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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.

Podcast: Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead with amazing 4-3 win over the Oilers

Podcast: Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead with amazing 4-3 win over the Oilers

Host Pat Boyle is joined by 2013 Stanley Cup champion and Blackhawks analyst Jamal Mayers as they discuss the Hawks' 4-3 win over the Oilers in a game that went down to the final 1:16. They discuss Toews' game-winning goal, the commanding lead the Hawks took in the series, and will the Blackhawks be able to close the Oilers out in game 4?

(1:15) - Biggest takeaway from the Hawks' win

(8:09) - Hawks special teams breakdown

(10:20) - Hawks' power play

(15:20) - How will the Oilers respond to being one game away from elimination?

(22:00) - Will the Hawks be able to close out the Oilers in game 4?

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Blackhawks news and analysis.

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”

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