Cubs searching to find the next big thing

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Cubs searching to find the next big thing

At the age of 38, Theo Epstein is at a different place in his life. Hes no longer the intern out of Yale University. Hes an established brand.

The Cubs could have paraded out some big-ticket free agents over the weekend. Instead, they made their splash by hiring a president of baseball operations.

The Cubs Convention closed Sunday after essentially amounting to a victory lap for ownership and the new front office. The Ricketts family is betting that they will be paying for future results, and not past performance.

Epstein has promised to stay hungry, obsessed with finding the next competitive advantage in an industry that has caught up with a lot of things the Boston Red Sox used to do.

Its something (thats) like inbred in Theo, Cubs executive Jason McLeod said. I dont think he knows what the word stagnant means. Its always thinking outside the box, trying to be creative (and) innovative. He certainly keeps you on your toes with it, because as soon as you start feeling comfortable with how things are running, hes asking you why we arent trying other things.

Its in his DNA and it really filters down to all of us.

The senior vice president of scouting and player development goes back to the mid-1990s with Epstein, when they were both just starting out with the San Diego Padres.

McLeod framed this as a big week for the organization. Cubs scouts will be meeting in Chicago to go over methodology and how they might cover the country. They will also be introduced to some version of the computer system that will be designed in partnership with Bloomberg Sports.

This isnt revolutionary. McLeod acknowledged that most clubs have the same information in terms of raw data. This is just a way to organize it where everything on a player is one click away. The Cubs want to have more background and medical information than anyone else.

Moneyball burst out as a New York Times best-seller and generated Oscar buzz in Hollywood. The secrets are out and a new collective bargaining agreement has also leveled the playing field.

The Cubs cant spend unlimited amounts in the draft and internationally under a cap-and-tax system. There will also be a less generous form of draft-pick compensation, which eliminates Type A and Type B free agents. The Red Sox were known for letting those players walk and collecting the extra selections.

We tried to tilt the odds in our favor a little bit, like a casino, Epstein said. Whos more likely to hit on the superstar, the Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia or Jonathan Papelbon-type player: The team thats picking once in the first round or the sandwich round, or the team thats picking three times?

This is a little more complicated. Cubs officials say it will become a scouting contest, where talent evaluators could become much more valuable on the open market.

We need to hire the best scouts (and) pay them well, Epstein said. We can challenge our scouts to get to know the players inside and out, what they eat for breakfast, what theyre like in school, what theyre like after they win (or) lose. (Its) how good a teammate are they? What kind of family support structure do they have? How have they dealt with adversity in the past?

We have to answer all of those questions better than the other 29 teams.

In terms of manpower, the Cubs brought in Joe Bohringer, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, to oversee pro scouting.

Scouting director Tim Wilken who thought he used to be the only man in baseball responsible for running both the professional and amateur sides will now focus exclusively on the draft.

Shiraz Rehman who got his MBA at Columbia Business School was added as an assistant to general manager Jed Hoyer. There are indications that money that would have gone toward the draft could be funneled toward the scouting department.

Were always trying to find that next thing (thats) going to be the breakthrough, Hoyer said. People always act as though (with) all these analyses out there now, the final frontier has been found. And the reality is if you can look back in time 15 years from now, someones going to find something that changes the game again.

We want to be the team to find that. You might not have as long a runway anymore. It might only give you two or three years of an advantage until (others) catch up. Thats a huge difference. If we can find that next thing and be smart enough to do that, then itll give us a huge advantage. And thats sort of how we see baseball analysis in general: Theres going to be a next frontier. Lets make sure were the one that finds it.

By spring training, The Cubs Way manuals on scouting and player development will be distributed to staffers.

Brett Jackson, a 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, walked through the Hilton Chicago wearing jeans and a blazer and a scarf thrown over his T-shirt. He has shaggy hair, a full beard and some swagger.

The Cubs are downplaying the possibility of Jackson making the team out of spring training, though he could be playing center in Wrigley Field sometime in 2012. Right now, Epsteins crew has everyone thinking big.

Im working every day to make that a reality and be part of something special here in Chicago, Jackson said. Well leave the important decisions up to the new guys who clearly know what theyre doing. People are raving about them being rock stars. Were excited to see what kind of show they put on.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."