Cubs keep their eyes on Epstein and Friedman

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Cubs keep their eyes on Epstein and Friedman

As the Cubs go down this road, they could reach the point of no return. Really, will they find anyone better out there?

That doesnt mean there is only one truly qualified candidate who can do the job. Remember that before Theo Epstein broke the curse and became immortal, he was 28 years old, with zero experience as a general manager.

The Red Sox took a chance on Epstein, who had spent only a few months as Bostons assistant general manager when he came to power in late November 2002.

Epstein was educated at Yale University and the University of San Diego Law School. He had worked in communications and baseball operations for the San Diego Padres after getting his start as a summer intern with the Baltimore Orioles.

Epstein was part of the new wave of young baseball executives crashing into front offices all around the game. In the past nine seasons, the Red Sox have made the playoffs six times and captured two World Series titles. Theyve won at least 90 games seven times and never less than 86.

Its hard to believe that Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts a careful, deliberate businessman who has told employees that hiring a new general manager will take awhile would make a quick, impulsive decision.

Asking for permission to speak with Epstein who has another year left on his contract is one step. If it comes to this, the expectation is that the Red Sox would try to drive a hard bargain and ask for a high-impact, major-league player as compensation.

Internally, the Cubs have also discussed Rays executive Andrew Friedman, and whether hed be willing to leave Tampa Bay and prove himself in a big market.

Even Stuart Sternberg, the teams principal owner, sounded restless after only 28,299 fans showed up at Tropicana Field for Tuesdays elimination game against the Texas Rangers.

This is untenable as a model going forward, Sternberg told reporters inside the losing clubhouse.

Sternbergs words were even stronger in a St. Petersburg Times column, which quoted him as saying: It won't be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it's going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it's going to get vaporized.

Sternberg and Friedman both used to work on Wall Street and theyre said to be tight. Epsteins relationship with Red Sox team presidentchief executive officer Larry Lucchino seems to be more complicated. For years, theyve been portrayed in the Boston media as both rivals and mentor-protg. It could be time for a new challenge.

Epstein is only 37 years old, but he has already spent more than half his life (20 seasons) inside the big leagues. He once briefly left the Red Sox in late October 2005, formally returning to the organization by January 2006. The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and the entire run of baseball operations.

While the Rays charged into the playoffs, the Red Sox endured a stunning September collapse. Manager Terry Francona has already been singled out for blame and wont return next season. Its not necessarily a slam dunk that hed become a package deal with Epstein, though its an intriguing idea.

Theres a theory that all the uncertainty around the Red Sox could pull Epstein back in. Francona spoke to WEEI on Wednesday and addressed his relationship with Epstein on the Boston sports radio station.

When you first start, you have that little honeymoon period, Francona told WEEI. The fact that Theo and I made it through eight years together in this environment I think shows in itself how strong our relationship was. I think there were days when he wanted to wring my neck. I dont blame him.

Youre together that much and youre in a situation where you have to give your opinion. That was always afforded. Im actually proud of our relationship. We butted heads sometimes. I think youre supposed to. But I do know when things were rough, I knew where I could go and I did that til the very end. Im proud of the way we treated each other.

Francona who said he doesnt know if he wants to manage in 2012 was asked if he could work with Epstein again.

It depends what the job is I don't want to be a clubhouse guy, Francona joked. I dont want to speak for Theo. Thats not fair. Hes got his things to take care of this week, I know. Thats his business. He knows the respect I have for him.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

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Why Cubs believe in Kyle Hendricks and his sneaky-good potential

Maybe Kyle Hendricks would inevitably be overshadowed in a rotation featuring the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), a $155 million All-Star lefty (Jon Lester) and a Texas cowboy who also has two World Series rings (John Lackey). Not to mention a Cubs team identified with zoo animals, dance parties and an explosive offense.

The low-key personality, sense of calm and sharp focus that’s allowed Hendricks to survive in The Show – and also earn an economics degree from Dartmouth College – certainly plays into that perception as well. 

But there’s no denying what Hendricks means to the Cubs as an extremely reliable fifth starter for the team with the best record in baseball – in what’s shaping up to be a very shallow market for pitching at this summer’s trade deadline and this winter’s upcoming class of free agents.  

Hendricks had to become a huge part of the story after almost throwing a complete-game shutout during Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,555 at Wrigley Field. 

“What you saw today – that’s what you could get out of him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s 88-89 (mph) with the really good changeup and he broke out the hooks a couple times. But he’s good against lefties and righties when everything’s working. And he can keep the ball on the ground, which is really important in this ballpark. 

“Right now, what you’re seeing, to me, is not a reach by any means. This is what he can look like very, very consistently.”

Hendricks needed only 104 pitches to throw his complete game, allowing five hits and finishing with seven strikeouts against zero walks. The Phillies (26-23) scored their only run in the ninth inning, after second baseman Ben Zobrist and right fielder Jason Heyward lost a flyball in the sun. Freddy Galvis got credited with a double and later scored on the throw to first base to complete a Ryan Howard strikeout, taking advantage of the extreme defensive shift against Philadelphia’s fading slugger.   

Hendricks (3-4, 2.93 ERA) has thrown at least five innings in each of his nine starts so far this season. He made 32 starts last year and finished with a sub-4.00 ERA and a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio (167:43). He’s 26 years old and can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.

“Now his confidence is back on, because he knows he can use the curveball as well,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “There were so many ways to go, because everything was working.

“It’s huge (when) it’s not just fastball-changeup. He’s got another weapon to go to sometimes. And, obviously, as a hitter, you know it’s three pitches (now in play). It’s a little bit more uncomfortable for a hitter. You don’t know what you’re going to look for.”  

Hendricks beat Zack Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season – and lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in his previous start. Not that Hendricks is about to start pounding his chest on the mound or running his mouth in the interview room. 

“I’m pretty confident, but it doesn’t really matter much,” Hendricks said. “All that matters is going out there and making pitches. It’s back to work this week, (throw) my bullpen, stay where I’m at in my lane and keep the ball down with some angle.” 

Rebuilding Phillies are no match for win-now Cubs at Wrigley

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Rebuilding Phillies are no match for win-now Cubs at Wrigley

Pete Mackanin interviewed for the manager’s job that went to Dale Sveum in November 2011, when the Cubs technically had Carlos Zambrano on their roster and Alfonso Soriano’s megadeal still had three seasons remaining. The blueprints for a renovated Wrigley Field were just that. Saturday afternoons like this didn’t seem at all close – with no guarantees The Plan would ever work.

On a sunny, 75-degree day that started to feel like summer for the crowd of 41,555 at Clark and Addison, the Cubs handled the Philadelphia Phillies, improving their best-in-baseball record to 33-14 with a 4-1 win over a young team now in the rebuilding cycle.   

Mackanin – a Brother Rice High School graduate who grew up on the South Side and has managed in Venezuela, Australia, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – knows what his Phillies (26-23) are up against here on Memorial Day weekend.  

“Very formidable team,” Mackanin said. “These guys have a lot of everything. They got good pitching and defense. They got dangerous hitters up and down the lineup. It’s always tough to come in here and play.”

Kyle Hendricks – who’s developed rapidly since Ryan Dempster decided to waive his no-trade rights and agree to a deal with the Texas Rangers minutes before the July 31 deadline in 2012 – nearly threw a complete-game shutout.

Dexter Fowler – the final item in late February for a spending spree that approached almost $290 million – drilled his 16th career leadoff home run for what’s become a grinding offense. Fowler lifted Jerad Eickhoff’s fifth pitch of the game – a 92-mph fastball – and it bounced into and out of the left-center field bleachers.   

Mackanin became the interim guy when Ryne Sandberg abruptly resigned last summer, managing the Phillies during their surprising three-game sweep and a Cole Hamels no-hitter in late July. Since then, the Cubs are 79-33 and haven’t lost a Jake Arrieta regular-season start.  

“A lot of it has to do with the entirety of this place,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Our young guys are different because they don’t act like young guys. Their comportment is not like a young man in a baseball sense, where they get it. Their work ethic is so good, how they interact, how they attack the day. They don’t take anything for granted. They’ve had a good day – they don’t get haughty and proud of it. They just go back out the next day and play.

“These veteran guys that have been involved in championships know that’s what it takes. You get the combination of Wrigley Field, the fan base, this facility and a youth-driven good team, that should bring out the best in all these guys.” 

The Cubs scored four runs off Eickhoff (2-7, 4.07 ERA), a 25-year-old right-hander the Phillies received from Texas in the Hamels trade last July. On Sunday afternoon, the Cubs will face Vince Velasquez (5-1, 2.75 ERA), an electric talent acquired from the Houston Astros in the offseason Ken Giles trade.

The Phillies have the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, a multibillion-dollar TV deal with Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, an interesting mix of athletic position players (Odubel Herrera, Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco) and a well-regarded, sensible team president in Andy MacPhail, who helped build the Cubs team that came so close to reaching the 2003 World Series.    

But the full-scale rebuild takes years to complete. It will be interesting to see how fast the Phillies can become a playoff-caliber team – and maybe someday break the window that now appears to be wide open for the Cubs.       

“It’s wonderful to come to the ballpark every day to be attached to all of this,” Maddon said. “It’s just the place you want to be, man. You want to be there as a professional right now in Major League Baseball.”

Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

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Better than advertised: Where Cubs stand on Memorial Day weekend

John Lackey gave one of his dismissive chuckles toward the end of spring training, when asked about the daily pressure of playing for an uber-team/cautionary tale like the 2011 Boston Red Sox and how these Cubs would respond to all the hype.

“I don’t believe in pressure in April and May – I’ve been in October about 10 times, man,” Lackey said. “We got too much talent for those things to not just handle themselves. Joe’s not going to allow any of that to get in here.

“Joe runs a really laid-back clubhouse, but (it’s) business-like on the field. It’s a great mix. If you can’t play for him, you can’t play for anybody.”

Joe Maddon, of course, helped design those “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bulls-eyes across their chests. And Theo Epstein’s front office purposefully signed veterans with championship experience, whether it’s a big-game pitcher like Lackey or an October-tested hitter like Ben Zobrist.

So far, the 2016 Cubs have actually been better than advertised. After the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend – a traditional mile marker along the 162-game season – this team had the best record in baseball (33-14) and the perception of being a lock for the playoffs. At least according to the projections on Baseball Prospectus (98.3 percent) and FanGraphs (98.9 percent).

• Zobrist remembered how Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays had almost no margin for error while competing in the brutal American League East and dealing with the financial realities of a small-market team. Those experiences of furiously trying to play catch-up brought a sense of urgency to the Cubs.

“I knew the number in my head for April,” Zobrist said. “I know how important it is to get off to a good start, because we had some great teams in Tampa Bay, and if we didn’t get off to a good start, we found ourselves trying to come back the whole rest of the year.

“My number that I was looking at in April is 17. That was the Cubs’ record for wins in April. (I thought): ‘We need to get there. We need to shoot for that.’ We had a shot to get 18, but we got rained out the last day of April. That, to me, said: ‘OK, we’re on the right path.’

“But you got to keep focusing on today, because the moment you start thinking about how great we’ve played is the moment that we stop focusing on what we need to keep doing.”

• If momentum is all about starting pitching, the Cubs have a rotation that leads the majors in ERA (2.56) and has gone 32-for-46 in quality starts. After Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks each remarkably made 30-plus starts last year, the Cubs have relied on that quartet plus Lackey to make every start so far this season.  

“We want to be that backbone,” Hammel said. “I want to be the guy who hands the baton to the next guy. And we have five guys who can do that. Just keep rolling with it.”

It figures to be a weaker market for pitching when trade talks start to accelerate after the June amateur draft, but arms have to be the priority for a franchise so heavily invested in hitters.

Still, as an overall staff, the Cubs lead the majors in batting average against (.205) and opponents’ OPS (.601). And the No. 2 teams in those categories – the Los Angeles Dodgers (.218) and Washington Nationals (.634) – aren’t even that close. Same with the plus-123 run differential – the Red Sox are second in the majors at plus-70.

• It’s been years in the making, but the Cubs finally have one of those Boston-style lineups, leading the big leagues in walks (piling up 223 before any other team crossed the 200-mark), getting on base almost 36 percent of the time and waiting for the weather to heat up this summer at Wrigley Field.

“We have guys that have that chip built in,” Maddon said. “It’s so hard to teach what our guys do, meaning that they are able to look over a pitch. They have this great decision-making (process) at home plate.

“Everybody wants that, but not everybody has that. So most of the time, you either have to draft it or buy it. To just attempt to nurture that through the minor leagues is very, very hard to do.

“Having said that, Addison (Russell) has made great strides because he’s surrounded by it so much (with) all these other guys in the lineup. Addison, just through observation, sees these other guys doing it and he’s much better at not expanding his strike zone.

“For years, everybody’s been clamoring for hitters (who) don’t give in. (But) it’s just a mindset. It’s just who you are. It’s hard to teach. You normally come equipped with it. I don’t know where it begins. But you look at our guys – Dexter (Fowler’s) had it built in. Jason (Heyward’s) had it built in. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) – it’s there. (Anthony) Rizzo’s always had it. ‘Zo’s’ always had it, from ever since I’ve seen him.

“A lot of these guys have had that chip. That’s part of their standard equipment.”

• The Cubs are 9-3 combined this season against the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, two teams that together won 198 games last year. That’s helped the Cubs build leads over the Pirates (4.5 games) and Cardinals (8.5 games) in the National League Central.

The Cubs swept a four-game series against the Nationals in early May at Wrigley Field, walking Bryce Harper 13 times in what felt like a possible playoff preview.

The Cubs have also lost series to the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, the types of teams that Maddon had in mind when he created the “Embrace The Target” campaign. 

“What we have to get better at as a team is really finishing off some of the teams that probably aren’t as competitive,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “and making sure you sweep some of those series and really win two out of three, because they count the same as the games against the Cardinals at the end of the year.”