Theo Epstein is hungry for more

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Theo Epstein is hungry for more

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.

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

The human GIF made quite an impact on the White Sox on Monday night.

A staple of The Melky Cabrera experience the past year and a half has been the outfielder’s personal celebrations that come with every big play. Monday night’s edition included three rounds of festivities critical to the White Sox pulling out a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field.

Cabrera got the party started almost instantly, robbing Kris Bryant of a first-inning solo home run before he patted himself on the back in only the way he does.

“I think every celebration is a motivation to try to give us a boost to our confidence and for the fans, too,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “Every time you can make a good play, it’s good for your team and for your fans to try to invigorate the confidence.”

Cabrera not only leads the team with a .303 batting average -- he’s the biggest self-congratulator of the bunch. It’s as if the GIF function was created for the sole purpose of recording Cabrera’s awkward claps or fist pumps after every big play.

On Monday, he opted to clap for himself after he robbed Bryant of what would have been his 26th homer. Cabrera said he watched the ball the entire way off Bryant’s bat and drifted back to the warning track before leaping and snagging the ball just above the yellow line on the left-field fence.

[MORE: White Sox win in walk-off fashion over Cubs]

On his way down, Cabrera landed hard on the warning track before righting himself against the wall, where he sat with each appendage sprawled in a different direction. At that point, Cabrera held up the ball to show the world he had it in his possession before he stood up and clapped for himself with both hands over his head.

“I thought after that play, things were going to be pretty good today,” said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, the recipient of the play.

It was only the beginning.

Cabrera’s relay throw home in the third inning led to a rundown that netted an out at the plate when Javy Baez made an ill-advised decision to go home. Then in the ninth, Cabrera recorded the first out, which slowed a game-tying rally, when he fired a perfect strike to second base to throw out Bryant stretching a single into a double.

Each time, Cabrera cheered for himself without shame.

“He’s probably his own best (cheering section), but we try to keep up with him,” said reliever Zach Duke, who often views Cabrera’s celebrations from the bullpen. “It’s great. His celebrations, they’re just truly heartfelt, truly spontaneous and he has such a good time playing the game we can’t help but join in and enjoy the moment.”