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.

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How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

In the span of just over a week, Ian Happ has gone from arguably the Cubs' biggest trade piece to the 2017 savior.

OK, "savior" is extreme, but Happ has been an unlikely stabilizing force for the defending world champions.

In a week's worth of big-league action (seven games), Happ has smacked six extra base-hits, scored seven runs and posted a 1.182 OPS. But his impact has been so much more than just the numbers on the back of his Topps card.

Happ's presence has helped the Cubs reinvent themselves.

The plan heading into the 2017 season was to have Kyle Schwarber lead off and Ben Zobrist reprise his 2016 role as lineup protection for Anthony Rizzo.

But with Schwarber struggling atop the order, Happ's presence has freed up the ever-patient Zobrist to become the team's new leadoff as the week-old rookie is now protecting a perennial MVP candidate in Rizzo.

"It's all based on Ian Happ," Joe Maddon said. "I'm still very aware of protecting Rizzo. And that's where Zobrist came in handy. Now to this point, I'm looking at last month's numbers, Zo's really ascending and Schwarbs has come back a little bit regarding just getting on base.

"So Zo's the most likely candidate among all the groups to try to get on base more often and Rizzo's still protected with Ian. Just moving everybody down one slot with Ian there taking the role of Zobrist, I kinda wanted to give it a try."

It's only one game, but the refurbished lineup scored 13 runs Sunday, collecting 10 extra-base hits and scoring in seven of eight offensive innings.

Happ was right there in the middle of it all, smoking a 108 mph double off the right field wall in the first inning and doubling again later in the game. 

Zobrist homered. Rizzo homered. Bryant — who said hitting third is where he's most comfortable in the lineup — crushed a pair of homers and reached base five times. Schwarber went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.

With Happ's presence bumping Schwarber down in the order, Maddon also has moved back to hitting the pitcher last.

"In my mind's eye, I'm more able or wanting to hit the pitcher ninth again because Schwarber is moved back," Maddon said. "Part of the method was to try to feed Schwarber with a nine-hole hitter."

With Happ in the lineup, the Cubs are averaging 6.3 runs per game. 

Again, it's a small sample size and the Cubs were due for an offensive explosion after a slow start to the season, but Happ has been a central figure.

"Nothing surprises me [with him]," Bryant said. "We all saw what he can do in spring. It's not surprising at all. He's definitely provided a spark for us since he's been up.

"He's just been great out there, moving all over the field. I don't even know what his main position is, but if it's center field, he's out there doing a good job, too."

Willson Contreras helped provide the 2016 Cubs with a jolt of energy when he made his debut in mid-June. Happ is doing the same thing this season, though his arrival has come a month earlier in the 2017 campaign.

Happ has only played one full season of professional baseball and appeared in just 91 games above A-ball before making his big-league debut.

But he's looked like he belongs from the outset, blending into a clubhouse that has welcomed so many young position players over the last few years.

Maddon's message to Happ upon arriving was simple: Why don't you stay a while?

It's not as catchy as "try not to suck," but it has helped Happ relax.

"Sometimes, we underestimate the impact we have on anybody," Maddon said. "In my situation, as a manager to the player, so you say something like that just trying to get somebody to relax and who knows?

"Like Javy with 'try not to suck' a couple years ago, who knows how it's processed and how it permits the player to process the day? I knew how good [Happ] was in spring training, I knew how good he's been this season and I just know how he is.

"So there was no reason for him not to approach it like, 'I want to stay a while.'"

Happ spent most of his time in the minors as a second baseman, but with Baez and Zobrist around, Maddon doesn't see a way to work the rookie in the infield at this time.

But then again, two weeks ago, nobody could fathom how the Cubs could possibly work another position player into the lineup on a consistent basis, but that's worked itself out. Right now, it's Albert Almora Jr. being relegated to the bench as Happ has taken over in center field.

Of course, there's still more than four months left in the season and things will undoubtedly change again. 

But for now, Happ has forced the issue and altered the entire identity of the 2017 Cubs.