Blackhawks

What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

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What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

This was before Irrelevant, dude went viral as a catchphrase, before Super PAC became part of the conversation at Clark and Addison.

So as Cubs fans get used to life after Kerry Wood, and chairman Tom Ricketts tries to repair relationships at City Hall, take a moment and think back to all that optimism in spring training.

The goal of the 2012 Cubs, baseball czar Theo Epstein said then, was to win the World Series. The team president has to project confidence, but deep down he knew that this was a year to evaluate every aspect of the organization.

The Cubs woke up on Thursday with the worst record in baseball (15-29), 10 games out of first place. They will stagger into PNC Park on Friday with a nine-game losing streak to face the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise that knows all about false steps.

Right now the front office is locked in on the June draft, where the Cubs hold the sixth overall pick, and five within the first 101 selections.

Epstein has called it the most important days of the year, and the Cubs know they have to kill it. The spending restrictions that came out of the new collective bargaining agreement have turned this into a scouting contest.

The season is now 27 percent complete, and what Epstein said in late March gives you an idea of what to watch for the rest of this season.

Epstein sat at the head of a long table in a conference room overlooking the main field at HoHoKam Stadium. Beat writers asked questions that have even more relevance now. Like: What do you need to see to know things are moving in the right direction?

From a results standpoint, its pretty black and white, Epstein said then. (But) there are some other things that we need to see. If we dont see them, well have failed. From a culture standpoint, we want to see a winning attitude around here. We want to see attention to detail. We want to see hard work. We want to see preparation.

We want to see players who care about the outcome of games. We want to see players who care about and support each other. We want to see players who take pride in the uniform. We want to be the most prepared coaching staff on any given day.

The last time the Cubs lost nine games in a row was almost exactly 10 years ago, May 8-18, 2002. Corey Patterson was hitting leadoff, Sammy Sosa was swinging away, Joe Girardi was behind the plate and Wood was on his way to a career high in innings pitched (213 23).

Manager Don Baylor made it to the Fourth of July and was fired the next day, part of a shakeup that saw team president Andy MacPhail promote Jim Hendry to general manager. Hendry rebuilt the team on the fly and had it five outs away from the National League pennant in 2003.

These Cubs wont be taking drastic measures. Manager Dale Sveum is viewed as having the ideal temperament for this rebuilding project, and hes surrounded by an experienced, respected group of coaches.

Grade them on how Starlin Castro improves his focus in the field and how Welington Castillo frames pitches. Bonus points if Travis Wood or Randy Wells or Chris Volstad figures it out and never leaves the rotation.

The prism through which you can view the final 118 games is separating out the Corey Pattersons. Its making sure Jeff Samardzija stays healthy and handles the transition to starting. Its seeing how Rafael Dolis responds to failure and if he closes out the next ninth inning.

Sooner or later, Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson will be coming from Triple-A Iowa for their auditions.

I would like to see our young players who get an opportunity at the big-league level develop, Epstein said in late March. Obviously, not all of them will. Most young players struggle initially in the big leagues. But how they bounce back from initial struggles and adjust to the pace of the game at the big-league level and continue the progress thats going to be important.

Its something that championship-caliber organizations do integrate young players onto their major-league roster relatively seamlessly. Its never seamlessly. Theres always an adjustment period. But, again, it goes back to the culture if you can create a culture where its expected that young players come up and can contribute.

Theyre not looked at as pariahs. Theyre not picked apart for what they cant do. Theyre valued for what they can do and ultimately contribute and help win games for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Next thing you know they become mainstays. Thats an important part of what were going to accomplish this year.

Behind the scenes, it will be implementing The Cubs Way from the Dominican Republic to Des Moines.

We lack impact talent, Epstein said. We have a number of interesting guys, especially at the lower levels, but every organization has interesting guys at the lower levels.

It would really be nice to get a breakthrough player or two this year and have someone move from that interesting prospect category to potential impact category. So well see theres a lot of work to do.

This doesnt do much if you feel buried by the invoices for season tickets. Youll get laughed at if youre on a barstool or at the water cooler arguing with a White Sox fan. It wont jumpstart the Wrigley Field renovation talks.

But how else would you do it if ownership gave you a very long runway?

The noise from fans? They seem to understand that this isnt 2003 or 2008, that the Cubs arent thisclose. The backlash from columnists and talking heads? Ride it out, knowing that the economics and consolidation have shrunk the medias footprint and silenced voices.

This market doesnt do nuance very well. In a few days, the tone on Twitter and in the pressbox has essentially gone from maybe a year awaythings could get interesting to worst team ever.

But as Epstein said almost two months ago, Theres a subtext.

No one knows if this is actually going to work. But it should be fascinating to find out.

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

From June 17-21, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile two prospects per day — 10 total (five forwards, five defensemen) — leading up to the NHL Draft.​

Quinn Hughes

Position: Defenseman
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 170 pounds
Shoots: Left

Scouting report:

"He's got the puck skills, is a good skater, and is a guy with some high-end offensive talent. He wants to get right in there and play where it's hard and where you get rewarded. When he gets that puck on his stick, he wants to bury it."

NHL player comparable: Torey Krug/Kris Letang

Fit for Blackhawks:

It's no secret the Blackhawks are looking to restock their pipeline with some high-end defensemen. Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell are on the way. But the former isn't a lock to be a full-time NHLer this season and the latter will continue playing in college for the 2018-19 season.

Hughes, who shined at Michigan and the IIHF World Championship with Team USA, would have the best chance of the three to crack the Blackhawks lineup first. The problem is, he likely won't be available at No. 8, so if Hughes is the guy they're locked in on, they'd need to trade up to grab him. 

If they did that, Hughes would give the Blackhawks a third blue line prospect they can get excited about. He's a left-handed shot, which evens out the balance in the system, and he would become a prime candidate to eventually replace Duncan Keith as the team's No. 1 defenseman.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.