With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

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With or without Epstein, Cubs will follow Red Sox

The Cubs were back at Fenway Park for the first time in almost 93 years, since Babe Ruth and the Red Sox were winning the 1918 World Series. No one wanted to miss out on this scene.

Ownership, team executives and staffers traveled to Boston to see the franchise they hope will become a mirror image. Even players posed for pictures with the Green Monster in the background and squeezed through the narrow opening to get behind the left-field scoreboard.

As much as the Cubs want to model themselves after the Red Sox, these two teams appeared to be heading in completely opposite directions on May 20. Now The Boston Globe is reporting that the Cubs have asked for permission to speak with Theo Epstein.

Terry Francona, who had managed the Red Sox to two World Series titles, filled out the lineup card that day. What were the odds that he would be unemployed before first-year manager Mike Quade? About the same as a home-run ball landing in the Green Monster seats right by Cubs president Crane Kenney?

This was 26 days before Tom Ricketts would express 100 percent confidence in Jim Hendry, nine weeks before the chairman would fire his general manager and three months before they would reveal the decision publicly.

There are so many variables to this search process. The Rays saw their miracle season end on Tuesday, perhaps clearing the way for the Cubs to also ask for permission to speak with Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman.

But the Cubs and Red Sox are now both trying to come up with answers for disappointing seasons. You can try to find reassurance in the numbers, but emotions and egos always get in the way. This is an unpredictable, volatile business.

What are the odds that Epstein would leave his hometown? The fact that people are even asking that question probably says something. Whether or not the Red Sox general manager actually quits his dream job, the Cubs will be seriously looking at this model.

That could mean asking about assistant general manager Ben Cherington, whos listed directly below Epstein on the organizations masthead. Cherington, who graduated from Amherst College, has been with the Red Sox since 1999 and is seen as another young rising star in the industry, deserving of the chance to run his own team (maybe even in Boston).

Either executive would fit the criteria Ricketts outlined when he announced Hendrys firing. The next general manager would be committed to player development, fluent in statistical analysis and from a winning culture.

On that clear, cool night in Boston, the Red Sox gave the ball to Jon Lester, an All-Star whos only 27 and has already won the clincher in a World Series. They had an elite closer in Jonathan Papelbon, another homegrown pitcher who saved that game in 2007.

Their lineup began with Jacoby Ellsbury, a 2005 first-round choice who played with Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney at Oregon State University. Then there was Dustin Pedroia, a 2004 second-round choice out of Arizona State University who would emerge as the American Leagues MVP four years later.

The anchor was Adrian Gonzalez, the kind of left-handed run producer the Cubs have long coveted. The Red Sox were able to pull off that blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres last winter because they had created enough assets in their farm system.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Red Sox brought sabermetrics pioneer Bill James into their front office as a senior advisor. A recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Moneyball showed how the Red Sox have bridged old-school scouting and the new wave of numbers.

The Red Sox value traditional projections based off what their scouts see and hear, as well as information systems, and thats how Ricketts envisions his baseball operations department running.

As Cubs employees settled into their seats that night at Fenway Park, they watched a team that would completely collapse by the end of September. Who knew it would be the Red Sox?

There was a moody starting pitcher who made 18 million the year before and would sabotage this season. There was the Japanese star who never lived up to the hype. There was a 142 million leftfielder who will always be judged harshly because of his huge contract.

That would be John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford. Those descriptions, almost word-for-word, sound eerily similar to Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano.

So even the geniuses get it wrong in the free-agent market, and its fair to wonder how someone like Friedman would react outside a small market, if he really would do more with more.

To grow revenue and give themselves a better chance to compete the Cubs have extensively studied the Red Sox business plan.

Theyve noticed the power of a regional sports network (NESN). Theyve broadened their entertainment portfolio with non-baseball events, the way the Red Sox have hosted Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the NHLs winter showcase.

Theyve consulted with the architect (Janet Marie Smith) who oversaw the transformation of Fenway Park. Theyve wanted to shut down Sheffield Avenue and create their own version of Yawkey Way.

Theyre hoping a new administration at City Hall will be as receptive to their renovation plans as the city of Boston was to the Red Sox.

On and off the field, the Red Sox are everything the Cubs are striving to be.

There are plenty of people in the Cubs organization across several different departments who grew up in the Boston area, went to college there or used to work for the Red Sox. They can see the parallels and know the history.

But the biggest advertisements are still the 2004 and 2007 banners hanging outside Fenway Park. Luring the architect of those teams to the North Side would be a huge boost for public relations.

With or without Epstein, you already know what the Cubs are going to build their 2012 tickets plans around. The Red Sox are scheduled to come to Wrigley Field on June 15-17. Wonder who will be in the general managers suite that weekend.

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

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."