Chicago Cubs

Cubs make Theo Epstein the star attraction

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Cubs make Theo Epstein the star attraction

They had to turn away people at the doors because everyone wanted to listen to Theo Epstein.

The fans had jammed into a Hilton Chicago ballroom on Saturday morning to see the rock star executive who once followed Pearl Jam on tour and planned to leave for his charity event that night at a Boston night club.

Sure, fans ripped Alfonso Soriano for not hustling, and told team executives how annoying they found some of the D-listers singing the seventh-inning stretch. But, for the moment, the anger and frustration was gone.

The narrative at the Cubs Convention wasnt about who should be fired. It became hyping the new president of baseball operations.

It will die down, Epstein said. The players are the show. Thats why were all in this profession. (As) a kid, when I got involved in baseball, it wasnt to see Lou Gorman, the general manager of the Red Sox. It was to watch Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.

So times have changed a little bit with the information age now. People pay more attention to what GMs do. (Thats) great, but if that ever becomes the show, you probably dont have a very good product to begin with.

We are going to be a player-centric, player-driven organization. Theyre the ones with the real skill (and) world-class ability. Theyre the ones that are going to get us where we want to go.

Epstein became the star attraction on a team hes filled with buy-low players coming off down years (David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad) and a manager who told the crowd what they wanted to hear.

When the guys arent hustling, you make them accountable for it, Sveum said. Its simple. I dont really care how much money theyre making or how many years they have in the big leagues. Theyre still embarrassing the team.

Prince Fielder plays with an edge and gives maximum effort, but Sveum once again confirmed that his friend from Milwaukee wont be getting a megadeal here.

Thats just not going to happen, Sveum said. We have our first baseman in Bryan LaHair and (Anthony) Rizzo waiting in the wings as well, so were doing OK with big, power left-handed hitters right now.

Forget what it would take to sign Fielder. Epsteins front office held out and a franchise icon waited until the middle of January to agree to a one-year, 3 million deal with a club option.

About 24 hours after Kerry Wood signed, even chairman Tom Ricketts acknowledged: We probably could have had that conversation a month ago(and) done it a little sooner.

Ricketts again indicated that Epstein would have the authority to eat money on a bad contract for a player who didnt fit anymore. (The implication in a reporters question was Soriano.)

Starlin Castro could still be absolutely essential to the teams plans people close to the 21-year-old All-Star shortstop think his legal situation will sort itself out but an alleged sexual assault has been the bad publicity hanging over the convention.

From our standpoint, Starlin and his advisors put out a statement, Ricketts said. Its really not appropriate for us really to talk much beyond that. We just all hope it gets resolved as quickly as possible and everybody moves forward.

Epstein was not talking specifically about Castro. But he acknowledged that the Cubs will have to be able to find and develop players who can deal with all the temptations in this city.

Its been a factor in ruining some careers, Epstein said. Im sure its been (an) impediment to the Cubs of winning. Especially (given) what were trying to do develop a young core of players (the) approach that were going to have (is) the opposite of laissez-faire.

Were not just going to say, Oh, thats the way it is in Chicago, boys will be boys, Im sure theyll get enough sleep and be able to show up the next day ready to play. Thats failure on the organizations part.

That opportunity to build something and think more broadly about an organization matched Epstein up with Ricketts.

Last October, Ricketts told Cubs executive Crane Kenney to ask Red Sox president Larry Lucchino for permission to speak with Epstein. Ricketts got a call back from John W. Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox, and a few days later Epstein was spotted at a Starbucks in Lincoln Park.

We were so secretive, Ricketts said, and then he hops out of the car to get an iced coffee and someone spots him. Why not just fly you in on United and put up a billboard for Gods sake?

That wouldnt be shocking anymore, because at the moment Epstein is the face of the franchise.

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

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USA TODAY

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now.

And Major League Baseball noticed.

Rizzo was announced as the National League Player of the Week on Monday after a terrific performance last week.

The Cubs' first baseman collected 12 hits, drove in 13 runs and slashed a ridiculous .429/.484/.750.

The Cubs had a pretty good week as a team, too, winning five of their seven games against the visiting Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.

They take their three-game winning streak to Ohio to start a three-game set with the Reds on Tuesday.