A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

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A perfect storm pushes Epstein to Chicago

Theo Epstein will meet the press at 11 on Tuesday morning. The Cubs will open their stadium club two hours before that, so the cameramen can start elbowing for position at Wrigley Field.

Epstein once worked as sports editor of the Yale Daily News. He took out a full-page ad in Sundays Boston Globe to thank Red Sox Nation. He must know that hes the big story now.

The Chicago media will alternate between fawning over the new president of baseball operations, and asking real questions about the direction of this franchise.

Boston reporters will want to know if he feels responsibility for the fried chicken and beer culture that poisoned the Red Sox clubhouse, and perhaps guilty about leaving a team in crisis.

The national writers are already heading to the DallasFort Worth International Airport for a travel day in the World Series, and could start rubbernecking at Clark and Addison.

Epstein got out of journalism at the right time, before the media industry started splintering and newspaper companies filed for bankruptcy. Baseball owners and executives began falling in love with young Ivy League graduates, entrusting wonder boys to run their franchises.

It took a perfect storm to sweep Epstein out of Yawkey Way. If one element had turned out different, who knows if he would have been dropped on the North Side next to chairman Tom Ricketts for Tuesdays news conference?

When Ricketts publicly announced Jim Hendrys firing on Aug. 19, the general manager called it one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history. Hendry knew his fate almost a full month earlier, and it would lead to one of the worst-kept secrets in Cubs history.

But by the end of August, the Red Sox were still a first-place team with a 161 million payroll. They were 31 games over .500 and closing in on their 700th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park. Conventional wisdom had Ricketts trying to find the next Theo Epstein, not hiring the actual Theo Epstein.

The Red Sox experienced a total meltdown. Their pitching staff gave up 172 runs in September, and they lost 20 of 27 games that month. They finished in third place for the second consecutive season, one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race.

The environment became toxic. Embarrassing details emerged about Terry Franconas marriage and the ex-managers use of prescription drugs in a Boston Globe investigate piece. Reports surfaced about Red Sox pitchers drinking in the clubhouse and in the dugout during games.

Principal owner John W. Henry went on the teams flagship radio station and talked about the shelf life of a general manager in that market. After nine seasons on the job, Epstein was nearing his expiration date.

The Red Sox never slammed the brakes on this process by reassuring Epstein with a promotion or a contract extension.

Nearing his 38th birthday, Epstein had reached the point in his life where he appeared to have outgrown his job or at least the many layers of upper management on Yawkey Way. He felt comfortable uprooting his family and leaving his hometown, moving his wife and young son to another great city.

With or without Epstein and the two World Series rings he helped bring them Red Sox executives seemed to have complete faith in their way of doing business. Ricketts and Cubs president Crane Kenney, who was born in Quincy, Mass., have been obsessed with that model for years.

Ricketts had to reconsider the structure of his front office, and his belief that he didnt need a baseball guy to watch my baseball guy as team president. Epstein had to be guaranteed that Kenney would be limited to business operations and kept out of baseball decisions.

After watching his team lose 178 games across the past two seasons, Ricketts had to find his voice and sell Epstein on his vision. Right or wrong, this would be a signature hire for the chairman.

The Cubs could offer a direct report to ownership and a chance to cement a Hall of Fame legacy. There would be a commitment to spending on amateur talent, with new player-development facilities about to break ground in Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

The Cubs had already paid the price for the "win one for the Tribune" before the team was sold mentality. Several big contracts were about to fall off the books, and the team would begin cycling back toward contention anyway.

The deal didnt fall apart when Cubs management failed to clue in baseball staffers and have them start putting together potential compensation packages. They did this all backwards, agreeing to terms with Epstein on a five-year, 18.5 million deal before settling with the Red Sox on two prospects to free him from the final year of his contract.

Desperately trying to turn the spotlight back on the World Series, commissioner Bud Selig had to threaten to arbitrate the dispute. This stalemate over compensation could be something they all laugh about years later after the parade down Michigan Avenue or perhaps the first signs Epstein could see of a deeper dysfunction within the Cubs organization.

After all the twists and turns that brought everyone to this point, the story is really just beginning.

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

MESA, Ariz. – Inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs posted a blown-up image of the 2015 Sports Illustrated cover where Pedro Strop is high-stepping next to Kris Bryant down the third-base line, the mosh pit awaiting at home plate.

Between his tilted-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and overall joy for the game, Strop sets an example for the younger guys in the bullpen and the Latin players in the clubhouse. Strop has been so valuable that Jake Arrieta could have never thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform and Theo Epstein’s front office still would have considered the Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles an absolute success.  

Yet when the long rebuild reached its apex – and manager Joe Maddon searched for World Series answers – Strop had already been marginalized in the bullpen. A freak injury – Strop heard a pop and tore the meniscus in his left knee while trying to slide and field a groundball in August – bumped him from his role as the seventh- or eighth-inning stopper.  

“It was a little difficult,” Strop said. “After I came back from my surgery, it was a different situation. But it’s something that you got to get used to and understand the situation, understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”  

During Sunday’s media session, Maddon dismissed any issues with Strop (2.85 ERA) or Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who strained his right triceps last summer and didn’t quite get his timing down for the playoffs. Down 3-1 in the World Series, Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, it’s not a lack of trust,” Maddon said. “(Strop) just got hurt. And when you get hurt like that at that time of the year, it’s hard to play catch-up. When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you got to put like personal feelings aside on both sides of it, whether you’re managing it or playing.

“I have nothing but trust. My God, the threat is when you have him, you want to use him too much, always. And the same thing with Ronnie. I talked to Ronnie about that – I don’t want to put him in a position. I think Rondon got hurt last year because part of it was my greediness on using him too much in the early part of the season.

“You really have to battle against that when you get guys that good. You want to use them all the time. (I have) a tremendous amount of trust in both of those guys. It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”

[MORE: What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez]

Since the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds for the Cubs, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.984 WHIP to go with 254 strikeouts in 211-plus innings. At a time when a $10 billion industry is reassessing the value of high-leverage relievers, Strop will make $5.5 million this year before hitting the open market.

“You never know,” Strop said. “I would love to repeat the championship season and win another one here before I hit free agency. Hopefully, they want to bring me back. I really like the city of Chicago. I love the fans and I love my team and the coaches.

“After this season, it’s going to become business, so hopefully we can put something together.”  

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez

MESA, Ariz. – In an alternate universe, Javier Baez might have become the goat after committing two errors in a World Series Game 7. But the young Cubs played without a sense of panic and wanted to write their own history.

Baez shrugged it off in Cleveland and homered off Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber that night. Baez will be remembered as a breakout star from those playoffs, a game-changing defensive force with his mixture of lateral range, rocket-arm strength and instincts for tagging.

But there have also been times where manager Joe Maddon would like Baez to be a little more boring. The next stage of Javy Being Javy would be showing more of the consistency that made Addison Russell an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22. It may also partially explain why Maddon for now still sees Ben Zobrist as his primary second baseman, even after Baez started all 17 postseason games at that position.  

“You definitely continually speak about (how) you want guys to make the routine play routinely,” Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “I’ve often talked about lack of chrome. Gary DiSarcina (with the Angels) was the guy that really embedded that thought in my head, because he was so chrome-less and he was so good at the routine play. I used to always yell that at my infielders in instructional league: ‘No chrome!’

“Having said all that, Javy comes from a different background, and he has a flair about his game, so I don’t necessarily want to subtract that. But just have him understand the routine stuff has to be made routinely well.

“He’s very capable of that. I think as his game continues to develop and mature, you’ll see him make less mistakes, whether it’s that or sometimes even on the bases. He’ll make a spectacular play on the bases and then again do something that you don’t like. But I think that’s just part of his nature and his game.” 

Zobrist delivered a World Series MVP performance after signing a four-year, $56 million contract last winter with the idea that focusing on one position – instead of moving around as a super-utility guy – would help him age better.

“Last year, I played 147 games,” said Zobrist, who will turn 36 in May. “I don’t know what that number’s going to look like. You got to stay healthy. There were probably only a few games that I missed because there was physically something that was keeping me from playing.

“We’ll play it by ear. Some of those will have to do with if I’m a little tired and the matchup is right, maybe they’ll choose to give me an off day on certain days. But I know that there’s other times last year where – whether you’re tired or not – you got to be in there because that’s the matchup that works best for the club. So just make adjustments as the weeks and series go on.”

[MORE: After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as late-game force]

Maddon is already thinking of ways to rest Zobrist – who played into early November after helping the 2015 Royals win the World Series – on a team with so many versatile athletes. The Cubs could also try to go back to last year’s model, putting Baez wherever their scouting-and-data projections predicted the ball would be hit most that night.

“We have to balance a lot of different things out,” Maddon said. “(Javy’s) going to play some second, of course, and so will Zo. Zo’s going to be out there primarily, and then we’ll work Javy in there. But Zo can also do what he’s done in the past and play some outfield.

“What happens – and I hate to say it like (this) – but baseball has a very cruel way of determining things. I don’t want it to be any injuries. I’d rather have to figure all of this stuff out on a daily basis. Javy was so significant to the conclusion of last season. He’s going to be very significant again this year and years to come.

“It’s all in theory right now. Of course, he’s going to play. Of course, he’s going to play a lot. How it’s going to balance out? We’re not 100 percent sure yet. But he’s pretty darned good.”