Chicago Cubs

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.

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

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USA TODAY

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now.

And Major League Baseball noticed.

Rizzo was announced as the National League Player of the Week on Monday after a terrific performance last week.

The Cubs' first baseman collected 12 hits, drove in 13 runs and slashed a ridiculous .429/.484/.750.

The Cubs had a pretty good week as a team, too, winning five of their seven games against the visiting Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.

They take their three-game winning streak to Ohio to start a three-game set with the Reds on Tuesday.