Cubs: Red Sox made Epstein ready to take on Wrigley monster

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Cubs: Red Sox made Epstein ready to take on Wrigley monster

When?

That was the question asked so many times over the weekend inside the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. The Cubs Convention is for the diehards, but even the fans who have completely bought into team president Theo Epsteins rebuilding project are looking at their wristwatches, wondering when the patience is going to pay off finally.

The Cubs put up a unified front as they unveiled their 300 million Wrigley Field renovation plans, with president of business operations Crane Kenney tossing it to general manager Jed Hoyer during one presentation. You wonder how long it will last, or if the tension will put this group of executives at cross purposes.

RELATED: Ricketts changes the Wrigley argument: 'We're not a museum'

Feeding the monster overwhelmed the Boston Red Sox and helped pave Epsteins exit from Yawkey Way after the 2011 season. This week former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy will release their book detailing those two World Series titles as well as the dysfunction throughout the organization.

Francona: The Red Sox Years reconstructs one meeting from November 2010 in which a group goes over a 100,000 market research study of declining ratings on NESN, the regional sports network in which the team has an ownership stake.

Epstein who grew tired of the power struggle with Red Sox chief executive officer Larry Lucchino and was ready for a new challenge gave the money quote that recently appeared in a Sports Illustrated excerpt that ran with a Too Big to Succeed headline:

(The consultants) told us we didnt have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle. We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. Wed become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.

The Cubs are following the Red Sox model. In creating their blueprints for Wrigley Field, Cubs executives visited Fenway Park, met with Red Sox officials and consulted with the architects who transformed Yawkey Way.

Chairman Tom Ricketts bought Epsteins brand name. This may have been the only executive with the juice to oversee a total teardown. Perhaps the Cubs will benefit from those mistakes, or Epstein could be walking into another trap.

Theres a natural push and pull in every professional sports franchise between the operations side and the business side, Epstein wrote in an e-mail on Sunday. Its inevitable, and theres nothing wrong with that. Its crucial for baseball and business to communicate honestly and build trust so the interests of the overall organization can be furthered. I think the folks here have been doing a great job of that, and theres terrific synergy between the baseball and business sides. Our respective plans complement each other well and the timing might just turn out to be perfect.

If we face adversity and that balance becomes threatened, its important to take a leadership role and tactfully make sure the interests of the overall organization remain the priority. There are certainly times in the past I could have handled those situations better, and I would like to think I have matured in that respect as a result. Again, its important to keep in mind that this dynamic is essentially inevitable and can be managed with the right perspective and communication.

After that meeting about sexy players, Epstein included Anthony Rizzo in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, though you have to point out that he had coveted the San Diego Padres star since scouting the kid at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif.

Carl Crawford who signed a seven-year, 142 million contract at the 2010 winter meetings turned out to be a bust in Boston and was packaged with Gonzalez in last summers blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

RELATED: Cubs lay out their new vision for Wrigley Field

This front office doesnt care about making a splash. Sources say there is still mutual interest between the Cubs and Scott Hairston, who could be a good fit in the outfield mix (.803 OPS last season) and is the type of mid-level player theyve targeted in free agency.

The Cubs pursued Anibal Sanchez last month, walking away at five years, 77.5 million as he signed with the Detroit Tigers. They were happy to settle for Edwin Jackson at four years, 52 million. Those investments were made with 2015 in mind, thinking one of those under-30 pitchers could still perform at a high level once they in theory become legitimate contenders.

Insiders say those moves werent made to dress up the product after a 101-loss season, and it wasnt a sudden shift because the Wrigley Field renovation plans were coming into focus. The Cubs analyzed upcoming free-agent classes and realized they needed insurance against the possibility of Matt Garza leaving at some point.

I dont think they liked what they saw last year, Garza said. To go out and get pitching, you have to pay, and thats just the way the game goes now.

Ricketts whose interest in player development is genuine enough that he sat in the audience for a Down on the Farm panel Sunday morning believes he has the smartest guys in baseball building his team.

The day before Ricketts sat in front of a crowded ballroom and spread his fingers inches apart: Theo talks about The Cubs Way. Its not a mission statement. Its a book this thick.

We never talk in terms of specific years, Ricketts said. The key thing to remember is that there really are no shortcuts to building an organization or being consistently successful. Everything you think is a shortcut is a dead end. You just have to do it the right way. You have to do it from the ground up.

Mark Twain once said: If you always do what you always did youre always going to get what you always got. So we had to change. We had to change the way we look at our organization and really refocus on player development and were doing that. And it doesnt happen overnight. Theres no like six-month return on that.

First-base coach Dave McKay mentioned how he spent 16 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals where he won two World Series titles and said hes never been on a more prepared team than last years Cubs.

Still, manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff know that they got a hall pass for 2012 but will sooner or later feel the heat.

The Cubs already have core pieces in place: Rizzo, their first baseman for potentially the next decade; All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro; Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney; possible Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija; and a group of prospects Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler who may or may not pan out. Stay tuned.

And if those television ratings dip and ticket sales are soft and Cubs gear isnt flying off the shelves, well, Epstein has already seen this movie before. The truth is the two sides need each other, with a modernized ballpark and a new television deal pumping more money into the on-field product, and a contending team generating more sales and sponsors.

Sure, there is going to be pressure and expectations (and second-guessing and sniping) while playing in a big market. But as Samardzija said, If you dont want that to come along with it, you might as well go do something else.

Cubs closing in on Aroldis Chapman deal with Yankees

Cubs closing in on Aroldis Chapman deal with Yankees

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are in the final stages of a blockbuster deal that could bring superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to Chicago and would involve sending elite shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees, sources familiar with the situation said Sunday night.

The exact details aren’t clear, but the talks reached a point where the Cubs pulled Torres from the lineup at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach, at least sensing the strong possibility of a trade that would add a 105-mph closer to a first-place team that entered the year as World Series favorites.

Chapman, 28, began this season serving a 30-game suspension covered by Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy after a dispute with his girlfriend in South Florida last fall. In absorbing a supremely talented player with real baggage, the Cubs would believe in manager Joe Maddon’s personality and a strong clubhouse culture, figuring it might only be a two-month-plus rental before Chapman cashes in as a free agent. 

That incident scared the Cubs away during the offseason, when a Chapman trade between the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers collapsed at the winter meetings as those police reports surfaced. The Yankees waited for the price to drop, acquired the flame-throwing lefty at a steep discount and weathered the PR storm. 

Chapman enjoyed the bright lights and performed in New York, converting 20-of-21 save chances and striking out 44 batters in 31-plus innings. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo – who once challenged the Cincinnati dugout to a fight after Chapman buzzed two 100-mph pitches near a teammate’s head – said last month: “The game’s over when he comes in.”

That would be the idea for Theo Epstein’s front office, creating a dominant force that could help carry the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908. 

Even Hector Rondon – who’s developed into a very good closer while the Cubs rebuilt their organization (77 saves since 2014) – recently admitted he would understand if the Cubs decided to trade with the Yankees.

“If they bring in a Chapman or (an Andrew) Miller, if they put him in my spot, whatever, s--- happens,” Rondon said last week. “I can’t control that. The most important thing for me is to come into the game, pitch my inning – whatever inning they put me in – and do my job.
    
“If we get one of those guys, I’m fine. It’s better for us.”

Torres is only 19 years old and a consensus top prospect, showing up in the midseason rankings on ESPN (No. 26), Baseball America (No. 27) and Baseball Prospectus (No. 34). The Cubs had signed Torres out of Venezuela during the summer of 2013, giving him a $1.7 million bonus and trying to stockpile enough assets to create a perennial contender. It sounds like it’s almost time to cash in one of those huge trade chips.

While Cubs try to deal for Aroldis Chapman, White Sox deal with Chris Sale fallout

While Cubs try to deal for Aroldis Chapman, White Sox deal with Chris Sale fallout

MILWAUKEE – A franchise sensitive to being the other team in town is catching the Cubs at the worst possible time, another you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up story coming out of the White Sox clubhouse. 

While the Cubs moved toward closing a deal with the New York Yankees for superstar closer Aroldis Chapman on Sunday night, the White Sox dealt with the fallout from Chris Sale’s “insubordination.”

As Sale continues serving his five-game suspension for playing with scissors, on Monday night the Cubs will start Jake Arrieta, the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner. A lineup built around MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant will get to swing away at U.S. Cellular Field.

The perception will be hot-seat manager Robin Ventura has lost control over this White Sox season, while Manager of the Year Joe Maddon actually answered a question this weekend about how the Cubs might align their playoff rotation.

One week out from the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the debates will be about which players White Sox executives Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn should sell off, and which Cubs prospects Theo Epstein’s front office should put down to buy the big-ticket item for a World Series run (with Gleyber Torres expected to be included in any Chapman trade with the Yankees). 

Optics, marketing and promotional throwback jerseys aside, the Cubs also appear to be hitting their stride again after a much-needed vacation, winning their third straight series out of the All-Star break with Sunday afternoon’s 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. 

The Cubs did it with their $155 million ace (Jon Lester) throwing only four innings, getting charged with four runs and giving up five walks and five stolen bases. The Cubs could also absorb one quarter of their All-Star infield (Addison Russell) leaving in the middle of the game with a left heel contusion and come back during a five-run seventh inning. That’s when the lineup looked more like its relentless April version with Tommy La Stella (3-for-3, walk, RBI double), Rizzo (three-run, bases-loaded double) and Ben Zobrist (2-for-3, two RBI).

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Trading for Chapman as a potential final piece to the World Series puzzle would at least shift some of the crosstown focus off Sale.

“I’m sure there were some things that transpired that we’re not hearing about,” Lester said. “I don’t know him too well, but I know Chris a little bit. I don’t think that really sounds like him too much. I’m sure there were some other things involved. 

“We’re all weird. Pitchers are all weird. We all like our comfort of different things. It just doesn’t really sound like him. I’m sure there’s some information in there that we’re not being told.”

Three sellout crowds in Milwaukee this weekend watched the Cubs welcome back All-Star leadoff guy Dexter Fowler, give the ball to six-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan in his return from a second Tommy John surgery and keep the St. Louis Cardinals seven games out of first place heading into Sunday night and what should be a gut check for the entire White Sox organization.

“I anticipate that same wonderful crosstown rivalry kind of atmosphere, which I love,” Maddon said. “It’s great for the city. It’s great for the sport. I don’t think fans really care much about records at that particular moment. They just care about your team winning.”

Cubs: Joe Maddon trolls White Sox and explains why trade rumors would bother Chris Sale

Cubs: Joe Maddon trolls White Sox and explains why trade rumors would bother Chris Sale

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs won’t walk onto U.S. Cellular Field on Monday night wearing black “Try Not To Cut” T-shirts with a scissors image replacing the manager’s iconic glasses. But Joe Maddon still couldn’t resist trolling the White Sox after Chris Sale’s temper tantrum.

With an AWOL pitcher, a manager on the hot seat and a front office under siege, the Cubs will see what they used to look like in a rivalry that sometimes brought out the worst in them.

This is Carlos Zambrano-level bizarre on the South Side, the White Sox suspending Sale for five days after their franchise player cut up 1976 throwback jerseys, creating a feeding frenzy in the middle of trade-deadline-rumor season. That speculation apparently bothered Sale, who got sent home before Saturday’s scheduled start against the Detroit Tigers, leaving the bullpen to cover for his unprofessionalism.

“It’s not easy,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “Obviously, it’s only going to occur if your team’s struggling a bit. 

“If you’re doing well, that doesn’t happen. So you have the struggle of the group, and then a really good player being mentioned as a trade piece. From the manager’s perspective, it’s not as difficult as the player himself – and then the inter-politics of the clubhouse. That’s where it becomes more difficult. 

“You don’t even know what those conversations sound like and how that cuts at the fabric of what you’re attempting to do. No pun intended.”

Maddon’s presence as the team’s smirking ringmaster helps a rivalry that missed larger-than-life personalities like Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen. The Cubs won’t see Sale until Thursday night at Wrigley Field in this season’s fourth and final crosstown game between two franchises heading in opposite directions. 

“I know it was entertaining from a distance,” Maddon said. “I’m sure being in the organization not so much. And I get that. I’ve never heard that one before. 

“The dentist used to send us every six months things for a checkup. And I threw that away so my mom would not take me to the dentist. That’s the closest I could relate to what happened.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Maddon remembered the end of an era with the Tampa Bay Rays, when David Price got traded to the Detroit Tigers in a three-team deal at the 2014 deadline. Within the next three months, Rays executive Andrew Friedman jumped for a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract and giving Cubs fans a new costume for that Halloween. 

“It was hard for David,” Maddon said. “It really was difficult, especially if it’s your first organization. I think if you bounced (around) a little bit, it’s not so difficult. But if it’s your first time being included in trade conversations, it’s hard for the guy. 

“Regardless of knowing that you could end up in a good spot, or you’re going to be wanted, (because) there’s really actually a lot of positives attached to it. It’s still the negative – you might really like where you’re at, it’s your first organization, you have a lot of friendships. 

“Awkward. It’s an awkward feeling. You adjust. Everybody does. But there’s still all this unknown stuff that is unsettling.”

Like what the media circus and the fan atmospherics will be like during those first two games at U.S. Cellular Field. So much for the White Sox bonding after Adam LaRoche’s retirement in the middle of spring training and using that money to reinvest at the trade deadline. Or Sale smoothing everything over after torching executive vice president Kenny Williams for the way he handled Drake LaRoche’s clubhouse access.

“I’m sure it will be entertaining,” Maddon said. “The South Siders have a wonderful sense of humor that we can definitely all appreciate.”