Theo Epstein is hungry for more

Theo Epstein is hungry for more
April 5, 2012, 3:23 am
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MESA, Ariz. Its hard to believe when the building is almost 100 years old, and the customers have been so loyal for generations, but the Cubs might as well be a start-up company now.

On a recent morning, Theo Epstein sat in front of a laptop inside his office at HoHoKam Stadium, sneaking glances out onto the field. He wore a dark Penguin polo shirt and a Nike cap, the casual look youd expect to find in Silicon Valley.

The copy of Sports Illustrated on Epsteins desk with Albert Pujols on the cover predicted that the Cubs will lose 96 games. The Cubs Way manual rested on another corner.

When you think of the Cubs, you can feel warm and fuzzy and picture sunshine and Old Style. But if Epsteins vision comes into focus, this organization will be innovative like Groupon, manage risk the way Aon Corp. does and find efficiencies faster than McKinsey & Co.

Six months ago, Epstein met Tom Ricketts at a residence the chairmans family owns in New York. They had sweeping views of Central Park and talked for six or seven hours. The general manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time said that he didnt walk out of there with a job offer.

I think he wanted to meet me to make sure I didnt have three eyes, Epstein joked. I think his concern, if he was honest, was: Would I bring as much energy to the Cubs as I did to the Red Sox? Or was I sort of kicking myself upstairs, so to speak, and putting myself out to pasture?

When the Cubs run out of the dugout on Thursday for first pitch against the Washington Nationals, it will mark the 163rd day of the Epstein administration. By Opening Day, the president of baseball operations had fired one manager (Mike Quade) and hired another (Dale Sveum).

The front office expanded with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, two high-level executives who had helped build the Red Sox machine and restocked the San Diego Padres system.

Epsteins calls for the best and the brightest included Shiraz Rehman, who has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and pro scouting director Joe Bohringer, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A fresh perspective, Ricketts said over the winter. They just look at the questions a little differently.

So the Bloomberg computer system has been installed, focusing mostly on the amateur scouting side, with a basic major-league version up and running by the trade deadline.

Scouts have been given video cameras to shoot prospects. Spycam was installed at each minor-league affiliate, and you can watch the action in real time on your laptop. Each minor-league player received an individual plan for this year that outlined strengths and weaknesses.

To educate players on how to handle themselves off the field, representatives from Northeastern Universitys Center for Sport in Society ran seminars during spring training. There will now be background reports on potential draft picks that could run four- or five-pages long.

Remember that Moneyball gave away secrets to people like Ricketts throughout the industry. And spending restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement destroyed the financial advantage the Cubs planned to exploit internationally and in the draft.

The longer youre in baseball, Epstein said, the longer you realize that all were trying to do here is shift the odds slightly in our favor. There are no great obvious competitive advantages anymore.

If you have the best evaluators, the best systems, the best people, the best decision-making process, the best you can hope to do is shift your odds for any given transaction from maybe 5050 to like 5347.

Theres not a lot of ground that you can seize against your opponent. So if youre disorganized or if youre doing things by happenstance or if you dont have a sound process, and you sort of luck into a decision here and there and you cant repeat it, youre just losing ground.

Epstein has likened his ideal front office to a boiler room. Assistant general manager Randy Bush who took over on an interim basis when Jim Hendry was fired and is widely respected for how he guided the Cubs through the transition amplified that idea.

Theyve been very inclusive, Bush said. They like lots of opinions. They dont want people who just sit there and nod their head yes.

The same way that Ricketts wants to renovate Wrigley Field in phases, Epstein hasnt taken a wrecking ball to the front office, which contains many key employees who were already signed through 2012.

There is still room to grow, particularly in the statistical analysis and healthcare wings. Throughout the game, keeping players healthy, and preventing pitchers from breaking down, is viewed as the next big thing. For now, the Cubs are taking smaller steps, like bringing in an expert ophthalmologist as a consultant to test each players eyesight.

Everyone gives the same answer to that and everyone says medicine, sports science, and theyre right, Epstein said. But I dont think we quite know what it is yet. Everyones in the R&D phase of that exploration.

Sveum the third-base coach on the 2004 Red Sox team that won the World Series and reversed the curse has noticed Epsteins learning curve from wonder boy to brand name.

Being one of the smartest guys in baseball, hes always challenging himself, Sveum said. (Its): How can I make the team better every single day? (Hes) on a constant grind that way. Its just the way hes built.

But the one thing about Theo (over the years is) he really understands a lot about the mechanics of the game now. (Thats pitching and hitting), why guys succeed with certain mechanics, why guys struggle with certain mechanics. (Hes) almost a coach sometimes when it comes to that now, and I dont know if he had that ability (then).

In the Boston Globe op-ed column Epstein wrote last October (Farewell, Red Sox Nation), he cited football visionary Bill Walsh, and the idea that coaches and executives should seek change after 10 years with the same team. Does that theory still hold?

I think so, Epstein said, pointing out thats about how long he worked for the Padres and Baltimore Orioles combined. There are no hard and fast rules, and thats not for everybody, but (thats) just how Im wired.

Boston was 10 years and you start to get a little antsy. (You) provide your own motivation and your own stimulus as long as you can. But for me after 10 years, you need the environment to kick-start that again, so thats why change is good.

Epstein speaks in full paragraphs, but hes uncomfortable talking about himself. If the Cubs win it all on his watch, he will be on the fast track to Cooperstown, N.Y. If they dont, well, he should still be in the middle of his professional life. From here, you cant get kicked upstairs much higher.

Is this your final job in baseball?

No, I dont see anything as like final. Im 38 right now, Epstein said. I dont know. I honestly dont think in those terms. What I do think about when I wake up is: How the heck are we going to build enough minor-league pitching? Because we dont have nearly enough right now.

Whos going to pitch the seventh inning this year for us? Thats what I think about. I dont think about it in terms like: Hmmmwill it be 10 years for me here and is that the final step?

I dont see it that way. I know how much joy so many people feel when you can win a championship at a place that hasnt won in a long time, and how sustained that period of excellence can be if you do it with the right people and the right systems.

I havent been here long, but I think Ive been here long enough to see thats possible, but its a significant challenge. So were all pouring ourselves into it, because theres nothing better than seeing the looks on those peoples faces when you get there, and knowing you played a small part in it.