Mooney: Cubs model will be building from within

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Mooney: Cubs model will be building from within

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010
7:20 PM
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

In a letter sent to season-ticket holders on Oct. 8, Tom Ricketts highlighted two men who could walk through OHare International Airport without being noticed by Cubs fans.

Ricketts praised Tim Wilken as one of the best scouting directors in baseball. The chairman also credited vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita for a minor-league system that went 374-316. Only the St. Louis Cardinals finished with a higher overall winning percentage among their farm clubs in 2010.

In style and tone, it distanced Ricketts from the wealthy owner thinking of himself as a master of the universe. There will be days in the future where he stands in the Wrigley Field stadium club next to the free agent holding up a new Cubs jersey as the flashbulbs pop all around them.

But a purchase that took his family several years to complete was finalized on Oct. 27, 2009. One year later, looking back on a deal that cost more than 800 million, its become clear that the model will be to build the Cubs from within.

Remember that the next time someone wishes on Cliff Lee coming to Chicago.

Thats not to say its impossible. Just that it sounds out of character for the Cubs to win a bidding war between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers for a pitcher who will turn 33 next season and is probably looking for a contract that compares to CC Sabathias seven-year, 161 million deal.

In his state-of-the-team address, Ricketts mentioned Wilken and Fleita before Jim Hendry, though both are deeply connected to the Cubs general manager.

Wilken who joined the organization almost five years ago grew up with Hendry in Dunedin, Fla., and his first-round picks are finally beginning to show in Chicago. Fleita who oversees the minor-league affiliates and international operations played for Hendry at Creighton University.

Looking at the big picture, they will be just as important as manager Mike Quade, if not more influential. Even Quade who managed 17 seasons in the minors and four at Triple-A Iowa fits into the vision of promoting from within and becoming more cost-effective.

A letter that ran 28 paragraphs contained no reference to Lou Piniella, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster or Alfonso Soriano. Ricketts did point to Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner and Casey Coleman.

All need to take the next step in 2011, but we are very encouraged to have a group of young, homegrown players emerge as regulars in 2010, Ricketts wrote. It is my strong belief that, in the end, it is organizations with strong farm systems that win championships and I am convinced that our organization is making progress (in) what had been a weak spot.

The baseball operations department will assemble for organizational meetings next week in Arizona. The offseason agenda could include: an established starting pitcher to account for Ted Lillys 200 innings; a first baseman to replace Derrek Lee in the middle of the order; andor a veteran reliever to stabilize the bullpen.

Ownership has indicated there will probably be a drop from the payroll level on Opening Day 2010 approximately 145 million and financial commitments for next season begin around 125 million.

But the overall baseball budget is supposed to remain the same. The expectation is that whatever funds are cut from the major-league payroll will be diverted to amateur signings, international scouting and minor-league infrastructure.

The development process has already begun. By sometime in 2011, the homegrown core could include three-fifths of the rotation (Zambrano, Coleman and Randy Wells), the back end of the bullpen (Cashner, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol) and several key position players (Castro, Colvin and Geovany Soto).

Privately, the Cubs are hoping that outfielder Brett Jackson, a 2009 first-round pick, could have an impact next year. They look at Wilkens track record after his involvement in the signings of Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Carlos Delgado and Alex Rios during his 25 seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays.

There will likely be several versions of the blueprint. Before reaching their first World Series game in franchise history on Wednesday night, the Rangers cycled in and out of rebuilding phases.

At the 2007 deadline, Texas dealt Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves for a package that yielded an All-Star shortstop (Elvis Andrus) and an All-Star closer (Neftali Feliz). Three years later, the Rangers traded four prospects to get Lee, perhaps the most clutch postseason pitcher of his generation.

The San Francisco Giants invested almost 200 million in three players Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand and Mark DeRosa who were nonfactors as they won the National League pennant.

But the Giants had insurance after developing four good starters and a dominant closer Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Brian Wilson. They found inexpensive help for their lineup with Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell.

Ricketts can be patient because there is a belief his family will own the team for generations. Ownership has also shown that it will be rational, analyzing five million data points before finding out where supply meets demand and setting ticket prices for next season.

But the system cant carry an entire 25-man roster. Just ask the Rangers or Giants. The Cubs will need to get creative before being able to send out invoices for playoff tickets.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

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How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

In the span of just over a week, Ian Happ has gone from arguably the Cubs' biggest trade piece to the 2017 savior.

OK, "savior" is extreme, but Happ has been an unlikely stabilizing force for the defending world champions.

In a week's worth of big-league action (seven games), Happ has smacked six extra base-hits, scored seven runs and posted a 1.182 OPS. But his impact has been so much more than just the numbers on the back of his Topps card.

Happ's presence has helped the Cubs reinvent themselves.

The plan heading into the 2017 season was to have Kyle Schwarber lead off and Ben Zobrist reprise his 2016 role as lineup protection for Anthony Rizzo.

But with Schwarber struggling atop the order, Happ's presence has freed up the ever-patient Zobrist to become the team's new leadoff as the week-old rookie is now protecting a perennial MVP candidate in Rizzo.

"It's all based on Ian Happ," Joe Maddon said. "I'm still very aware of protecting Rizzo. And that's where Zobrist came in handy. Now to this point, I'm looking at last month's numbers, Zo's really ascending and Schwarbs has come back a little bit regarding just getting on base.

"So Zo's the most likely candidate among all the groups to try to get on base more often and Rizzo's still protected with Ian. Just moving everybody down one slot with Ian there taking the role of Zobrist, I kinda wanted to give it a try."

It's only one game, but the refurbished lineup scored 13 runs Sunday, collecting 10 extra-base hits and scoring in seven of eight offensive innings.

Happ was right there in the middle of it all, smoking a 108 mph double off the right field wall in the first inning and doubling again later in the game. 

Zobrist homered. Rizzo homered. Bryant — who said hitting third is where he's most comfortable in the lineup — crushed a pair of homers and reached base five times. Schwarber went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.

With Happ's presence bumping Schwarber down in the order, Maddon also has moved back to hitting the pitcher last.

"In my mind's eye, I'm more able or wanting to hit the pitcher ninth again because Schwarber is moved back," Maddon said. "Part of the method was to try to feed Schwarber with a nine-hole hitter."

With Happ in the lineup, the Cubs are averaging 6.3 runs per game. 

Again, it's a small sample size and the Cubs were due for an offensive explosion after a slow start to the season, but Happ has been a central figure.

"Nothing surprises me [with him]," Bryant said. "We all saw what he can do in spring. It's not surprising at all. He's definitely provided a spark for us since he's been up.

"He's just been great out there, moving all over the field. I don't even know what his main position is, but if it's center field, he's out there doing a good job, too."

Willson Contreras helped provide the 2016 Cubs with a jolt of energy when he made his debut in mid-June. Happ is doing the same thing this season, though his arrival has come a month earlier in the 2017 campaign.

Happ has only played one full season of professional baseball and appeared in just 91 games above A-ball before making his big-league debut.

But he's looked like he belongs from the outset, blending into a clubhouse that has welcomed so many young position players over the last few years.

Maddon's message to Happ upon arriving was simple: Why don't you stay a while?

It's not as catchy as "try not to suck," but it has helped Happ relax.

"Sometimes, we underestimate the impact we have on anybody," Maddon said. "In my situation, as a manager to the player, so you say something like that just trying to get somebody to relax and who knows?

"Like Javy with 'try not to suck' a couple years ago, who knows how it's processed and how it permits the player to process the day? I knew how good [Happ] was in spring training, I knew how good he's been this season and I just know how he is.

"So there was no reason for him not to approach it like, 'I want to stay a while.'"

Happ spent most of his time in the minors as a second baseman, but with Baez and Zobrist around, Maddon doesn't see a way to work the rookie in the infield at this time.

But then again, two weeks ago, nobody could fathom how the Cubs could possibly work another position player into the lineup on a consistent basis, but that's worked itself out. Right now, it's Albert Almora Jr. being relegated to the bench as Happ has taken over in center field.

Of course, there's still more than four months left in the season and things will undoubtedly change again. 

But for now, Happ has forced the issue and altered the entire identity of the 2017 Cubs.