Epstein plans to build his own empire with Cubs


Epstein plans to build his own empire with Cubs

Theo Epstein isnt looking for the cameras red light. He doesnt really want to see his name or picture in the newspaper. He prefers to remain in the shadows.

Epstein has already said dont bother looking for him in the lobby of the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, where the industry will begin checking in on Sunday for the winter meetings. Expect him to order room service and make deals in his hotel suite.

Epstein is polite and polished with an Ivy League pedigree. He can sound like a politician at the news conference, saying all the right things. But people who know him well also describe him as almost insanely competitive.

This is the man who took down the Evil Empire.

He is as down-to-earth a guy as youre going to find, general manager Jed Hoyer said. But I will say when he turns it on, its pretty clear hes got a gear that the rest of us dont have.

Co-workers have joked about the hype surrounding the new Cubs president of baseball operations. There are the T-shirts in the shop windows on Clark Street: THEOLOGY and IN THEO WE TRUST.

Theo-mania, chairman Tom Ricketts said with a bemused look.

Epstein may seem weary of the spotlight, but he absolutely wants the power and responsibility that comes with it. This title gives him total control over the baseball side, without interference from ownership or business operations, and that almost certainly isnt part of the job description in Boston.

Along with the rise of the Red Sox, those kinds of turf battles forced Brian Cashman to confront George Steinbrenner a few years ago. The Yankees have headquarters in New York and Tampa, Fla., and their general manager realized that he had to unite the factions and build their own scouting and player-development machine.

I saw what Theo was doing in Boston, Cashman said. I had a heart-to-heart with George and I had told The Boss I wasnt going to stay because I didnt like how we were going about our business.

I said: Listen, theyre over-slotting in the draft. Theyre going to have a great farm system. Theyre spending money like we are in free agency. (Theyre) going to pass us up.

(Steinbrenner) said, Go ahead, man, and you take it over and you do what you think you have to do. I basically tried to match everything they were doing to get us back on line.

Now its on Epstein to change the way the Cubs do business.

After Ricketts fired general manager Jim Hendry last summer, he consulted around 20 people throughout the industry. In private conversations with owners, agents and executives, Theos name was the one name that just kept coming up.

Ricketts also had two analysts study the efficiency of every other major-league organization, breaking down payrolls and farm systems, but this was a pretty obvious choice. They just werent sure if Epstein would be available by October.

That was the biggest risk in the process, Ricketts said, because you got to make the phone call before you know. We asked the Red Sox for permission and frankly we could have just got faced. They could have said no.

It was just my gut (feeling) that after everything hes accomplished in Boston, this would just be a great next challenge for him.

Cashman who joined the Yankees as a 19-year-old intern in 1986 and has won five World Series rings since then is one of the few people who could understand the relentless pressure of that job.

But where Epstein became restless after two titles and nearly a decade in Boston, Cashman recently agreed to a new three-year contract that will keep him in New York.

The devil you know is better than the devil you dont know, Cashman reasoned. (Its) taken a long time. A lot of the people I work with are the people I personally hired. Do I want to go through a process of letting certain people go and trying to get permission to hire other people? Thats extra work that Im not afraid of doing, but Ive already done it.

I know our media. I know our fan base. I know our owners. I know my team president. And I know what makes them all tick. Theres power and knowledge in that. Im not afraid of the learning curve going somewhere else, but there is a learning curve, so why volunteer yourself for that? Thats my route.

The Yankees print so much money that Cashman doesnt get as much credit for what hes built. But hes not just a checkbook general manager, spending wisely in the draft, international market and free agency.

Within industry circles, Cashman was mentioned as a potential target for the Cubs, though he cautioned that just because your name gets thrown out publicly doesnt mean its accurate.

They got the guy they wanted, Cashman said. I dont think I was in their plans at all.

At their initial meeting, Ricketts found Epstein to be low-key and thoughtful, someone who could transform not just the baseball operation, but the entire organizations culture.

Epstein wont talk trash, but now hes going after St. Louis and Milwaukee. After taking down one empire, he wants to build another.

We looked at the Yankees, Epstein said, (with) their resources and their baseball smarts (and assumed) that theyre going to win 95-to-100 games every year. That helped us elevate our game. That set the bar really high and I thought that served us well over the years.

Now you look at what the Cardinals are doing, what the Brewers did this year, the bright futures of some of the teams in this division (and) we can take the same approach.

Why Joe Maddon chose Albert Almora Jr. over Jason Heyward in huge Game 6 for Cubs

Why Joe Maddon chose Albert Almora Jr. over Jason Heyward in huge Game 6 for Cubs

With the chance to book their first trip to the World Series since 1945, the Cubs benched the player with the biggest contract in franchise history and started a 22-year-old rookie who began this season at Triple-A Iowa.

Now that says something about Clayton Kershaw’s overall brilliance and Albert Almora Jr.’s precocious nature, but it also again spotlights Jason Heyward’s offensive spiral during the first year of that $184 million megadeal.  

Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field, well-rounded skills and clubhouse intangibles certainly helped the Cubs get to this point – up 3-2 on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series – but manager Joe Maddon wanted to go in a different direction for Saturday’s Game 6 at Wrigley Field.   

“Kershaw’s pretty good,” Maddon said. “You look at his numbers, he’s been absurd versus lefties, (so you) get another right-handed bat out there and the way Albert can play defense really makes it a little bit easier.

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“If we didn’t have the opportunity to do something differently tonight I wouldn’t have. But we do. Albert just presents well at the plate – and well on defense – to the point where I thought we needed to give it a go.”

Almora – the first player the Theo Epstein regime drafted here with the sixth overall pick in 2012 – could be the 2017 Opening Day starter in center field if Dexter Fowler cashes in elsewhere as a free agent.

After posting career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631) during the regular season, Heyward has gone 2-for-28 (.071 average) in the playoffs and will probably need to reboot during the winter.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of internal work done in the offseason with him, no question,” Maddon said. “You know he’s not satisfied with the year. (But) he was a big part of our 100-plus wins this year.

“It is something that he has to work on – and he will work on it – but by no means is anybody giving up on him. He just needs to probably clear his mind a little bit when this is all said and done and get back to the drawing board.”

Cubs hoping Kyle Schwarber can make World Series comeback

Cubs hoping Kyle Schwarber can make World Series comeback

As if the possibility of clinching their first National League pennant in 71 years didn’t create enough drama and excitement in Wrigleyville, the Cubs have sent Kyle Schwarber to the Arizona Fall League, hoping he can add another chapter to his October legend.

Schwarber earned this chance after beating every expectation in his recovery from major surgery on his left knee in April. The Cubs haven’t ruled anything in or out – and still need to take care of business against the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend – but they want to see how he responds on Saturday with the Mesa Solar Sox and ultimately decide if he would be a viable designated-hitter option for the World Series.

Schwarber gained clearance on Monday from Dr. Daniel Cooper, the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL after a brutal outfield collision during the first week of the regular season. Schwarber immediately phoned Theo Epstein after the six-month checkup. The Cubs president anticipated getting a better idea of when the left-handed slugger might start hitting and eventually play winter ball.   

“I wasn’t expecting the call,” Epstein said. “We got news that was beyond better than we could have expected by any reasonable standard.

“He asked for a chance to do this. With as hard as Kyle has worked and as much as this means to him – and potentially to us – we wanted to give him that opportunity.”

Schwarber flew from Dallas on Monday to Los Angeles, where he hit in the cage at Dodger Stadium that night. As the NL Championship Series unfolded, Schwarber hit again on Tuesday and then left for Arizona on Wednesday to ramp up his baseball activities and prove whether or not he could again be a difference-maker in October.

Schwarber, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Indiana University, generated 16 home runs in 69 games last season and then set a franchise record with five homers in the playoffs. The Cleveland Indians would have to account for that kind of lineup presence in potential World Series Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at Progressive Field, plus the pinch-hit opportunities to drive another ball onto a Wrigley Field video board.

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“We’ll see where this goes,” Epstein said. “We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We have a lot of work to do here before this becomes pertinent on a short-term basis. But it’s a testament to how hard Kyle has worked to even be in this position where it’s a possibility.” 

The Cubs still have to deal with Clayton Kershaw on Saturday night in Game 6, and then judge whether or not this layoff is too long, even for one of their best young hitters, especially against Cleveland’s dynamic bullpen.

Schwarber has been working out with a brace on his left knee, taking live batting practice on Friday in Mesa against James Farris, a Cubs prospect in the Arizona Fall League. The Cubs will have scouts watching Schwarber, who’s supposed to call Epstein and the team’s medical staff again on Saturday night with an update. The Cubs have already received good reports on Schwarber’s agility tests, watching him running, cutting and changing directions.

“He’s so passionate about baseball,” Epstein said. “He’s just been behind the scenes working his tail off and managing to stay part of the team. Physically, he’s on an accelerated timetable. And from a baseball standpoint, certainly, he’s only got about a week or so to get ready. But mentally, he’s been preparing for this for six months.

“He’s been doing advance scouting. He’s been watching how pitchers attack hitters. He’s been studying his own video. He’s been studying opposing video, so mentally he’s been preparing for this for a long time and has been itching to contribute.

“Just the fact that he’s gotten to this point is a testament to his character. He’s got everyone in the organization pulling for him.”

This is all goes back to how the Cubs drafted Schwarber when some in the industry viewed him as a DH and a reach that high in the first round, or why he became untouchable when the New York Yankees kept asking about him before trading lights-out reliever Andrew Miller to the Indians.

The Cubs will never bet against Schwarber.

“Typically guys need much longer to get their timing and get ready,” Epstein said. “But I wouldn’t put anything past Kyle.”