With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

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With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

The Cubs were back at Fenway Park for the first time in almost 93 years, since Babe Ruth and the Red Sox were winning the 1918 World Series. No one wanted to miss out on this scene.

Ownership, team executives and staffers traveled to Boston to see the franchise they hope will become a mirror image. Even players posed for pictures with the Green Monster in the background and squeezed through the narrow opening to get behind the left-field scoreboard.

As much as the Cubs want to model themselves after the Red Sox, these two teams appeared to be heading in completely opposite directions on May 20. Now The Boston Globe is reporting that the Cubs have asked for permission to speak with Theo Epstein.

Terry Francona, who had managed the Red Sox to two World Series titles, filled out the lineup card that day. What were the odds that he would be unemployed before first-year manager Mike Quade? About the same as a home-run ball landing in the Green Monster seats right by Cubs president Crane Kenney?

This was 26 days before Tom Ricketts would express 100 percent confidence in Jim Hendry, nine weeks before the chairman would fire his general manager and three months before they would reveal the decision publicly.

There are so many variables to this search process. The Rays saw their miracle season end on Tuesday, perhaps clearing the way for the Cubs to also ask for permission to speak with Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman.

But the Cubs and Red Sox are now both trying to come up with answers for disappointing seasons. You can try to find reassurance in the numbers, but emotions and egos always get in the way. This is an unpredictable, volatile business.

What are the odds that Epstein would leave his hometown? The fact that people are even asking that question probably says something. Whether or not the Red Sox general manager actually quits his dream job, the Cubs will be seriously looking at this model.

That could mean asking about assistant general manager Ben Cherington, whos listed directly below Epstein on the organizations masthead. Cherington, who graduated from Amherst College, has been with the Red Sox since 1999 and is seen as another young rising star in the industry, deserving of the chance to run his own team (maybe even in Boston).

Either executive would fit the criteria Ricketts outlined when he announced Hendrys firing. The next general manager would be committed to player development, fluent in statistical analysis and from a winning culture.

On that clear, cool night in Boston, the Red Sox gave the ball to Jon Lester, an All-Star whos only 27 and has already won the clincher in a World Series. They had an elite closer in Jonathan Papelbon, another homegrown pitcher who saved that game in 2007.

Their lineup began with Jacoby Ellsbury, a 2005 first-round choice who played with Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney at Oregon State University. Then there was Dustin Pedroia, a 2004 second-round choice out of Arizona State University who would emerge as the American Leagues MVP four years later.

The anchor was Adrian Gonzalez, the kind of left-handed run producer the Cubs have long coveted. The Red Sox were able to pull off that blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres last winter because they had created enough assets in their farm system.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Red Sox brought sabermetrics pioneer Bill James into their front office as a senior advisor. A recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Moneyball showed how the Red Sox have bridged old-school scouting and the new wave of numbers.

The Red Sox value traditional projections based off what their scouts see and hear, as well as information systems, and thats how Ricketts envisions his baseball operations department running.

As Cubs employees settled into their seats that night at Fenway Park, they watched a team that would completely collapse by the end of September. Who knew it would be the Red Sox?

There was a moody starting pitcher who made 18 million the year before and would sabotage this season. There was the Japanese star who never lived up to the hype. There was a 142 million leftfielder who will always be judged harshly because of his huge contract.

That would be John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford. Those descriptions, almost word-for-word, sound eerily similar to Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano.

So even the geniuses get it wrong in the free-agent market, and its fair to wonder how someone like Friedman would react outside a small market, if he really would do more with more.

To grow revenue and give themselves a better chance to compete the Cubs have extensively studied the Red Sox business plan.

Theyve noticed the power of a regional sports network (NESN). Theyve broadened their entertainment portfolio with non-baseball events, the way the Red Sox have hosted Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the NHLs winter showcase.

Theyve consulted with the architect (Janet Marie Smith) who oversaw the transformation of Fenway Park. Theyve wanted to shut down Sheffield Avenue and create their own version of Yawkey Way.

Theyre hoping a new administration at City Hall will be as receptive to their renovation plans as the city of Boston was to the Red Sox.

On and off the field, the Red Sox are everything the Cubs are striving to be.

There are plenty of people in the Cubs organization across several different departments who grew up in the Boston area, went to college there or used to work for the Red Sox. They can see the parallels and know the history.

But the biggest advertisements are still the 2004 and 2007 banners hanging outside Fenway Park. Luring the architect of those teams to the North Side would be a huge boost for public relations.

With or without Epstein, you already know what the Cubs are going to build their 2012 tickets plans around. The Red Sox are scheduled to come to Wrigley Field on June 15-17. Wonder who will be in the general managers suite that weekend.

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

Cubs keeping the faith with Jason Heyward despite season-long struggles

Cubs keeping the faith with Jason Heyward despite season-long struggles

The calendar is about to flip into August and the narrative around high-priced outfielder Jason Heyward is still the same.

The Cubs entered play Wednesday night with the best record in baseball despite their $184 million prize of the winter suffering through the worst offensive season of his career.

Among qualified MLB players entering Wednesday night, Heyward had the lowest slugging percentage in the game (.315). His OPS (.630) was the seventh-lowest among qualified hitters.

Those numbers have gotten significantly worse as Heyward has been mired in a major slump over the last two-plus weeks in which he's gone just 4-for-42 (.095 AVG) with only one extra base hit, zero RBI and a .275 OPS. 

Before Wednesday's game at Wrigley Field, Heyward was out on the field working with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee.

"It's pretty much what they've been working on for a while," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Again, like I've said, this guy's hit into some bad luck. Yeah there's been some ground balls, but he's had a lot of well-struck balls that have been caught.

"And with that goes your confidence. But they have a definite plan they're sticking with."

Maddon said the Cubs wanted Heyward to get to see the results of his work out on the field of play instead of just watching baseballs jump off his bat into a netting in the cage.

One of the main things the Cubs are working on with Heyward is making a conscious effort to get the ball in the air. 

They're also focused on his mindset through these struggles, trying to keep his spirits up.

"He's probably struggling a little bit," Maddon admitted. "It's not easy to go through what he's going through right now. But like I said, I'm certain he's going to come out the other side.

"I've seen a lot of good stuff work-wise recently. And I'm telling you, man, the new-fangled defenses have got him on ground balls up the middle a lot. He's been victimized by defense a bit."

Maddon has talked a lot this season about Heyward hitting into some tough luck — whether on line drives or just ground balls directly into the opposition's defensive shifts.

But it's not just luck. Heyward's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .273, which is 26 points below his career mark (.298), but there are 24 other qualified big-league hitter with lower BABIPs, including White Sox slugger Todd Frazier and his .200 mark entering play Wednesday.

Compared to last season — when Heyward hit .293 with a .797 OPS with the St. Louis Cardinals — Heyward's line drive percentage is up slightly and his groundball percentage is down significantly. 

But his soft-hit percentage is way up and his hard-hit percentage is down quite a bit.

All of the fancy stats can make the casual fan's head spin, but the gist is simple: Heyward has not been making enough solid contact. 

And he has not been making enough solid contact for four months now. 

Still, Maddon refuses to let any worry show publicly, even as he penciled Heyward seventh in the Cubs' lineup Wednesday, the lowest the 26-year-old has hit all season.

"I've been through this before with some really good players," Maddon said. "He'll come out the other side because he's good and he's working at it. I really like the plan of attack him and John have going right now.

"I'm very patient. I've done this for a bit. I was a hitting instructor myself. I know what it takes. You don't always get overnight results when you're trying to make some dramatic adjustments and that's exactly what's going on. 

"I know people are going to get less patient with it than I will or he will. But the biggest thing is that Jason doesn't get impatient. With the actual player himself, you never want him to be the guy to give up on what he's doing. If he doesn't, he's gonna break through.

"I have a lot of faith in him."

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

Aroldis Chapman is the ultimate baseball mercenary for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. The Cubs say they are going into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the superstar closer comes with off-the-field baggage and plans to cash in as a free agent this winter.

For all the talking points about being good neighbors and family friendly, the Cubs care about money and winning, which makes them just like any other professional sports franchise.

Chapman behaved in Yankee pinstripes, handled the New York market and performed with game-over efficiency, going 20-for-21 in save chances. The Cubs wanted a lefty with a 105-mph fastball and a 15.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched career rate, making a 4-for-1 trade by rationalizing that they would rather be with Chapman in the playoffs than against him.

So the Cubs – and not the first-place Nationals or even-year Giants – had to deal with the bad optics and the lost-in-translation moments before Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Chapman did not make a good first impression while getting questions about domestic violence and the 30-game suspension Major League Baseball imposed to start this season.

But if Chapman gets the last out in October, does it even matter if he’s a good guy?

“Ugh,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Was Ty Cobb wonderful? I mean, I don’t know. All these different people that I’ve read about – something happened with (the Sox) in, what was it, 1919?

“At the end of the day, I’m here to get to know him on our terms – me and him. (And) he’s been a great teammate from everybody I’ve read or discussed (it) with.

“That’s the lenses I’m looking at it through right now.”

[RELATED: Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take chance and close Chapman deal]

Chapman joined a team that began the day with a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This is all about what Chapman can do in October and how his presence can help the Cubs survive three postseason rounds.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted that the Cardinals haven’t scored a run off Chapman since September 2011, back when Tony La Russa managed a World Series team.

“Again, he did do his suspension,” Maddon said. “He has talked about it. He’s shown remorse. And then everybody else has their right to judge him as a good or bad person.

“That’s your right. But I know there are times where I’ve been less than perfect. I think we’ve all been less than perfect in particular moments that nobody’s ever known about. 

“I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he can be a very significant member. And he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you, I will embrace him.”

[MORE: Cubs make business decision to look beyond Chapman's domestic violence suspension]

Inside baseball’s conservative bubble, Maddon has to be the game’s most liberal manager, a hands-off, big-picture guy who lets his players run the clubhouse. The Cubs believe his positive vibes and presence will help Chapman’s transition.

“I’m probably the most non-judgmental person you’ve ever met,” Maddon said. “I don’t go in that direction. I do get upset sometimes when people jump to conclusions without knowing everything.

“(Gather) all the information for yourself and make your own opinion. Draw your own conclusion, as opposed to maybe hearing one thing and then all of a sudden jumping on a negative bandwagon.

“I want to get to know him, get to understand him, have good conversations with him. And then, maybe at that point, I could draw some conclusions. But never having been around him, it’s very hard for me to do that.”

Chapman’s Wrigley Field debut will be electric, the triple digits lighting up the huge video board. At that point, the focus should shift back onto baseball. But the equation doesn’t change in a bottom-line business. There is only one outcome that will truly make Cubs fans happy with this deal.

“They expect me to come here, do my job and try to guide us to the World Series,” Chapman said through coach/translator Henry Blanco. “Especially in this city, they haven’t won a World Series in a long time, so they want me to do everything I can to help us win.”

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

Joe Maddon's mere presence may have hurt the team he manages Tuesday night.

As the Cubs invaded U.S. Cellular Field for the final night on the South Side of this Crosstown series, Maddon's current team was tasked with facing one of his old friends.

James Shields pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay for seven years and the veteran right-hander took the hill for the White Sox Tuesday night, spinning a gem — 7.2 shutout innings allowing four singles and four walks.

After the game, Shields — nicknamed "Big Game James" by some — credited Maddon for his outing.

"I get amped up every game pretty much. But I always want to get amped up in front of my old manager," Shields said. "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He helped build me into who I am today. 

"I always want to go out there and show him, especially being 34 years old, that I’ve got this thing."

Maddon certainly noticed.

The Cubs manager admitted "that's what he looks like" when talking about Shields' outing.

The Cubs had pursued Shields in free agency prior to the 2015 season and came close to deal before the right-hander opted to sign with the San Diego Padres for four years and $75 million.

Part of the reason was Shields' competitiveness and desire to finish every game he starts.

"During the first part of the game, I went up to [John] Lackey and I said Shieldsy went to John Lackey Junior College at some point in his life," Maddon said. "I said I used to compare Shieldsy to you all the time back in Tampa Bay, whenever James would [refuse to come out of a game].

"So Johnny giggled about that. Very similar guys — highly competitive, believe they can beat anybody on any given day. You gotta love that about him. He's very good."