Why Cleveland Browns studied The Cubs Way before hiring Paul DePodesta

Why Cleveland Browns studied The Cubs Way before hiring Paul DePodesta

A group of Cleveland Browns executives, including owner Jimmy Haslam and general counsel Sashi Brown, visited Wrigleyville last summer to get a better understanding of The Cubs Way.

A star-crossed franchise that began in 1876 – and hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century – can still be seen in many ways as a startup company.

It’s a remarkable transformation, the Cubs now being viewed as a progressive organization and having the second-best record in baseball (14-5) heading into this week’s fattening-up homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, two last-place teams trying to copy their rebuilding/tanking blueprint.

Cleveland officials met with several front offices across Major League Baseball, trying to get a different feel for team-building strategies, hiring practices and how to structure scouting and player-development departments. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and Browns chief revenue officer Brent Stehlik, who also made the fact-finding trip to Chicago, used to work together with the San Diego Padres.

By January, the Browns had hired Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets to be their chief strategy officer, with Brown promoted to executive vice president of football operations. With zero playoff wins since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns must have reached the definition-of-insanity point and decided to go outside the box.

If this move shocked The Dawg Pound, it didn’t at all surprise Hoyer, who also worked with DePodesta in San Diego and will be curious to see what the Browns do with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night at the Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago.

“He is as smart as any person in sports,” Hoyer said. “It takes a lot of courage to go and do what he’s doing with the Browns. But I also think he’s the perfect person for it, because he really sees the big picture exceptionally well.

“They obviously have an organization that’s committed to probably thinking about things a little bit differently.”

DePodesta, who played football and baseball at Harvard University, had been Billy Beane’s right-hand man with the Oakland A’s, declining to let Hollywood use his real name for Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand character in the “Moneyball” movie.

DePodesta also became a valuable sounding board for Hoyer during his first season as San Diego’s general manager in 2010, when the Padres won 90 games and looked ready to capture a division title until running into Mike Quade’s Cubs in late September.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson then made DePodesta an offer he couldn’t refuse. As New York’s vice president overseeing scouting and player development, DePodesta helped shape the Mets team that swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series.

While the New York tabloids and Chicago media speculated about pitching-for-offense trades, it was DePodesta and Hoyer who maintained most of the actual dialogue during those rebuilding years.

The Mets never saw Starlin Castro as a “Moneyball” player, the Cubs viewed shortstop Addison Russell as untouchable and whatever window to deal existed probably slammed shut once Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz became part of a World Series rotation.

The Browns are light years away from the Super Bowl, with one playoff appearance and two winning seasons since 1999. Robert Griffin III is now in position to be the franchise’s 25th different starting quarterback since the NFL returned to Cleveland.

“The fascinating part of the NFL draft is the idea of trades,” Hoyer said, referencing the deal the Browns made with the Philadelphia Eagles last week, giving up this year’s No. 2 overall selection and a 2017 fourth-round choice for five picks in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 drafts.

“There’s a pretty strong likelihood that they’re going to look back on that as a major development point and a very good decision.

“You can accumulate depth, which I think (is) easier to (do) in football, because that depth is playing for your major-league team. So the fact that you get a third-rounder, and if you have a successful pick and that guy’s in your defensive-line rotation, for example, that’s immediate, as opposed to what we have to do.”

But for all the breathless coverage of the NFL draft, how hard could it really be when the NCAA is basically running Double-A and Triple-A showcase leagues? NFL teams don’t really have to make guesses about kids in high school or scout an international talent pool.

But imagine the Cubs getting locked in on Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, only to have a team that ranked him No. 1 on the board – like the New York Yankees – make a Herschel Walker-style trade with the Houston Astros.

“The other thing I always think about the NFL draft is the idea of getting jumped,” Hoyer said. “(It’s) the idea that you could be sitting there with the fifth pick. You know you’re going to get (Player X) and then – bang! – the team ahead of you trades that pick to a team that wants to jump you. That’s a fascinating dynamic of their draft that we don’t deal with.

“That would be a real talent to stay disciplined – and make really disciplined moves – because I’m sure you can’t get caught up in that moment at all.”

Hoyer doesn’t doubt DePodesta’s calm under pressure, which means The Browns Way could lead a new analytics movement in football and become a model for other NFL teams.

But if DePodesta fails and Cleveland remains one of the most dysfunctional organizations in professional sports, then you probably won’t see another unconventional hire like this for another generation.

“Knowing how Paul’s mind works, he probably saw this as an amazing challenge,” Hoyer said. “And a challenge that may not come around again with a group that was as open-minded as the Browns group was.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason


Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.


One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.


Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:



David Kaplan


—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.


Kelly Crull


—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.


Luke Stuckmeyer


—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.


Tony Andracki


—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 


Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 


Jeff Nelson, producer


—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.