At a crossroads, Cubs search for some direction

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At a crossroads, Cubs search for some direction

Theo Epstein faced the Boston media and tried to explain the anatomy of a collapse that might pull him back to the Red Sox. Billy Beane told reporters that he plans to stay in Oakland, meaning Moneyball probably wont be playing at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs didnt have a general manager to do a state of the team address on Thursday.

Eventually, there will be a power grab at Clark and Addison. Whoever takes over will be pulled into the crosscurrents of an organization that hasnt won a World Series title in more than a century.

There will be a battle of ideas. Before Game 162 of another lost season, chairman Tom Ricketts was asked about the patience it will take to get this right.

We look at everything from a long-term perspective, Ricketts said Wednesday in San Diego. So well make the right long-term decisions. And like weve always said, its about player development. Its about putting an organization (in place).

If you are a player angling for a huge contract extension like third baseman Aramis Ramirez you will think that the Cubs can never truly commit to a youth movement. The fans and the pressure inside a big market would never allow it.

If you have worked for years in player development, watching all these minor-league teams go to the playoffs, then you want to see what they can do at the highest level. Why not give the kids a chance?

If you have spent your entire professional life of the road scouting, you will believe in the art of projecting, the database of comparable players in your head. But you dont know who your next boss will be, and how much he will be guided by numbers. Several insiders noticed that stats guy Ari Kaplan became a much more visible presence on the field and in the clubhouse once Jim Hendry got fired.

If you are on the business side of the operation, you have to find new revenue streams, even if it means putting a noodle outside the stadium and letting fans stand behind a rope in right field during batting practice.

If you get ridiculed on Twitter for Undercover Boss, well, it was a free advertisement to build the brand and get more tourists to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs still hit the three-million mark, even though there were so many empty green seats, and that means the overall budget for baseball operations is expected to essentially remain the same next season. The question becomes how much money will be funneled toward major-league payroll.

Our attendance numbers speak for themselves, utility man Jeff Baker said. Thats having a pretty bad year (and) they still came out and supported us. So I really dont think you can ever strip it down and start over here.

The market (and) the history and the tradition it would be really hard to do. Im not sure how tolerable the fans would be if you (did that).

The Wrigley Field renovation plans team executives have been lobbying for quietly could be a game-changer for this franchise.

Carlos Pena the alternative to Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols has played in seven different organizations. The relentlessly optimistic first baseman doesnt think the stadium presents more obstacles to winning.

Everyone plays the same (game), Pena said. Sometimes those things can work to our advantage. The other team has to wake up early, too. The other team also has to play in the cold weather. I hate to make excuses like that. Those are too cheap.

Instead of making excuses, you just need to look at this year, take it all in and learn how to put it behind us.

The Cubs only see Carlos Zambrano in the rearview mirror. Zambrano was placed back on the 40-man roster on Thursday (and Justin Berg and Brian Schlitter were designated for assignment), though it would be shocking to see the enigmatic pitcher in a Cubs uniform again.

In a division without any superpowers, you might not have to make too many dramatic moves.

Add two starting pitchers, even if theyll never get a Cy Young vote, because theyll help you weather the perfect storm of injuries that wrecked this season.

Hope a disappointing year andor a new coaching staff motivates Carlos Marmol and helps the closer refocus and regain his confidence.

Push Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney to get better and anchor the middle infield, knowing that improved defense is a quicker fix. Give top prospect Brett Jackson a chance to live up to the hype.

Those are the kind of incremental moves that could begin the turnaround. But this winter the Cubs will be asking much broader, deeper philosophical questions about how they do business. The answers will shape the franchise for years to come.

The Cubs have come to a crossroads and need to find some direction: What needs to change?

You can say a lot of things, pitcher Matt Garza said, but Im going to keep my nose to that grindstone and let them figure it out. Its going to be an exciting, fun offseason, Ill tell you that.

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

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

Brett Anderson’s main takeaway from Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio

MESA, Ariz. – The pitching section of The Cubs Way manual might not be spelled out this way, but it can be summed up in five words: Have 'em work with Boz.

Or at least that's how it sounds whenever the Cubs add another fading prospect or injury case, rolling the dice on raw stuff, change-of-scenery psychology and the wizardry of pitching coach Chris Bosio.

While the Theo Epstein administration is still waiting on the drafted-and-developed pitchers to put around the Wrigley Field marquee next to the images of sluggers Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs already have the infrastructure in place that helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner and transform Kyle Hendricks into an ERA leader.

One of Bosio's ongoing projects is Brett Anderson, who underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back last March, yet another injury in a career that hasn't lived up to his own expectations.

"It's one of those things where he's not trying to reinvent the wheel," Anderson said. "It's more trying to limit the pressure on my back and mild mechanical adjustments where I don't land on my heel as much and kind land on the ball of my foot or my toes, so it's not such a whiplash effect.

"He's had a good track record with health, especially the last couple years, and hopefully I can fall in line there, too."

Anderson made it through his first Cactus League outing, throwing a scoreless first inning during Monday's 4-4 tie with the White Sox in front of another sellout crowd at Sloan Park in Mesa. The Cubs are taking a calculated risk here with a one-year, $3.5 million that could max out with $6.5 million more in incentives if Anderson makes 29 starts this season.

[MORE CUBS: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic]

The Cubs can put the best defensive unit in the majors behind a lefty groundball pitcher and don't need to make a dramatic overhaul with a guy who grew up around the game. Anderson's father, Frank, is an assistant at the University of Houston and the former head coach at Oklahoma State University.

"I've been going to the field since I could walk and talk and annoy college kids," Anderson said. "I could take that one of two ways: I could get burnt out quick and kind of shy away from baseball. Or I could eat it up. Fortunately for me, I've eaten it up all the way through."

The entire question with Anderson revolves around health. He won 11 games for the Oakland A's in 2009 – finishing sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting – and hasn't topped that number since. There's been a Tommy John surgery and disabled-list time for a stress fracture in his right foot, a broken left index finger and a separate surgery on his lower back.

"If you dwell on the negative, you're going to worry yourself sick," Anderson said. "Pitching's fun – good, bad or indifferent – (so) you have to have a positive outlook, because otherwise you just walk around with a black cloud over your head."

The only other time Anderson hit the 30-start mark would be 2015, when he threw a career-high 180.1 innings, put up a 3.69 ERA and led the majors with a 66.7 groundball percentage. He couldn't repeat that performance with the Los Angeles Dodgers, accounting for 11.1 innings last year and not making the roster in either playoff round.

The "hybrid" fifth/sixth starter idea manager Joe Maddon floated sounds good in theory and we'll see how it works with Anderson and Mike Montgomery and a veteran rotation with strong opinions and clear ideas about routines. But the Dodgers needed 15 different starting pitchers to survive the 162-game marathon last year and seemed to run out of gas by the time the National League Championship Series returned to Wrigley Field.

"You can't have too much depth coming from where I was last year in L.A.," Anderson said. "We used so many starters. Obviously, that wasn't really the case here, which you can't really bank on year in and year out. But if I'm healthy, everything else will work itself out and I'll take my chances.”

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

MESA, Ariz. – During an escalating prank war, Ryan Dempster once arranged for a camera crew to shadow Will Ohman in spring training and sell the journeyman reliever on being the star in a TV special.

But Dempster isn't trying to punk anyone by playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic – even though he's almost 40 years old and hasn't pitched in a competitive environment since Game 1 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park.

Don't let the Harry Caray/Will Ferrell impersonations fool you. Dempster always had a different side to his personality, an edge that allowed him to recover from Tommy John surgery, transition from 30-save closer back to All-Star starter and throw nearly 2,400 innings in The Show.

Still, it sort of felt like a reality show or a time machine or a spin-off from a Kris Bryant Red Bull ad on Monday at Field 1, the most secluded spot to throw live batting practice at the Sloan Park complex. On a cool, gray day, Dempster looked the same with his reddish beard, glove waggle, white pinstriped pants and blue Nike cleats.

Before stepping into the batter's box, Cubs president Theo Epstein tried to talk a little trash with Dempster: "I know I can't hit big-league pitching, but I'll see if I can hit you."

Besides Epstein, the eclectic group of hitters included Tommy La Stella and minor-leaguer Todd Glaesmann. Dempster threw roughly 50 pitches to Lance Rymel, a former farm-system catcher who will manage a Dominican summer league team this year. The audience included one reporter, six fans, a group of curious Cubs staffers and reliever Jim Henderson, who is in camp on a minor-league deal and will also pitch for Team Canada.

"I'm not going to be disrespectful to the whole process," Dempster said. "I'm not just like playing in a beer league and then decide: 'Eh, I'll throw against the Dominican team. The U.S. looks like they're pretty stacked, but I'll be all right.' I know what it entails going into this.

"At the end of the day, I'm not so worried about velocity. I'm worried about command and my ability to change speeds. It has been pretty funny to see the reactions, and I can understand why people would see it as far-fetched. But I always liked a good challenge."

Dempster first hatched this idea during a Fourth of July vacation, somewhere around Sequoia National Park in California. The group included Ted Lilly – another pitcher who got by with guts and became a special assistant in Epstein's front office – and former bullpen catcher Corey Miller.

"I just said: 'For old times' sake, why don't I throw a side?'" Dempster recalled. "I thought for sure when I woke up the next day I wouldn't be able to lift my arm up. And it felt really good."

Dempster continued with a throwing program – even through a trip to Hawaii after the World Series – and contacted Greg Hamilton, the head coach and director of Baseball Canada. As a Cub, Dempster had been the one leading runs up Camelback Mountain and showing younger pitchers like Jeff Samardzija how to train for 200 innings.

"I wasn't sure if he was serious or not," said Epstein, who did make contact against Dempster. "And then when I figured out he meant it and had a plan, I knew he'd be fine, because he's such a hard worker and he's really smart. If he's going to put the time in to get ready, I knew he'd be fine. He'll be competitive, for sure."

Dempster understood how to put together his own program with a focus on his legs, strengthening his core and shoulder exercises. To be clear, this isn't setting the stage for a comeback, the way game-over closer Eric Gagne is hoping to use Team Canada as a launching pad (after not pitching in the big leagues since 2008).

"This is just a chance to represent my country," said Dempster, who grew up in British Columbia and played on junior national teams in the 1990s. "Sometimes – I'm not bored – but a challenge in life or an opportunity presents itself. (And) it's a good lesson to teach my kids: If you work hard at something, you can do (it) and hopefully it pays off."

Dempster went out on top as a World Series champion, walking away from $13.25 million rather than pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. He signed on with MLB Network and rejoined the Cubs as a special assistant in baseball operations. If he had to pick a lane, it would probably be entertainment and building off his Cubs Convention late-night format and sketches like "The Newlywed Game" with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

But Dempster still needs a fix. The star-studded cast from the Dominican Republic – Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz – will be waiting on March 9 at Marlins Park.

"Major League Baseball, professional sports aren't a normal job," Dempster said. "How do you go from that extreme high, the adrenaline rush of going out there and pitching in front of 40-grand every day to…now what do you do that satisfies you? I'm trying to find that, make my way towards that. I feel like I will eventually get there."