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.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping rookie Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch hitting. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”