A National League player shook his head at the idea of the Cubs building from within: "You're going to have to buy it."Yes, there is skepticism about Theo Epstein's plans for Wrigley Field, just how patient this market will be and whether the baseball operations department will be at cross purposes with the business side that has to sell tickets and worry about television ratings.Epstein likes the cold, analytical New England Patriots model, and has quoted NFL wiseguy Bill Parcells: If you listen to the fans in the stands, pretty soon you'll be sitting with them.But you didn't see the dead-fish handshakes and disinterested body language that gets psychoanalyzed when Bill Belichick faces off against one of his ex-assistants.Around the cage on Friday at Wrigley Field, there was Epstein next to Jon Lester, Adrian Gonzalez chatting with general manager Jed Hoyer and scoutingplayer development executive Jason McLeod hugging Dustin Pedroia.The cameras closed in during batting practice and invaded their personal space. But for the Cubs, this was promotional material, advertising for the future, winning by association.So even while the Cubs threaten to break the franchise record for losses this season (103), they can still look back on the past few weeks and feel pretty good about selecting Albert Almora with the No. 6 pick, drafting 22 pitchers, winning the Jorge Soler sweepstakes and seeing Anthony Rizzo move closer to the majors."We have the long-term view," McLeod said. "It's hard to wake up every day, see our record and go through these losses. But, yeah, you feel good about the draft, you feel good about what you're doing on the international market and we understand it's a process. We have to abide by it. We believe in it."That process, which has evolved over the years, yielded Pedroia with McLeods first pick running the draft for the Red Sox in 2004.Pedroia is now one of eight major-league players who have won Rookie of the Year, MVP and Gold Glove awards, as well as a World Series title. The other seven: Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Albert Pujols.Pedroia who declined to be interviewed was an Arizona State University infielder who isnow listed at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. A finalist for the Golden Spikes Award college baseball's Heisman Trophy he fell to No. 65."We actually didnt think he'd be there," McLeod said. "We had lined up our board in a manner of having 20 to 25 guys (thinking): OK, these players are probably going to be gone, so let's work on this (other) board. And if any of these guys are still left, we'll come back and just take them over anyone (else)."It was a surprise to us, because (Pedroia) was such a good college player and he dominated year in and year out. Obviously, the knock on him was his height and he's in much better shape now than he was in college. He was a little thicker through the hips and that's my only explanation for it, because you couldn't find many people that could stack up against him performance-wise."McLeod said it was a "short discussion" between Pedroia and Cal State Fullerton catcher Kurt Suzuki, who went two picks later and has enjoyed a productive career with the Oakland A's.Epstein joined the Red Sox as assistant general manager in 2002 and watched the team win 93 games and miss the playoffs. Not long after that, he was promoted to general manager and watched his team make it to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS."Maybe it was a little bit more of a subtle process," Epstein said. "But we did make moves at the big-league level and had some success right off the bat. That bought us time to commit to 'The Red Sox Way' of doing things, which we established there in scouting and player development."A lot of the work is similar here. There is clearly a mandate for change. That's why new ownership brought in new people. So we didn't have to do much convincing. We just got everyone together in the same room and talked about how we want to teach the game, what we're going to stand for as an organization and how we're going to execute it at the minor-league level."Forget reversing the curse in 2004 ex-Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon has said that wasn't really Epstein's team. Papelbon, now with the Philadelphia Phillies, thinks that the 2007 title validated Epstein's system.As much as Epstein says it's all about wins and losses, he doesn't do it as convincingly as he talks about the process."If you dig a little bit deeper," Epstein said, "you see a manager and a coaching staff that set high expectations and goals and players are working hard to live up to those expectations."We're very prepared, day in and day out, and they play hard day in and day out. So there's just a little bit of a talent deficit right now, but hopefully it will be addressed as we move forward. (I) like what's being established in the clubhouse and I think that will pay dividends down the line."
If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.
Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.
And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.
But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).
And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.
The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”
The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.
But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.
“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”
Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.
“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.
“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”
It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.
Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.
Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.
After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.
Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.
"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."
"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.
"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."
His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.
Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.
He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on.
"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.
"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is.
"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."
Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.
Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.
When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.
He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.
Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.
Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.
Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.
"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."