Epstein plans to build his own empire with Cubs

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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.

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

Kris Bryant: Major League Baseball could be going down 'slippery slope' with rules changes

MESA, Ariz. – Kris Bryant has led a charmed baseball life – Golden Spikes Award winner, Arizona Fall League MVP, consensus minor league player of the year, two-time All-Star, Hank Aaron Award winner, National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion – all before his 25th birthday last month.

So, no, the Cubs superstar doesn't see the need for any dramatic overhaul to a sport that's desperately trying to connect with Bryant's demographic and keep up at a time when iPhones are killing everyone's attention spans and the entertainment options are endless.            

"I love the way it is," Bryant before Wednesday's workout at the Sloan Park complex.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred essentially fired a warning shot during Tuesday's Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore, threatening to unilaterally impose pace-of-play changes – think pitch clock, limited mound visits, new strike zone – for the 2018 season if the players' union doesn't cooperate.

The first reported difference is the traditional four-pitch intentional walk turning into a dugout signal, which seems to be more of a cosmetic change than an actual efficiency measure.

"You're in the box, you want to force someone to make a pitch," said Bryant, who remembered Anthony Rizzo’s 10th-inning matchup against Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. "Just the World Series, for example, when 'Rizz' got intentionally walked. There were a couple that were low. What if the ball got away? That's huge. Especially in that type of situation – Game 7 of the World Series – you want to put pressure on the pitcher any way you can.

"It seems like it's not stressful at all, but any time you're not throwing at full effort for a pitcher, it seems like there's a chance that we could do damage on that."

That's actually Manfred's agenda in an age of grinding at-bats, specialized bullpens and defensive shifts – trying to create more action and eliminating some of the dead air more than simply cutting the length of games by a few minutes.

"The game's been the same to me since I was young, so I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Bryant said. "I think that's what makes our game great. It is a long game and we play 162 games a year and there's more strategy involved with it. I think it could be a slippery slope once you start changing all these things. 

"The people you really need to ask are the fans. The diehard fans are going to be the ones who oppose more changes. They're the ones who pay to watch us play. Those are the opinions that you need."

In using this power in the new collective bargaining agreement as leverage, Manfred is looking at the future of a $10 billion industry, insisting the game isn't broken when more than 75 million people visited major-league stadiums last season.

But even Cubs manager Joe Maddon – who’s usually open-minded and in tune with these kind of big-picture ideas – doesn’t get the pace-of-play focus.

"I'm not privy to all the reasons why it's so important," Maddon said. "It just appears to be important for the people in New York. My job is not to make those decisions. My job is to ultimately make the Cubs play well again, etc., so there are certain things that I don’t quite understand.

"If I had more interior information maybe you could be more supportive of it. On the surface – I've talked about it in the past – I don't really understand the pace-of-game issues because I don't really pay attention to that. I'm just locked into managing the game. The nine innings go 2 hours and 15 minutes, or 3 hours and 20, as long as you win, I don’t care.

"That's where I come from, but there's something obviously larger than that that's really causing a lot of these discussions. Again, from my office, I don't necessarily know what that is. But I do know new normals may occur."