Theo Epstein: Time is right for Cubs to stand up to Cardinals


Theo Epstein: Time is right for Cubs to stand up to Cardinals

Theo Epstein had flashbacks to the Red Sox taking down the Evil Empire while watching this rivalry reach a boiling point. Cubs-Cardinals isn’t just for tourists anymore.

What a weekend at Wrigley Field with 122,802 fans combined, two one-run games, seven hit batters and Cubs manager Joe Maddon comparing the Cardinals to Tony Soprano’s crime family.

There was Cubs shortstop Addison Russell withstanding the hard slides into second base, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina tearing a ligament in his left thumb on a play at the plate and the possibility of a rematch in October.

“It reminded me a little bit of 2003 when we were starting to get the Yankees’ attention,” Epstein said Monday. “Talent-wise, we could play with them. You could see how those games were back-and-forth and all close and played at a really high level. (It was) really intense – involving some extracurriculars as well.”

[MORE: Getting over the hump: Cubs now believe they can beat Cardinals]

This is what Epstein wanted to see when he left Boston after the 2011 season for a president’s title, a direct report to ownership and the autonomy to run a baseball-operations department without interference.

The Cubs always understood they would have to go through St. Louis and its “Foundation for Sustained Success” (11 World Series titles and one losing season since 2000).

“We should stand up for ourselves,” Epstein said. “I think it says more about sort of how we feel about the Cubs and ‘The Cubs Way.’ We’re not going to take anything from anyone.”

Epstein now has something better to talk about than complaining about how the Cardinals get handouts from Major League Baseball in the form of competitive-balance draft picks.

All this action happening in a year where the FBI and Justice Department have been investigating the Cardinals for allegedly breaking into Houston’s “Ground Control” database.

[RELATED: Cubs think Pedro Strop has turned a corner against the Cardinals

A narrative that had been all about “The Cardinal Way” and how much “The Plan” had closed the gap between these two rivals will now revolve around the actual games.

“I think Joe was referring to a certain code, a certain reputation that they have (for) retribution,” Epstein said. “They’ve sort of handled their business in a certain way. That’s on the field. I think it was really appropriate for us to stand up for ourselves.

“But the way they run their shop in the front office – just because we hate them on the field doesn’t mean that we can’t respect the job they’ve done for almost a hundred years with how they can acquire young talent and create a certain (culture).

“I think ‘The Cub Way’ is starting to develop a certain reputation, too. It’s gone pretty well here the last few years and there are probably some organizations looking at how we do things and might want to copycat something, too.”

Yes, the Cubs are a very confident third-place team (beginning the day on pace for 95 wins and tied with Kansas City for the third-best record in the majors).

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!

But the Red Sox needed some attitude to recover from Aaron “Bleeping” Boone and a Game 7 loss in the 2003 ALCS, storm back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and win the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years.

Even if all the fireworks just sound like noise now.

“None of that stuff matters,” Epstein said. “All that matters is how our players feel about themselves, how they feel about their teammates, how they feel about being Cubs and how they perform at the most important times. It’s hard to watch our team and not feel good about the way our players are feeling.”

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."