which convention is better — Cubs or Cardinals? Descalso didn't even let the kid finish his question before he said: "This one."

♦♦This great story about Cubs draft pick Cole Roederer came on the last panel of the weekend Sunday morning with Cubs Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod and Director of Player Development Jaron Madison:

♦♦As usual, a great hand for Kerry Wood:

♦♦A couple fans were playing a drinking game during Theo Epstein's session, taking a sip every time the Cubs president reminded folks the team actually won 95 games in 2018 or referenced the sense of urgency surrounding the organization this year.

♦♦Kris Bryant: The Hitting Poet

♦♦There are always a lot of random jerseys at any Cubs Convention, but one of the weirdest I've ever seen came this winter: an Arismendy Alcantara shirsey. 

I totally understand wanting to sport your favorite Cubs gear over the weekend — and that may include a Mark Grace jersey, Sammy Sosa button down or even a Corey Patterson shirsey — but Arismendy Alcantara? Dude played only half a season's worth of games in Chicago (81) between 2014-15.

And no, it wasn't actually Arismendy Alcantara wearing his own jersey.

Very odd, but maybe that was the point?

♦♦Somehow, Theo made it through an entire hour-long panel facing somewhere around 20 questions from fans without anybody bringing up Harper by name. 

♦♦Anthony Rizzo wasn't able to attend the Convention this year due to a conflict with his honeymoon, but he Facetimed in anyways:

♦♦Why did Kyle Hendricks decide to become a pitcher?

♦♦One kid has a future in journalism, asking Theo point-blank: "Do you plan on bringing Joe Maddon back as manager next year?"

Theo responded by saying, "I certainly hope so."

♦♦Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease were brought up multiple times by fans in the "Down on the Farm" segment with McLeod and Madison. Two fans asked about the former top prospects in the same span of 5 minutes and each time, McLeod and Madison reiterated the same thing the organization has said for nearly two years now: The Cubs felt it was worth it to make the deal with the White Sox to acquire a stable workhorse in their rotation for years to come in Jose Quintana.

♦♦One fan (looked to be in his mid-20s or so) started off his question to Theo by letting everybody know his cat is named Theo. He then proceeded to ask Theo — a Patriots fan — if he thinks Tom Brady is the GOAT and if so, has he ever seen Aaron Rodgers play?

Theo joked about how he watched Khalil Mack get the best of Rodgers this year before admitting that yes, he believes Brady is the greatest QB of all time. 

♦♦Kyle Farnsworth was in attendance and as Pat Hughes introduced him during Opening Ceremonies, the voice of Cubs radio touted the former relievers' ability to throw the ball 100 mph, prompting this comment from a fan:

"They should bring him back and add him to this year's bullpen."

Farnsworth is 42 and hasn't played professional baseball in years, but the Cubs could certainly use another reliever (even by their own admission), so it's hard to blame the fan.

♦♦Does Ben Zobrist prefer playing outfield or infield?

"Infield," the 37-year-old said because he "doesn't have to run as far."

♦♦KB's got jokes:

♦♦A teenager felt the need to start his "question" by telling a panel of Bryant, Zobrist Willson Contreras and Javy Baez that he has "had trouble getting girls lately" and proceeded to ask for a picture.

♦♦The second fan question of 2019 Cubs Con was a fan who began by thanking Maddon for letting Rizzo pitch last year.

♦♦New Cubs bench coach Mark Loretta joked MLB could speed up pace of play by having a bullpen cart for every reliever coming into the game...or a Harley Davidson for guys to ride to the mound on.

♦♦Towards the end of the coaches panel, a kid got on the microphone to ask Maddon if he still supports the decision to let Pedro Strop hit for himself on that fateful afternoon in Washington D.C. on Sept. 13. (That was the play Strop injured his hamstring on and he went on to make just one appearance the rest of the season — in the NL Wild-Card Game.)

Maddon maintained the same stance he's taken since then — saying any criticism of the decision now is outcome bias and he can't predict injuries on any given play.

♦♦One fan asked Maddon "what he's going to do about" the fact only a few Cubs players show up for the National Anthem at Wrigley Field, calling it "embarrassing" and a "disgrace." 

Maddon handled it well, defending the players and saying the National Anthem often falls at a tough time for most guys when they're still preparing for the game. 

It's worth noting: the Anthem is optional in baseball. Every sport is different, so just because the NHL or NBA players line up and face the flag for those 2-3 minutes doesn't mean MLB will be the same.

Maybe they should, but regardless of where you stand on that issue, it's not Maddon's responsibility to police all 25 of his players to be attentive for the National Anthem. He's got plenty else to worry about.

♦♦Some fans asking questions are just savage:

♦♦One fan told Mark Loretta how excited he was for the new Cubs bench coach to join the staff because the guy's mom is named "Loretta" and his dad is named "Mark."