Cubs

Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

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Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Mesa complex, surveying the back fields and watching anonymous Cubs prospects play in the Arizona sunshine. 

Epstein listened to a question about whether or not he felt true ownership of this team in a way he couldn’t while the Cubs wrote off three big-league seasons, losing 286 games and playing for a future that may or may not come.

The implication being the president of baseball operations would begin to feel the heat in Year 4.

Most of the assets from the Jim Hendry administration had already been auctioned off. The Cubs wouldn’t go into the 2015 season preparing to be sellers at the July 31 trade deadline. 

Epstein had already fired two handpicked managers (Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria) and one he inherited (Mike Quade), lucking into the perfect front-and-center leader for this market (Joe Maddon).

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Handing Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a full-no-trade clause signaled the team would be relevant this year. Cubs fans and the Chicago media wouldn’t be as obsessed with what was happening at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa or which college hitter would get drafted with the ninth overall pick. 

Epstein would actually be responsible for, you know, the on-field product.

“That’s a silly thing,” Epstein said. “Like I don’t have ownership before or whatever? Or I’m the only one to contribute? No, we are a team. As a front office, as a baseball operation, we’re all in this together.

“We take responsibility for the things that go well – and the things that don’t go well. Everyone’s been all-in and having each other’s back from Day 1. And I think the organization’s gotten healthier and healthier and it’s going to continue (that way).

“This isn’t going to be our best team. We know that. So we’ll just continue to grow it the right way and compete. And hopefully the standings make us happy in the end.”

Well, the Cubs finished in third place – with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball – not a bad way for Epstein to enter the final year of his contract and begin discussions about a long-term extension with chairman Tom Ricketts.

The Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game and won the first playoff series ever against the St. Louis Cardinals in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892. The Cubs also never had a lead in the National League Championship Series, getting exposed and swept out by the New York Mets.    

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Four years ago this week, Epstein won his “Baseball is Better” press conference, the Cubs putting his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and buying his brand while the franchise slashed major-league payroll, operated like a small- or mid-market team and tried to build a long-term contender.

The Cubs engineered 10 major trades during those first three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control.

Anthony Rizzo forced his way into the MVP conversation with a 31-homer, 101-RBI season. Jake Arrieta blossomed into a potential Cy Young Award winner by going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Addison Russell eventually took over at shortstop and put up 13 homers and 29 doubles during his age-21 season.

Kris Bryant – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft – became an All-Star third baseman and should be a unanimous Rookie of the Year winner. Kyle Schwarber – the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft – is the first player in major-league history to hit five postseason home runs before his 23rd birthday.

“Managing success can be really difficult,” Epstein said during last week’s year-end review inside a Wrigley Field storage room that had been converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. “You have to be really careful that you don’t have an organizational arrogance that takes hold or a sense of entitlement or a sense of complacency.

“But I don’t even think we’re there yet. We’ll deal with that after we win a World Series. We are not there yet. All we did was finally get to October, knock off the Pirates and win a series at home against the Cardinals. But we fell short of our ultimate goal.

[ALSO: Will Cubs hand out another Jon Lester mega-deal?]

“There’s so much that we have to do to just maintain the level that we accomplished this year, let alone improve upon it and then win the ultimate prize.”

The Cubs created an identity and started to play more like Epstein’s old Boston Red Sox teams, leading the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance (and striking out 1,518 times, or 126 more than the next team). The Cubs finished second in the majors in walks (567) and relentlessly attacked, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings. 

The Cubs have an American League-style lineup now, but through four draft classes the Epstein administration has used 80 picks on pitchers and none of those arms are close to contributing on Opening Day 2016 (and even Opening Day 2017 might be a stretch).

With about $5 million in financial flexibility at the July 31 trade deadline – and a stockpile of young hitters to deal from – the Cubs made smaller moves that sort of stabilized the back end of the rotation (Dan Haren) and didn’t really boost the bullpen (Tommy Hunter).

After watching New York’s young power pitchers knock the Cubs off-balance with off-speed stuff and blow away a young lineup, Epstein knows it’s time to spend big in free agency and/or trade away some of those hitters to address the team’s biggest weakness.

“We need more pitching,” Epstein said. “That’s obvious. But it’s important to put in perspective because sometimes the last data point is always sort of the freshest in people’s minds. And sometimes coming out of the playoffs you lose the big picture of the whole season.

“There are 30 major-league clubs. We were third in ERA as a starting staff (3.36), third in ERA (3.36) as a pitching staff.

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“If you want to get all nerdy, get all geeky on it, we were first in FIP (3.26) and first in WAR (19.3) among starting pitchers, first in FIP (3.30), first in WAR (24.3) as a pitching staff.

“So I don’t want to take away from the accomplishments of our pitching staff and our pitching infrastructure this year.”

Without question, Epstein’s fingerprints are all over the Cubs now. And now the hard part begins.

“Nothing is promised in this game,” Epstein said. “Nothing is promised in life. There are teams that think they have these surefire five-year windows (and) have often seen them slam shut in front of them through bad luck or bad performance or bad decision-making.

“We don’t take anything for granted. We have to work our tails off to get back to a position where we have another shot at October.”       

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed for Rangers' manager opening

The Cubs just lost one coach with hitting coach Chili Davis getting fired. Another opening on Joe Maddon's coaching staff could also open up.

According to report from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, bench coach Brandon Hyde interviewed with the Rangers on Thursday.

Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler was the first candidate the club interviewed, but Hyde and Astros bench coach Joe Espada were also interviewed.

The 45-year-old Hyde has been with the Cubs since 2014. He was a bench coach in 2014 under Rick Renteria before moving to first base coach from 2015-17. This past season he moved back to his original role as bench coach.

He played four seasons in the minors for the White Sox.

The Rangers job opened up when Jeff Banister was fired on Sept. 21. Banister won AL Manager of the Year in 2015 and guided the Rangers to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, but couldn't get out of the ALDS either year. A 78-84 season in 2017 was followed by an even worse 2018, which led to his firing late this season.