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 catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”