Cubs

Theo Epstein's laser focus on Cubs winning the World Series

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Theo Epstein's laser focus on Cubs winning the World Series

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Cleveland Browns executives visited Wrigley Field last summer, trying to get a better sense of how the Cubs set up their organization and determine if a Major League Baseball approach could work in the NFL.

The Browns met with multiple front offices throughout the game, learning more about how progressive teams prepared for the draft, incorporated analytics and structured player-development systems.

That’s yet another sign of how far the Cubs have come from being the Lovable Losers, now viewed as a cutting-edge franchise that’s built to win for years to come, whether or not this season ends with a championship parade down Michigan Avenue.

So the news that shocked The Dawg Pound and “Moneyball” fans didn’t surprise the Cubs in January: The Browns hired Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets and made him their chief strategy officer.

To be clear, Theo Epstein isn’t about to move his family to Cleveland or branch out beyond fantasy football. But with the president of baseball operations now in the fifth and final year of his contract, it’s fair to wonder if the Cubs will eventually have to compete with something beyond baseball.

“Not necessarily,” Epstein said. “Personally, I don’t know enough about football to contemplate something like that. I’m not even thinking in terms of anything but baseball. All of us are so all-in to win the Cubs a World Series. It’s all we think about besides our families.”

As the Cubs prepared to end spring training and leave Arizona last week, Epstein didn’t sound like a new contract would be finalized by Opening Day, or at all concerned about the pace of negotiations with chairman Tom Ricketts.

“It’s status quo for now,” Epstein said. “I’m not a player. It’s not as big a deal.”

[MORE CUBS: How Cubs broke down Anthony Rizzo and built him back up]

After waiting out the 286 losses between 2012 and 2014, Epstein isn’t about to let someone else take the credit and potentially leave a gap in his Hall of Fame resume after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

The 2016 team that runs out onto the field at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Monday night is Epstein’s vision — a relentless American League-style lineup, Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta staring down Mike Trout and seemingly unlimited possibilities for star manager Joe Maddon.

This isn’t Boston. The Ricketts family has been willing to play the long game and give Epstein almost all the creative freedom he wants. The spending spree that zoomed toward $290 million this offseason turned down the simmering frustrations over major-league payroll.

The first game for this ownership group came on Opening Day 2010, when Jason Heyward blasted a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his big-league debut with the Atlanta Braves. That 16-5 loss at Turner Field set the tone for the teardown. After Game 2, Lou Piniella’s screaming could be heard through the closed door and the walls of the manager’s office.

“The only thing I would say that has changed perception-wise is that they’re ready to try and win now,” Heyward said. “You always knew the fans supported the team. And it’s a great city to go play baseball.

“It’s just an exciting time to be a Cub.”

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Heyward signed the biggest contract in franchise history — eight years and $184 million guaranteed — and there will be times where the Gold Glove outfielder feels like an afterthought. That shows how much talent the Cubs have assembled — and how circus-like Maddon’s atmosphere has become.

“Why would you want to go (somewhere) with 10,000 strong in the ballpark and predicted to finish last?” Maddon said. “Why would you ever want to be there? I’ve been there, actually. It’s no fun. I’d much rather have a raucous, crazy ballpark, great fan base, high expectations and trying to live up to (that).”

Epstein understands all the unique opportunities ahead and sees the next wave of talent moving toward Wrigley Field, with MLB.com putting six Cubs on its top-100 prospects list and ESPN ranking the farm system fourth in the game, even after graduating a rookie class that included Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.

DePodesta played football and baseball at Harvard University and worked as an executive for Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s. As New York’s vice president of scouting and player development, DePodesta helped build the Mets team that swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series.

Whatever comes next — and whenever that happens — Epstein knows that he has unfinished business in Chicago.

“I’m not thinking that far ahead,” Epstein said. “I’m not thinking past winning our last game of the year, honestly.”

Anthony Rizzo is ready to be the leading man 

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USA TODAY

Anthony Rizzo is ready to be the leading man 

When discussing his unconventional lineup choices, Joe Maddon had this to say, "It's almost a backwards way of doing this right now that I'm finding fascinating.....So I'm just gonna let it play for just a little bit and see where it takes us."

And it is hard to blame Maddon for letting his experiment ride out longer.

Via our Chris Kamka, Rizzo has hit in the leadoff spot seven times this season. In those seven plate appearances he has a single, double, triple (July 21), home run, walk, hit by pitch and a groundout. Rizzo’s numbers as a leadoff hitter are staggering:

And it appears the Cubs agree.

After their 7-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, Ben Zobrist joked that Rizzo is the “self proclaimed greatest leadoff hitter...”. And while on paper, having Zobrist bat fourth in the order and Rizzo lead off seems contradictory, the move has definitely energized the offense. Immediately following all the lineup shuffling, the Cubs reeled off four straight wins before the Cardinals 18-run, 18-hit explosion, but even in that game Rizzo did draw a base by HBP.

And sure enough, in Saturday’s game, there was Rizzo, dominating to the tune of three walks and a triple. There is no telling if Maddon will continue to keep him in the leadoff spot. The move was originally made to help Rizzo get his groove back, which if Saturday’s win was any indication, he has.

But with Jason Heyward having a great offensive season, Jesse Chavez looking good in his Cubs debut (two clean innings with one strikeout) and Baez continuing his MVP-like play, Cubs fans should be as optimistic as one certain fan at Wrigley Field.

Cubs infielder Ryan Court had a special night in Iowa

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USA TODAY

Cubs infielder Ryan Court had a special night in Iowa

The farm system doesn't have the big names it once did, as the majority of the top prospects have graduated to the Major League roster, but that doesn't mean the minor league clubs aren't having fun. 

Take 29-year-old Ryan Court, a minor league infielder who has bounced around from Arizona and Boston's systems and found a home this year with the Cubs triple-A affiliate in Des Moines, IA. Court has had a solid season in Iowa, slashing .272/.347/.410 in 74 games, but might have had his finest game as I-Cub Friday night against the New Orleans Baby Cakes. 

Court came up in the 8th inning last night needing just a triple to hit for the cycle, but his club was on the verge of taking the lead in the after scoring three runs prior to his at-bat.

With Bote on 1st, the game tied at 8 runs apiece, Court placed a ball in front of the right fielder who overplayed the ball and allowed Bote to score from first and Court to scamper to third to complete the cycle. 

The I-Cubs would tack on another run to polish off a 5-run 8th inning and take home the win in a 10-8 victory over the Baby Cakes, and according to Des Moines Register's Tommy Birch, it was the first time in two decades an Iowa player has hit for the cycle. 

It's unlikely Ryan Court will make his way to the big leagues with the Cubs already carrying plenty of infielders, but for one night he played the hero and got his team the win, finishing the night 4-5 with 2 RBI, 4 runs scored and one massive smile on his face.