Cubs keep their eyes on Epstein and Friedman

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Cubs keep their eyes on Epstein and Friedman

As the Cubs go down this road, they could reach the point of no return. Really, will they find anyone better out there?

That doesnt mean there is only one truly qualified candidate who can do the job. Remember that before Theo Epstein broke the curse and became immortal, he was 28 years old, with zero experience as a general manager.

The Red Sox took a chance on Epstein, who had spent only a few months as Bostons assistant general manager when he came to power in late November 2002.

Epstein was educated at Yale University and the University of San Diego Law School. He had worked in communications and baseball operations for the San Diego Padres after getting his start as a summer intern with the Baltimore Orioles.

Epstein was part of the new wave of young baseball executives crashing into front offices all around the game. In the past nine seasons, the Red Sox have made the playoffs six times and captured two World Series titles. Theyve won at least 90 games seven times and never less than 86.

Its hard to believe that Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts a careful, deliberate businessman who has told employees that hiring a new general manager will take awhile would make a quick, impulsive decision.

Asking for permission to speak with Epstein who has another year left on his contract is one step. If it comes to this, the expectation is that the Red Sox would try to drive a hard bargain and ask for a high-impact, major-league player as compensation.

Internally, the Cubs have also discussed Rays executive Andrew Friedman, and whether hed be willing to leave Tampa Bay and prove himself in a big market.

Even Stuart Sternberg, the teams principal owner, sounded restless after only 28,299 fans showed up at Tropicana Field for Tuesdays elimination game against the Texas Rangers.

This is untenable as a model going forward, Sternberg told reporters inside the losing clubhouse.

Sternbergs words were even stronger in a St. Petersburg Times column, which quoted him as saying: It won't be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it's going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it's going to get vaporized.

Sternberg and Friedman both used to work on Wall Street and theyre said to be tight. Epsteins relationship with Red Sox team presidentchief executive officer Larry Lucchino seems to be more complicated. For years, theyve been portrayed in the Boston media as both rivals and mentor-protg. It could be time for a new challenge.

Epstein is only 37 years old, but he has already spent more than half his life (20 seasons) inside the big leagues. He once briefly left the Red Sox in late October 2005, formally returning to the organization by January 2006. The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and the entire run of baseball operations.

While the Rays charged into the playoffs, the Red Sox endured a stunning September collapse. Manager Terry Francona has already been singled out for blame and wont return next season. Its not necessarily a slam dunk that hed become a package deal with Epstein, though its an intriguing idea.

Theres a theory that all the uncertainty around the Red Sox could pull Epstein back in. Francona spoke to WEEI on Wednesday and addressed his relationship with Epstein on the Boston sports radio station.

When you first start, you have that little honeymoon period, Francona told WEEI. The fact that Theo and I made it through eight years together in this environment I think shows in itself how strong our relationship was. I think there were days when he wanted to wring my neck. I dont blame him.

Youre together that much and youre in a situation where you have to give your opinion. That was always afforded. Im actually proud of our relationship. We butted heads sometimes. I think youre supposed to. But I do know when things were rough, I knew where I could go and I did that til the very end. Im proud of the way we treated each other.

Francona who said he doesnt know if he wants to manage in 2012 was asked if he could work with Epstein again.

It depends what the job is I don't want to be a clubhouse guy, Francona joked. I dont want to speak for Theo. Thats not fair. Hes got his things to take care of this week, I know. Thats his business. He knows the respect I have for him.

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

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."