What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

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What Theo Epstein needs to see from the Cubs in 2012

This was before Irrelevant, dude went viral as a catchphrase, before Super PAC became part of the conversation at Clark and Addison.

So as Cubs fans get used to life after Kerry Wood, and chairman Tom Ricketts tries to repair relationships at City Hall, take a moment and think back to all that optimism in spring training.

The goal of the 2012 Cubs, baseball czar Theo Epstein said then, was to win the World Series. The team president has to project confidence, but deep down he knew that this was a year to evaluate every aspect of the organization.

The Cubs woke up on Thursday with the worst record in baseball (15-29), 10 games out of first place. They will stagger into PNC Park on Friday with a nine-game losing streak to face the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise that knows all about false steps.

Right now the front office is locked in on the June draft, where the Cubs hold the sixth overall pick, and five within the first 101 selections.

Epstein has called it the most important days of the year, and the Cubs know they have to kill it. The spending restrictions that came out of the new collective bargaining agreement have turned this into a scouting contest.

The season is now 27 percent complete, and what Epstein said in late March gives you an idea of what to watch for the rest of this season.

Epstein sat at the head of a long table in a conference room overlooking the main field at HoHoKam Stadium. Beat writers asked questions that have even more relevance now. Like: What do you need to see to know things are moving in the right direction?

From a results standpoint, its pretty black and white, Epstein said then. (But) there are some other things that we need to see. If we dont see them, well have failed. From a culture standpoint, we want to see a winning attitude around here. We want to see attention to detail. We want to see hard work. We want to see preparation.

We want to see players who care about the outcome of games. We want to see players who care about and support each other. We want to see players who take pride in the uniform. We want to be the most prepared coaching staff on any given day.

The last time the Cubs lost nine games in a row was almost exactly 10 years ago, May 8-18, 2002. Corey Patterson was hitting leadoff, Sammy Sosa was swinging away, Joe Girardi was behind the plate and Wood was on his way to a career high in innings pitched (213 23).

Manager Don Baylor made it to the Fourth of July and was fired the next day, part of a shakeup that saw team president Andy MacPhail promote Jim Hendry to general manager. Hendry rebuilt the team on the fly and had it five outs away from the National League pennant in 2003.

These Cubs wont be taking drastic measures. Manager Dale Sveum is viewed as having the ideal temperament for this rebuilding project, and hes surrounded by an experienced, respected group of coaches.

Grade them on how Starlin Castro improves his focus in the field and how Welington Castillo frames pitches. Bonus points if Travis Wood or Randy Wells or Chris Volstad figures it out and never leaves the rotation.

The prism through which you can view the final 118 games is separating out the Corey Pattersons. Its making sure Jeff Samardzija stays healthy and handles the transition to starting. Its seeing how Rafael Dolis responds to failure and if he closes out the next ninth inning.

Sooner or later, Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson will be coming from Triple-A Iowa for their auditions.

I would like to see our young players who get an opportunity at the big-league level develop, Epstein said in late March. Obviously, not all of them will. Most young players struggle initially in the big leagues. But how they bounce back from initial struggles and adjust to the pace of the game at the big-league level and continue the progress thats going to be important.

Its something that championship-caliber organizations do integrate young players onto their major-league roster relatively seamlessly. Its never seamlessly. Theres always an adjustment period. But, again, it goes back to the culture if you can create a culture where its expected that young players come up and can contribute.

Theyre not looked at as pariahs. Theyre not picked apart for what they cant do. Theyre valued for what they can do and ultimately contribute and help win games for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Next thing you know they become mainstays. Thats an important part of what were going to accomplish this year.

Behind the scenes, it will be implementing The Cubs Way from the Dominican Republic to Des Moines.

We lack impact talent, Epstein said. We have a number of interesting guys, especially at the lower levels, but every organization has interesting guys at the lower levels.

It would really be nice to get a breakthrough player or two this year and have someone move from that interesting prospect category to potential impact category. So well see theres a lot of work to do.

This doesnt do much if you feel buried by the invoices for season tickets. Youll get laughed at if youre on a barstool or at the water cooler arguing with a White Sox fan. It wont jumpstart the Wrigley Field renovation talks.

But how else would you do it if ownership gave you a very long runway?

The noise from fans? They seem to understand that this isnt 2003 or 2008, that the Cubs arent thisclose. The backlash from columnists and talking heads? Ride it out, knowing that the economics and consolidation have shrunk the medias footprint and silenced voices.

This market doesnt do nuance very well. In a few days, the tone on Twitter and in the pressbox has essentially gone from maybe a year awaythings could get interesting to worst team ever.

But as Epstein said almost two months ago, Theres a subtext.

No one knows if this is actually going to work. But it should be fascinating to find out.

Starters help White Sox bullpen maintain health for lengthy stretch

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Starters help White Sox bullpen maintain health for lengthy stretch

The White Sox are at another point in their schedule where every inning is precious.

So even though they only managed a split in Monday’s doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, the White Sox have to feel good not to have taxed their bullpen.

Mat Latos and Erik Johnson combined for 12.1 innings pitched and five relievers combined for another 5.1 on Monday for the White Sox, who are in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 16 days. Given they have Chris Sale and Jose Quintana scheduled the next two games, the White Sox feel pretty fortunate at the midway point of their lengthy run.

“We didn’t really abuse anybody,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “These doubleheaders can kind of get away from you and both sides probably had that. You get out of these things without having to use anybody in both games and extending anybody.”

With the way things had recently gone for Latos and Johnson’s command issues in his last start, Monday’s doubleheader could have been trouble for the White Sox bullpen.

Latos hadn’t completed six innings since April 24 and posted a 7.84 ERA in his last four starts. And in his only major league start this season, Johnson allowed four earned runs in five innings against the Boston Red Sox on May 5.

Not only do the White Sox have two more here against the Indians, they start a four-game series in Kansas City on Thursday and then head to Citi Field for three against the New York Mets. Only then do they have another day off.

Johnson made two early mistakes, but mostly followed in the footsteps of Latos, who delivered six innings in the opening game before he departed with a 6-3 lead courtesy of a three-run homer by Brett Lawrie.

While Johnson left a 3-0 fastball up to Rajai Davis and he ripped it for a two-run homer, which put Cleveland up 3-1 in the fifth, he faced only five over the minimum through six innings.

“EJ did a good job for us, we just weren’t really getting anything going,” Ventura said.

Johnson — who was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte after the start — entered the seventh inning at 93 pitches. With his team trailing by two, Ventura hoped to steal another inning from his right-hander. The Indians took advantage as Juan Uribe homered and scored another run off the combination of Johnson and reliever Matt Purke, who allowed a hit in 2.1 scoreless innings.

“You want to help the team out and save the bullpen as best you can, especially on these nine and nines,” Johnson said. “That’s your job as a starter for a regular nine inning game, whether it’s a doubleheader or not.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities and if they keep coming I’m going to keep coming back here.”

For now, the opportunity belongs to reliever Tommy Kahnle, whom was added as the 26th man before the doubleheader. By optioning Johnson to Charlotte, the White Sox will employ an eight-man bullpen.

Preview: Cubs look to snap losing streak vs. Cardinals on CSN

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Preview: Cubs look to snap losing streak vs. Cardinals on CSN

The Cubs look to snap a three-game losing streak against the St. Louis Cardinals tonight, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jason Hammel (5-1, 2.31 ERA) vs. Michael Wacha (2-4, 4.03 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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Preview: Chris Sale targets 10th win as White Sox battle Indians on CSN+

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Preview: Chris Sale targets 10th win as White Sox battle Indians on CSN+

The White Sox continue their series with the Cleveland Indians tonight, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet Plus. Coverage begins with White Sox Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Tonight’s starting pitching matchup: Chris Sale (9-0, 1.58 ERA) vs. Josh Tomlin (6-0, 3.56 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get your White Sox gear right here]

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with White Sox Pulse.