Epstein, Krause have similarities

572794.jpg

Epstein, Krause have similarities

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

All of this Theo-mania got me thinking about former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Was I over-serving myself, along with the giggly Cubs faithful at the bar? Not this time! All of this excitement over the makeup of a front office struck me as ironic in that how far weve come.

For most of my lifetime, the front office of any team was regarded much like any on-field official or kicker: we only noticed them when they screwed up. For fans the off-field face was the coach. When the Kool-aid drinking faithful fondly recall the 85 Bears, they dont regale me with the exploits of Jim Finks and Jerry Vainisi, its all about 'Da Coach.'

The importance, or at least the perception of the men in suits came to a head in bar conversations, 'Get it?!' When the on-going feud between Krause and his star player, Michael Jordan, reached epic proportions because of Krauses infamous organizations win championships comment. Jordan took great offense to the remark and his immense fandom went along with him. Players win championships! Krauses surly demeanor and unflattering appearance only added to the piling on. How dare he belittle M. J. like that?

It reminds me of the perception of the Nixon-Kennedy debates where we first became aware of the fact, in this TV age, that appearance could have an effect on the perception of substance. I have to admit, at the time, I was fond for pointing out that if you spotted me the best player on the planet, even a red-bow-tie wearing bartender could have built a championship team, thus was Jordans greatness and my fans disdain for Krause. Over time though, those of us who looked deeper, have a different opinion. This is especially true when you take into account what Krause says is the original comment, not the Jordan interpretation: Players and coaches alone dont win championships, organizations win championships.

That statement has proven time and time again to have validity, irregardless of having a singular, other-worldly talent. Much of this perspective is gained in the 247 sports news cycle we live in. There is not any angle of how any organization is run that is not fully inspected in public discourse. While we still reserve most of our adoration for those who have accomplished their greatness on the field, there has become a greater appreciation for, and attention paid to, those who are responsible off of it.

The flip-side is that G.M.s and certain club presidents will get universal ire for their very public failings. Its no longer enough for an under-performing player to feel the fans wrath. We also want the head of the shmuck that had the lack of foresight to sign him. (For way too much money, I might add!) Its a brave new world where even the casual fan can not only list the five general manager's in this town, but without thinking, tell you the job titles of John McDonough, John Paxson and Jay Blunk!

Which brings me to the fanfare accorded to the Cubs new hire this week. I wasnt around in 1981 when they hired Dallas Green away from the Phillies to be their executive vice presidentgeneral managersavior. Im sure the move prompted a lot of response here as I know it did in Philly. But, I seriously doubt it reached the point of national obsession. Green brought with him his mantra of Building a New Tradition and lots of excitement, but we obviously know his tenure was more bitter than sweet.

The next chosen one was the hiring of former Minnesota Twins general manager (Who had won two World Series titles, sound familiar?) Andy McPhail to be the Cubs President and CEO in 1994. I also was not around for that one either, since I moved here in January of 95, but as a die-hard baseball fan living in New Jersey at the time, that move hardly created a ripple where I was, as important as it was. After moving here, it was hard to differentiate him from the unimpassioned suits from the Tribune Company that were perceived to have more interest in making money than fielding a perennial powerhouse.

-In another of my Forrest Gump moments: for what reason I cant remember, possibly to pick-up some freebies!! I was in the box that serves as the waiting area to the Cubs offices, just before a Friday game, when I saw McPhail, suitcase in hand, leaving. When asked where he was going by the receptionist as he was walking through the door, he cheerily informed her that he was heading to the Twin Cities for the weekend for a 10-year reunion of one of his World Series teams. I dont know why a club executive leaving his team, as it was about to play a game, to go celebrate past accomplishments, made me feel weird and awkward (I do enough of that on my own!) but it did. Funny are the things that leave an impression.-

And now we have the ultimate line of demarcation for a franchise and the long awaited stamp of the Ricketts family ownership. (Although down the road in retrospect, that stamp might be the last draft in the Jim Hendry era when they decided to be a player and pony up the money that big-time amateur talent wantsgets when they decide to turn pro, a huge shift in philosophy.) From this point on it is After Theo in Cubs history. In an offseason that approached with visions of Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder donning Cubbie Blue for the next 10 seasons, the long-suffering fans have been reinvigorated with the signing of a new-age baseball franchise architect. My, how times have changed. A fan base is doing cartwheels and all of baseball taking notice over the hiring of a suit. Make no mistake though, this guy is a rock star. His youthful persona and accomplishments in Boston made him a transcendent figure. Any price paid for him will be well worth it, in my opinion.

The thing I find ironic is that in this time of downsizing, Theo espouses bigger is better. Hes looking for more than a few good men, more than an army of one. For a franchise that has languished for all of our lifetimes, this shows a thoughtful, all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency. The sign of any great leader is that he recognizes that he is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with. The other great leadership trait thing is that he is able to concisely convey his vision so that all can understand. Laying out his plan for the Cubs Way is an important first step in setting realistic expectations for a now re-engaged fan base.

A testament to his credibility is that his words were not met with the usual wait and see skepticism from a group that has been lead down this path before. Unlike what he inherited in Boston, this is a tear down. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and most of us understand that. Which means its not going to be an easy, quick, nor inexpensive task. But building something with a base strong enough to bear the weight of over a centurys worth of disappointment is going to be a time staking task.

It will start with the draft. It will start with the new academy in the Dominican Republic. It will start with constant, consistent instruction and expectation as a player climbs the ladder in the organization. Then ultimately, it will take these products of the system, and wise choices in free-agency to build the team that finally ends the Northside misery. In baseball it takes both, home-grown and bought talent to win. Theo understands this. You cant do one without the other. He also understands that to have a system that provides players worthy of being augmented by impact free-agents, you need to build an organization that is rock-solid from the ground up.

As we have heard before in this town, Theo is telling us that it takes more than players and coaches alone to win a championship. It takes a winning organization too. He is being lauded by one and all for this vision and foresight. Somewhere, Jerry Krause has to be thinking, where have I heard that before?

Winter meetings preview: Why teams will find trying to copy a ‘Cubs Way’ rebuild is easier said than done

Winter meetings preview: Why teams will find trying to copy a ‘Cubs Way’ rebuild is easier said than done

Add this to the long list of things the Cubs will have going for them when they defend their World Series title: All those teams that aren’t really trying to win in 2017.

Tanking helped the Cubs become the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season, a stunning turnaround that became part of the backdrop during the labor negotiations.

A copycat industry saw The Cubs Way and the Houston Astros launching into playoff contention, how the restrictions on spending in the draft and on the international market – and the dramatic disparities in bonus pools – heavily incentivized losing under the previous collective bargaining agreement.

Listen to the party lines this week when Major League Baseball takes over National Harbor outside Washington, D.C., all the winter meetings talk about asset management, fiscal discipline and opportunity costs.

“The way the front offices have evolved, and what owners are maybe looking for in their executives,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “it’s a ‘league of planners’ now.”

“There’s not necessarily that like urgency to put a team on the field that can win right now. So that makes certain trades a little bit more difficult. But it maybe creates some opportunity, too.

“Anything that gives you benefit can also be taken to an extreme. It should be a cycle where there’s a mix of teams with longer-term planning and some with some immediacy.”    

The Washington Nationals are chasing the Cubs, reportedly in the mix for Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen as the White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates shop their face-of-the-franchise players. The New York Mets know who they are, already striking a four-year, $110 million deal to bring back Yoenis Cespedes and pair the dynamic slugger with all their young power pitchers.

But look around the winter meetings and almost half of the National League will be focusing on 2019 and beyond.

The Philadelphia Phillies have essentially no financial commitments for their 2018 Opening Day roster – and zero players left from their 2008 World Series championship team. The Atlanta Braves – once a franchise model for consistency – lost 188 games across the last two seasons as they lined up talent for their move into a new Cobb County stadium in 2017.

The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds lost 183 games combined this year and have general managers heading into their second full seasons on the job. But David Stearns and Dick Williams don’t have the instant credibility Epstein’s baseball-operations group did after winning World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Or the big-market resources to sign frontline pitcher Jon Lester to a $155 million contract, the way the Cubs did at the 2014 winter meetings, accelerating their process.   

The Arizona Diamondbacks are now on their fifth GM (Mike Hazen) since the middle of the 2010 season, which means starting over again in the desert. Except for the players the San Diego Padres are paying to play somewhere else – like James Shields and Matt Kemp – they don’t have any long-term financial commitments on their roster.

It’s always nice to have a plan. But saying the White Sox should blow it up is so much easier than actually going through with a blockbuster Sale trade and building methodically for the future.

“We feel fortunate,” Epstein said. “We had a lot of people in the organization who did a wonderful job – and we also caught some good breaks along the way. Looking back on it, we hit at a much higher rate on some trades and some picks than we reasonably could have expected to – and that made it happen quicker.

“There were days in the beginning – and even like towards the middle of the process – where we’d stare up at the board, look at the 2015 roster, the 2016 roster a few years out and not know where all the impact talent was coming from. Or we’d have some real clear deficiencies on the club, even as we hoped it would come together.

“Those weaknesses were gradually filled with really good players. We’re just lucky that we made plenty of mistakes, but were able to cover those up with some acquisitions who blossomed. To do it quickly, there’s not much margin for error.

“I’m glad we’re in a different position now. But I’m also glad that we went through it, because it was a really fun, gratifying, unifying process.”

Even The Plan had to be readjusted once Epstein began to realize some of the franchise’s spending restrictions from the Ricketts family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co.

Epstein also had to fire three managers (Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria) before hiring Joe Maddon, who only became a free agent because Andrew Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers in October 2014.

It took guts to draft Kyle Schwarber fourth overall in 2014 – and some luck the year before when the Astros passed on future MVP Kris Bryant with the No. 1 pick.  

Where would the Cubs be if the Randall Delgado deal with the Braves hadn’t collapsed in the summer of 2012? And Ryan Dempster hadn’t approved the trade to the Texas Rangers that yielded Class-A pitcher Kyle Hendricks?

No one predicted Triple-A pitcher Jake Arrieta would someday win a Cy Young Award when the Cubs flipped Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013.

“The messaging in your clubhouse is really difficult,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “The messaging to your fan base is really difficult. Fans grow to like players on their team. And when you trade away the guy whose jersey they just got for Christmas – or you trade away a guy’s friend and mentor in the clubhouse, whoever that might be – that’s hard messaging. And I think you have to try to be transparent about it.

“But it is difficult. And I don’t think every rebuilding situation is going to work. You’ve got to hit on a lot of different transactions. You’ve got to fix your culture after you’ve taken a step backwards. There are a lot of different steps to getting it right.”

In this climate, even the game’s economic superpowers are turning conservative. The New York Yankees became trade-deadline sellers for the first time in a generation, moving closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs while collecting long-term assets like shortstop Gleyber Torres, who’s now the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported the Dodgers face a mandate to reduce debt to comply with MLB rules, leading to an austerity program that could slash payroll from around $300 million in 2015 to somewhere closer to $200 million by 2018.      

After years of living beyond their means – and winning four consecutive division titles between 2011 and 2014 – the Detroit Tigers are facing a financial reckoning that could lead to a teardown.

The Cubs still need more pitching, but they already have: arguably the game’s best collection of young talent; a patient, stable ownership group; a creative front office that skillfully blends scouting and analytics; a three-time Manager of the Year; a strong coaching staff; an All-Star infield; a rotation stocked with Cy Young Award candidates; an iconic stadium anchoring the $600 million Wrigleyville development; and a new TV contract on the horizon.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

Once again, the Cubs should benefit from zigging while so many of their competitors are zagging.

“A number of teams have done a good job of it and been successful,” Hoyer said. “I think we’re one of those teams. But the idea that you can rip the Band-Aid off, be bad for a couple years, make some trades and always end up on the positive side – I don’t think that’s realistic.”

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

The billionaire owners and millionaire athletes wisely decided to not stop all that momentum after a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings, attracted more than 40 million viewers for Game 7 and turned the 2016 Cubs into legends.

The owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war, crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should unleash teams that had been waiting to see the rules of engagement, spur the free-agent market, accelerate trade talks and ignite Major League Baseball’s signature offseason event.

The Cubs can go viral seemingly anywhere now – “Saturday Night Live,” Disney World, “The Tonight Show,” the Latin Grammys, an Indiana-North Carolina basketball game, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but don’t expect them to own the winter meetings this time.

As a $10 billion industry begins to descend upon National Harbor in Maryland on Sunday, Cubs officials won’t feel any of the urgency that fueled the spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and helped end the 108-year drought.

“We said at the time that we did two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason last year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really liked the talent available to us last offseason. It was a very good free-agent market. We felt like building upon a 97-win team that got to the NLCS but was swept. We wanted to improve some of the deficiencies on that club and really push forward.

“We were really aggressive with what we did last offseason. We told everyone at the time that we felt like we were kind of shopping for two offseasons.

“So with that in mind, I don’t expect nearly the activity we had a year ago.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

Sensing the pitching market might erupt at that point, the Cubs pushed to close John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when word leaked out that Greinke had agreed to a six-year, $206 million megadeal.

The perfect storm brought Ben Zobrist to Chicago, once the Cubs finally engineered a Starlin Castro trade at the winter meetings, with the New York Yankees being the only team willing to absorb $38 million, give up a useful pitcher (Adam Warren) and take a chance on the former All-Star shortstop. Zobrist turned down $60 million guaranteed from the Giants and New York Mets, taking a four-year, $56 million deal and delivering a World Series MVP performance.

The opt-out clauses within Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million contract don’t seem so inviting anymore – and he said those weren’t important to him anyway – but he provided Gold Glove defense in right field, called that pivotal team meeting during the Game 7 rain delay in Cleveland and should rebound after the worst offensive season of his career.

The Cubs have no expectations that Dexter Fowler’s market will again crater to the point that he will accept a $13 million guarantee in spring training, moving on with a center-field timeshare between Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.

“The bulk of our heavy lifting is done,” Hoyer said. “But I think that was done 12 months ago. It will be a quieter winter than last offseason.

“We’re always listening. If good ideas come to us – or we come up with good ideas – we’ll share them with other teams. But fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of things, because they got that 12 months ago.” 

Fans also won’t be getting crash courses on labor relations and lockout implications. A game that can be slow, boring and stuck in its ways can’t waste the energy and excitement that created crossover moments like LeBron James showing up at the United Center in a Cubs uniform.

“There’s no doubt that it was an amazing postseason all around,” Hoyer said. “Baseball really showed itself in the best possible light, ending with a Game 7 that we happened to win. But win or lose, that was one of the greatest games ever played. Baseball is certainly going to be on a high going into spring training.

“Baseball is definitely in a great place right now.”