Wilken believes Cubs can build the foundation with Epstein-McLeod


Wilken believes Cubs can build the foundation with Epstein-McLeod

MINNEAPOLIS Tim Wilken was driving across Florida last fall when he abruptly cut off a conversation with his new boss.

Gotta go, the Cubs scouting director said into the speaker inside his car, and essentially hung up on Theo Epstein.

A cop pulled over Wilken, whos still not sure why he didnt get a speeding ticket on the way home to Dunedin from Fort Lauderdale.

For a franchise that has tried to erase the myths of black cats and billy goats, maybe this was a sign of good fortune: The player Wilken had just scouted was Albert Almora.

At the time, Almora was training with Team USA for the Pan-Am Games in Colombia. Almora led the 18-and-under national team on a 9-0 run and was named tournament MVP, winning one of his five gold medals in international play.

Almora an 18-year-old outfielder who just graduated from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens just became the first player drafted by the Epstein administration. Though the No. 6 overall pick is being advised by super-agent Scott Boras and has played up the idea of going to the University of Miami, Cubs officials are quietly confident a deal will get done.

Epstein framed the draft as the most important days of the year for an organization that lacks impact talent.

The president of baseball operations has overseen a merger, hiring Jed Hoyer as general manager and Jason McLeod as the new head of scouting and player development, while inheriting a staff that was signed through 2012 and loyal to Jim Hendry.

It was a little bit of a feeling-out process, (but) all the guys got to speak their peace, Wilken said. You could see the room coming together as a unit. It was good stuff between Theo, Jed and Jason and the holdovers.

Wilken grew up with Hendry, and they played together at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Alabama. But Wilken made his mark during 25 seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, working for Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick and helping build back-to-back World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. The Cubs hope to combine old-school scouting with new-wave thinking.

You couldnt have had much of a better blend, Wilken said. It was like putting together some music.

Wilken who was involved in the Blue Jays signing Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter out of high school believes that both sides share similar philosophies. In the room, the Cubs had always stressed arm action, athletic bodies and repeatable deliveries when analyzing pitchers.

But Wilken admitted that the 2012 draft reached a new level of detail. Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod visited Almoras home in South Florida as part of an extensive background check.

Scouts were given cameras and had to shoot every game they attended, to create a video library inside the new Bloomberg computer system.

The Cubs had obviously broken down film before, but never had this kind of database to bring everything into focus.

It really helped you just put a picture in your mind, Wilken said.

A new collective bargaining agreement forced the Cubs to improvise. Wilken said you used to be able to almost script out the first 15 plays, like Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, but spending restrictions changed all that.

Last year, chairman Tom Ricketts consulted with Hendry and poured 12 million into a draft class they hoped would be game-changing. As the signing deadline approached, Wilken had no idea his old friend was already fired.

The Cubs are limited to just under 8 million this year, and crossing that limit would lead to severe penalties. Wilken doesnt concern himself with what could have been the draft was a line item that didnt remain steady on the Tribune Co. budget but he does see one big problem with the new labor deal.

Epstein and McLeod liked to overpay football players and get those later-round picks to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Wilken fears baseball is going to lose out on two-sport athletes and the Jeff Samardzijas and Joe Mauers will pursue their NFL ambitions.

Its not going to benefit any club, Wilken said. I dont think its fair to those guys. I think it needs to be reviewed down the road.

Were asking them to come out of their sport and come over to our sport. Weve closed off one side of the avenue. Im kind of worried for the industry.

The Cubs are looking for any advantage they can get. Wilken knows the odds, that of the 42 players they just drafted, it would be a major success if three or four guys are contributors to contending teams in 2016 or 2017.

You get the sense that Wilken would like to stick around that long, even though he didnt get a new contract from Ricketts last September, like vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita did before the Epstein hire.

Wilken who has sat with Ricketts in Boise, Idaho, scouting the minor-league system appreciates the support from ownership and said Epsteins crew has been first class.

McLeod who drafted Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury for the Red Sox has said that earlier in his career hed make a point to get a drink with Wilken at the winter meetings to learn more about the business. McLeod also doesnt want to spend 200 nights a year in Marriott hotels across the country.

Both egos were checked at the door, Wilken said. Were trying to bring in the players (to) bring (a) World Series here.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'


Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.