Championship DNA: What Cubs take away from the contenders

Championship DNA: What Cubs take away from the contenders
May 9, 2013, 8:00 pm
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Men vs. Boys. That's how Cubs manager Dale Sveum framed the smackdown the Washington Nationals gave his team last September.

That four-game sweep showed the distance between the two organizations, with a Rule 5 Kid (Lendy Castillo) almost hitting Baseball's Chosen One (Bryce Harper) and sparking a bench-clearing brawl.

This entire season will be judged on how much closer the Cubs get to that level. It's been in their faces all week, staring down the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals before returning to Nationals Park on Friday.

A Jumbotron isn't the only thing separating the Cubs from a World Series title. Here are four takeaways from those 2012 playoffs teams as the Cubs try to change their DNA:

The baseball world is flat

The Cubs aren't operating like a big-market team. But even if they were, those advantages are disappearing. They can't be wrong with the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft, and they need the flexibility to spend on the international market, because so many teams are locking up players through their prime years before they hit free agency.

Days after adding 10 years and $225 million to MVP first baseman Joey Votto's contract last April, the Reds gave All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips a six-year, $72.5 million deal, solidifying a core that would win 97 games.

"I was just surprised that the Reds even offered me that," Phillips said, "especially (after) giving Joey all that money. I really didn't think that I had a chance to come back.

"I did it for the city. They love me here. Why go to a bigger market (when) you feel comfortable (here)? Sometimes, money is not everything."

That's why the Cubs can't miss out on the next Yu Darvish.

[MORE: Cubs losing patience with Stewart]

Hire difference-makers

As Jon Daniels recalled the reports on the Japanese pitcher, the Rangers general manager thought of a point made by Pacific Rim scout Joe Furukawa during the decision-making process: Everybody talks about how Darvish is going to have to adjust to the league. The league is going to have to adjust to him.

Furukawa worked as Darvish's translator last year, and that $111.7 million investment has the Rangers positioned to make a fourth consecutive trip to the postseason. From CEO Nolan Ryan to pitching coach Mike Maddux, the Rangers know how to build a staff.

"You find good people in scouting and development," Daniels said. "It's making good judgments, treating guys like individuals. I don't know that there are (any) hard-and-fast rules. One thing we do is we protect our guy's arm, but we also push them, from the standpoint of physical conditioning. You go back five, 10 years ago, there was a perception you couldn't pitch in Texas.

"We had to change that perception. Nolan's been big from that standpoint in just (creating) that mindset of (outworking) the other guy."

If "The Cubs Way" is going to work, it will be with behind-the-scenes people like new minor-league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson, the Vanderbilt University coach who worked with future Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price.

"We've got programs in place for the mental side of the game, physical (conditioning), pitch sequences, pitch development," Daniels said. "But our scouts have also had some really good evaluations. And when the two sides work hand-in-hand together like that, you're going to have success."

That's why team president Theo Epstein targeted Maddux in the fall of 2011 when the Cubs needed to hire a new manager.

"Mike's got a unique skill set, a unique personality and he prepares as much as anybody that I've been around," Daniels said. "I don't know that it was the right time for Mike from a family standpoint, but he may get other opportunities down the (road)."

Create an identity

The Cardinals can lose an iconic manager (Tony La Russa), an MVP slugger (Albert Pujols) and a Cy Young ace (Chris Carpenter) and keep on rolling.

Since 2000, the Cardinals have finished under .500 just once. The last time they lost 90-plus games was 1990. The last time they hit 100 losses was 1907. They throw strikes, catch the ball and run the bases with an edge.

Dave McKay spent 27 seasons on La Russa's staff before becoming Sveum's first-base coach, and he sees similar traits in the Cubs manager.

McKay has talked to the team about Matt Holliday taking out Starlin Castro with a hard slide in 2011. That was a game-changing play the Cardinals needed, because they clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season before making a surprise run to a World Series title.

"A lot of that comes from Tony La Russa: 'This is the way you have to play the game,'" McKay explained. "Some people pointed fingers at Holliday and I'm watching it thinking: 'Perfect slide, perfect slide.' He doesn't throw his chest out and run off the field.

"They would help the guy up and dust him off. (It) was just: 'Hey, that's the way we play the game. We're not trying to hurt anybody or be tougher than anybody.'

"Tony would make the point: 'If you take out your friend who's a shortstop, he'll have more respect for you than if you veer off and go someplace else. Play the game.'"

[MORE: Gregg's new focus]

Ignore the noise

When Chicago guy Mike Rizzo shut down Stephen Strasburg last September, the Nationals general manager got second-guessed all across the country.

Inside the echo chamber, the move was arrogant or sensible or guesswork or overcautious. Even near the end of a 98-win season, Rizzo wasn't going to put a No. 1 starter at risk in his first (almost) full season after Tommy John surgery, pulling the plug after 159.1 innings.

"We have a philosophy," Rizzo said last November. "We had a plan and we implemented it. It was a difficult time for me personally - and for the organization - to take the heat for that decision. But that's what I get paid for. You take the arrows for the manager and ownership.

"I felt at ease with the decision the whole time. (But) the furor in the industry (from) the analysts and the experts - (the) decibels - (that) surprised me a little bit."

At his first Wrigley Field press conference, Epstein joked he should resign immediately, because his popularity was at an all-time high. During his first spring training in Mesa, Ariz., he predicted the "honeymoon is over" stories.

If Year 2 means another summer sell-off and flirting with 100 losses, the noise is only going to get louder as the Cubs try to get to the level where the Nationals, Cardinals, Rangers and Reds play.