Cubs set out to create a new identity

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Cubs set out to create a new identity

MESA, Ariz. Theo Epstein leaned on the batting cage, standing in between Billy Williams and Rick Sutcliffe. This was the past and present, shoulder to shoulder at HoHoKam Stadium, and spring training is all about seeing into the future.

The Cubs have been able to sell sunshine and beer for a long time. It was 78 degrees at first pitch, and 10,366 fans rolled in for their Cactus League opener. Before a 12-10 loss to the Oakland As, the president of baseball operations signed autographs by the dugout.

This is what were all here for, to play the game on the field, Epstein had said at the beginning of camp. Sometimes a winter can stretch on and you forget what you do for a living. You feel like an accountant or something.

The Cubs are trying to create a new identity, and it will have more of a corporate feel, from the computer system they designed with Bloomberg Sports to the increased emphasis on video and statistical analysis.

Baseball staffers from every level of the organization assembled at a Mesa hotel in the middle of February to build what Epstein has called the scouting and player development machine, which will come with manuals that run hundreds of pages.

The idea is that something as simple as a bunt play will be run the same in the Dominican summer league as it is inside Wrigley Field, and on and on and on. The Cubs Way.

Weve got better cooks, pitcher Matt Garza said when asked about the difference now.

Yes, the Cubs have even overhauled the kitchen, using a food service company that has cut out red meat from the spread and caters for several teams throughout the Valley. No detail is too small just check out the blue corners on the bases at Fitch Park where your foot is supposed to hit.

After years of ownership instability that handcuffed the previous administration and once new revenues start flowing out of a renovated Wrigley Field this could be the superpower of the Midwest. The empire should include game-changing TV deals and new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Pitcher Andy Sonnanstine recalled a team meeting early in camp where Epstein talked about how its a little bit different when you put the Yankees uniform on the Red Sox and the Cubs are right up there with them. Can you handle the pressure?

The Red Sox model that Cubs executives have long coveted will include a strong, steady manager. Dale Sveum emerged from the same intense interview process that revealed two finalists in Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, who certainly werent stars almost 10 years ago at Fenway Park.

Sveum wont be tossing bases, or entertaining everyone in the interview room with great stories. He may not be loud or show much emotion, but he has presence after lasting 12 seasons in the big leagues, even after a horrific leg injury.

I just try to be myself and whatever happens, happens, Sveum said. But I do believe a team does take on the personality of their managernot that I have any kind of personality.

You just try to harp on the little things. And at the same time, theyve got to know that you know how difficult this game is. Im not the guy where if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, Im going to be throwing things. I completely understand that.

I wasnt a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures theyre under and all that stuff. My goal is to get them to prepare like its the seventh game of the World Series every day. So when they do fail, (they) can look (into) the mirror and say: I did everything I could today to make myself a better player.

Its not like the other 29 teams are ignoring fundamentals and spending spring training eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games. And check the clips: Around this time last year, everyone was writing stories about the good vibes in Camp Quade (at least until Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez almost got into a fight in the dugout).

But the days are longer now, one player said, and at least 10 were out taking extra batting practice in front of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo after Sundays game ended.

Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano are gone, but there was Alfonso Soriano that morning, walking from one end of the clubhouse to the other, bobbing his head and smiling: Hey babehey babehey babe.

I dont like to be the leader, Soriano said. My teammates can see how I play hard and how I work. I think they can take that to the field. I dont like to talk much. Just work hard and try to be better every day and try to win. Thats what I can take to the young guys here.

You can already see the bonds forming, top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson relaxing in chairs by their lockers. Cubs executives think theyll be glue guys for their lineup and clubhouse.

The things I can control are what I do every day, Jackson said. Im not going to make the team right now today. But every days a piece to that puzzle. Im going to keep working every day until that day comes, and when that day comes Im going to keep working there.

I believe in big things for the Cubs and its something I want to be a part of.

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Within the first several weeks of the Theo Epstein administration, the Cubs finished second in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, though nowhere close to the $51.7 million the Texas Rangers bid for the exclusive rights to negotiate a six-year, $60 million deal with the Japanese superstar.

The Cubs will probably have to wait a few more months for their next shot at Darvish, who is “unlikely to move” before the July 31 trade deadline, a source monitoring the situation said Monday. Darvish means enough to the franchise’s bottom line as a box-office draw and magnet for corporate sponsors that the Rangers would be reluctant to trade a player with global appeal and potentially jeopardize that relationship heading into free agency this winter.

Beyond the possible impact on re-signing Darvish, that would also mean foreclosing on a season where Texas is only 2.5 games out of an American League wild-card spot, making this final week critical to the buy-or-sell decision.

The Cubs would obviously prefer to stay out of the rental market after shipping two top prospects to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal. Quintana’s reasonable contract – almost $31 million between next season and 2020 once two team options are picked up – creates financial flexibility for a free-agent megadeal (Darvish?) or the next big-time international player.

But the cost of doing business with the White Sox probably means the Cubs wouldn’t have the super-elite prospect to anchor a trade for Darvish, anyway. That would be another obstacle in any possible deal for Sonny Gray, with an AL source saying the New York Yankees are going hard after the Oakland A’s right-hander (and have a deeper farm system and a greater sense of urgency after missing on Quintana).

All that means Kyle Hendricks could function as the trade-deadline addition for the rotation, with the Cubs instead trying to shorten games and deepen their bullpen by July 31.

After spending more than six weeks on the disabled list, the Cubs activated Hendricks for the start of this week’s crosstown series, watching him pitch into the fifth inning of Monday’s 3-1 loss to a White Sox team that had lost nine straight games.

[Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline]

Hendricks is a rhythm/feel pitcher who blossomed from an overlooked prospect in the Texas system into a piece in the buzzer-beater Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 deadline into last year’s major-league ERA leader.

Hendricks clearly isn’t locked in yet. He gave up eight hits, but minimized the damage against the White Sox, allowing only one run while putting up five strikeouts against zero walks.

“He wasn’t as normal,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The velocity was still down a little bit. There was not a whole lot of difference between his pitches. He was not what you would call ‘on.’ He would be the first one to tell you that. He looked fine delivery-wise, but the ball just wasn’t coming out as normal.”

Hendricks described his fastball command as “terrible,” called his secondary pitches “OK” and ultimately came to this conclusion: “Health-wise, everything felt great, so we’ll take that. Just got to get back (to my routine).”

The biggest takeaway is Hendricks didn’t feel any lingering effects from the right hand tendinitis that was initially classified as a minor injury in early June. Meaning the Cubs (51-47) are just about at full strength and have another week left to upgrade the defending World Series champs.

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

The crosstown rivalry doesn't end on the diamond.

Both Cubs and White Sox fans are highly competitive when it comes to trivia, too. 

We found that out when we bounced around Wrigley Field to quiz North and South Siders in a special edition of "Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?" 

Watch the video above as we pitted fans against eachother for the chance to win a killer shirt.