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What Ricketts wants out of next Cubs GM

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What Ricketts wants out of next Cubs GM

Monday, Sept. 19, 2011
Posted: 1:11 p.m. Updated: 10:40 p.m.

By PatrickMooney
CSNChicago.com CubsInsider Follow @CSNMooney Cubs-Brewers box score Photo gallery
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Even if Tom Ricketts doesnt know who exactly will be the next Cubs general manager, the chairman has a clear vision for how he wants baseball operations to be run.

In trying to find a balance between the new wave of statistical analysis and old-school scouting, Ricketts has reassured the Jim Hendry loyalists left in the front office.

Ricketts met with scouting director Tim Wilken for roughly 90 minutes on Sunday and gave him the authority to renew contracts which are set to expire at the end of October and make new hires within his department.

Wilken, who was already signed through 2012, was also informed that he will be retained next season. Several front-office advisors have gathered at Wrigley Field during this homestand to review the minor-league system and analyze the 40-man roster.

Im looking forward to seeing who the next general manager will be and working with him, Wilken said Monday. Nothings slowed up here and Toms always been supportive and pretty darn active.

Wilken who has not been approached by another organization yet did not get an extension. Vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita recently leveraged interest from the Detroit Tigers into a new four-year contract that voided the existing season left on his deal.

The idea is to keep some sense of continuity as the Cubs head into a pivotal offseason. Combined Wilken and Fleita are responsible for departments that employ roughly 90 scouts, coaches and staffers.

Ricketts graded them both out at A during Hendrys exit press conference last month. The chairmans betting that those two employees will be viewed as assets, not liabilities. This executive search could last beyond the end of the World Series, so the Cubs will need people in place to smooth the transition.

Ricketts clearly respects the scouting infrastructure Hendry already built and doesnt want to see it completely torn down. Perhaps the last thing the chairman will want to hear from a prospective candidate is this: Youre doing it all wrong.

The Milwaukee Brewers have won with a homegrown core that includes Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder (at least for the next few weeks). Their magic number to clinch their first National League Central title remains at four after Mondays 5-2 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Though vague in many public comments, Ricketts has consistently said that he wants to build a team from within.

The chairmans promised that Wilken will be given the resources to essentially find the next Fielder and Braun, the kind of high-impact position players the Cubs havent developed since, perhaps, the days of Billy Williams and Ron Santo.

Wilken is well-respected throughout the industry after working for Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick in Toronto. He spent 25 seasons within the organization, helping the Blue Jays become World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. He ran drafts that yielded Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter.

Gillick also designed playoff teams in Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia, but when he arrived in a new city, he didnt automatically call for mass firings and tried to work within the framework of the organization.

Adaptable is a leadership quality that Ricketts will likely look for in his next head of baseball operations.

Wilken left the Toronto organization nearly a decade ago, not long after J.P. Ricciardi, a Billy Beane disciple, cleaned out the front office. Moneyball has gone Hollywood, but all the best franchises now use a blended approach that combines sabermetrics with traditional scouting. Its not one or the other.

From the outside, it may look like Ricketts is meddling. But its significant that both Wilken and Fleita have been energized by the commitment new ownership has shown to player development. Theyve set aside their personal feelings about Hendry and will tell you that its a good place to work.

Wilken grew up with Hendry in Florida and they later played together at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Alabama. Fleita played for Hendry at Creighton University and has described him as a father figure and an older brother.

Fleita speaks Spanish and has become a point man for the new academy the Cubs are planning to build in the Dominican Republic, where they want to find the next Starlin Castro.

Wilkens budgets were unstable during the final years of Tribune Co. ownership. Hes still found useful pieces in the draft, though Andrew Cashner and Tyler Colvin took steps back this year. He restocked the farm system enough to pull off the Matt Garza deal.

Affiliates at Double-A Tennessee, Class-A Daytona and Class-A Boise each made the playoffs this season, though the pitching at the higher levels didnt come as fast as the Cubs had hoped.

This summer Ricketts approved almost 20 million for international signings and draft bonuses. The mandate going forward will be to find more game-changers.

Hopefully were on to something, Wilken said. We can build this all together as a unit and put together a winner.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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