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.”