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.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

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

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

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”