Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

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Epstein can build his own Evil Empire

Larry Lucchino had to say something when reached by the worlds most influential newspaper. When asked about Jose Contreras, Bostons chief executive officer lit a match and threw it onto the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America, Lucchino told The New York Times.

This was around Christmas 2002, not long after Theo Epstein had become the youngest general manager in baseball history. The Red Sox had just lost out on Contreras, the Cuban defector who instead signed a four-year, 32 million contract with the Yankees.

To become a free agent, Contreras established residency in Nicaragua, where the negotiations took place at Hotel Campo Real. Dan Shaughnessy, the longtime columnist for The Boston Globe, detailed the back-and-forth in Reversing the Curse, his book on the 2004 Red Sox championship team.

Epstein told Shaughnessy that he never trashed his hotel room after Contreras spurned the Red Sox, and suggested that Yankee officials fed that nonstory to the New York newspapers.

The definitive account of this negotiation is still to be written. The moments of frustration inside the executive offices can be leaked later to the media. Lucchino and Cubs team president Crane Kenney will no doubt have something interesting to say.

But everyone already agrees on the ending: Epstein coming to Clark and Addison as the next head of baseball operations.

By late Tuesday, a source indicated that the Cubs and Red Sox still hadnt found the midpoint as they try to settle on the compensation that will allow Epstein to escape from the final year of his contract. Theyre still in standby mode.

The Cubs may have to ask commissioner Bud Selig to lift Major League Baseballs news blackout and receive permission to hold an Epstein press conference during the next several days. Meanwhile their biggest rival will be playing for their 11th World Series title.

Cubs-Cardinals is not Yankees-Red Sox. But once this is official, Epstein can go about building his own Evil Empire.

The Cubs dont have the winning tradition and they care about public perception. Tom Ricketts is a rational man who doesnt like to make impulsive decisions. The chairman doesnt have George Steinbrenners DNA, the need to create headlines.

But Epstein will be empowered to build an organization in his image. The front office will be expanded, in part because the Cubs have historically had one of the smallest staffs in baseball. Ricketts has identified bringing in more manpower as a priority.

Its unclear exactly how the staff will take shape, though it could have a distinct Boston influence.

SI.com reported Tuesday that the Cubs could make a run at Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014. Cubs people are hearing the same rumors about Josh Byrnes, another Padres executive who also used to work for the Red Sox.

The Cubs will be pooling their intellectual capital at a time when theyll be building new facilities in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, which will only help the scouting and player development machine Epstein once built for the Red Sox.

You wont believe it until you see it, but Cubs executives insist that Wrigley Field will be renovated within the next few years.

That project should improve what one player called the worst facilities in the game, and generate more revenue to pour into baseball operations. Maybe all this will sharpen their negotiating skills against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Team officials also hold out hopes for their own television network sometime in the future, which would only widen the resource gap between the Cubs and the rest of the National League Central.

Epstein wont exactly be on the side of the American League East divide that left the Red Sox so frustrated with the Yankees years ago. But he should be able to leverage a significant financial advantage over his rivals.

According to the USA Today salary database, the Yankees allocated almost 203 million to major-league payroll this year, while the Red Sox were around 161 million. In the National League, only the Phillies spent more than the Cubs.

The Cubs had a payroll that was roughly 20 million more than the Cardinals, 40 million more than the Brewers and 50 million more than the Reds.

Money doesnt guarantee happiness. The Cardinals will host the Rangers another team just outside a top-10 payroll for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night in St. Louis.

But if the Cubs ever develop their own Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, their fans will never have to worry about their favorite players leaving because they want to get rich in St. Louis or Milwaukee. It would more likely be Epsteins computers saying its not a good bet on their future performance.

During the Contreras stakeout, Epstein worked alongside Red Sox international scouting director Louis Eljaua, whos now a Cubs special assistant in charge of overseeing the construction of the new academy in the Dominican Republic. The kids there want to be the next Starlin Castro.

The opportunity here is to build an international brand, if not an Evil Empire. If the Cubs have to give up two prospects to secure their next president of baseball operations, remember that they can always find dozens and dozens more around the globe.

Soon enough, Epstein will stand at the podium and tell everyone how he plans to conquer the world.

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Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

Clubhouse frustration bubbling up for Cubs and Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage of The Plan and that wacky, fun-loving Cubs team to bring you a snapshot of clubhouse frustration.

Jake Arrieta sounded defensive while talking to reporters after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, standing in front of his locker and second-guessing manager Joe Maddon. On the other side of the room, veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the way the Cubs are preparing for the playoffs with Cactus League scripts.

The postgame questions started with Arrieta’s first-inning issues with umpire Chris Guccione’s strike zone. When reporters mentioned Maddon’s positive spin on a seven-run outing, Arrieta dismissed those happy-talk answers about his stuff — “it just wasn’t crisp” — and then wondered why he went from throwing to Montero to rookie Willson Contreras.

“The feeling of the game, from the first pitch, just wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame. But I didn’t throw well, no way around it.”

Montero went with a similar passive-aggressive tone, riffing on how the Cubs will maintain their edge almost two weeks after clinching the National League Central title and nine days before their first playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“Did it feel like spring training?” Montero said. “I do believe that. And that’s not a good feeling for a pitcher, for a player, to go into a game knowing that you’re going to play just four innings or five innings or whatever it is.

“This game is still important for all the players. It’s still important for every single guy. I don’t want to go out there not caring about winning or losing. That’s not my mentality. My mentality is going out there because I want to win, regardless.

“We have to trick our mind. Because if that’s how we’re going to go the rest of the way, I guess we need to trick ourselves.”

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Unprompted, Montero brought up the Pirates scoring three runs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night before the Cubs hung on for a 6-4 victory — without using Aroldis Chapman — as Maddon tries to keep the bullpen fresh for the playoffs.

“We didn’t have our closer warming up,” Montero said. “That’s something I take personally because I’m catching and I want to win.

“It’s hard. I understand (Joe’s) point. And I understand the organization’s point. I respect it. I can only control what I can control. It is what it is.”

OK then, the Cubs are still a 101-win team and the NL’s No. 1 seed. But this became a sharp contrast to all the backslapping after the pregame announcement of Theo Epstein’s monster contract extension. And Arrieta didn’t look like a reigning Cy Young Award winner, giving up 10 hits while John Jaso — who does look like a Pirate — lined a curveball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the fourth inning and hit for the cycle.

“We’re moving on,” Arrieta said. “We’ll prepare for the next one. I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything’s fine.”

With Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks lined up at the front of the playoff rotation, Arrieta’s next start is almost two weeks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arrieta said. “I’ll throw sides. I’ll prepare. And whoever I face first round — they’re going to be in trouble.”

After burning through 103 pitches in five innings, Arrieta’s regular-season odometer is now at 197 1/3 innings, but he has zero interest in a gimmick that would get him to 200 this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“Listen, I want to pitch on a schedule,” Arrieta said. “I don’t want to throw an inning in a game. I’m not trying to do anything different. Let’s just prepare like we normally do and go out and try to win games. I’m not trying to throw a bullpen in a game.”

Look, if this isn’t trouble in paradise, then it’s obvious that the Cubs are a hyper-competitive group that knows what’s at stake in October and has some independent thinkers and strong personalities. And that Arrieta’s unreal 2015 season created impossible standards for this year that couldn’t be met with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, the type of numbers that still get pitchers $200 million contracts.

“I don’t think you know how hard this game is unless you play it,” Arrieta said. “I feel I can have another season like that. People have done it before. Why can’t I do it? I can do it again. So, yeah, I appreciate it. But at the same time, that’s what you strive for. That’s why you work hard. You go out and you try to perform that way.”