Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

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Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

With Theo Epstein and Co. firmly ensconced in the Cubs offices at Wrigley Field, Tuesday was time for Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts to finally discuss the process that he followed in wooing Epstein away from his hometown Boston Red Sox. Ricketts shed some light on the hiring and what it took to convince him to take on the ultimate sports challenge in trying to win a World Series with the Cubs.

I sat down with the chairman for a one-on-one interview for an "Inside Look" epsiode that will air in a couple weeks on Comcast SportsNet.

Ricketts touched on a multitude of topics, including the future of Crane Kenney, the Cubs' president of business operations who has come under fire from some members of the media as well as the Cubs' rabid fan base who have linked him to the failures of the past regime. However, Ricketts pledged tremendous support for Kenney and even went as far as announcing that he is working on a contract extension for him.

Day one, square one when we bought the team, everyone that was already here started fresh," Ricketts said. "What Ive seen firsthand is execution. The baseball side and the business side are two sides of the same coin. We have to be working together to push the team forward to be the best we can be on the field.

"Im talking with Crane on extending his contract. Were going to have him as part of this organization for a long time, locking down all the business side. Crane has done a great job of executing on the business side. There has been some stuff in the media (about Kenney) and that doesnt apply to me. I dont listen to that. Hes doing his job and hes doing his job well and Cubs fans need to know that.

While the Cubs ownership group understands the need to build through player development, Ricketts expects his major league team to be vastly improved in 2012 despite a rough 2011 season that saw the Cubs finish 71-91 and 25 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers.

"We don't talk about rebuilding," Ricketts said. "We are coming to win every year. However, we will not look at 2012 at the expense of our long term future."

With large contracts on the books for Carlos Zambrano (one year left at 18.875 million) and Alfonso Soriano (three years left at 18 million per season) many around the baseball world have assumed the Cubs are stuck with both players but Ricketts made it clear that if Epstein decides that he needs to eat both deals and move forward, then he has the authority from ownership to do just that.

"Theo and his team have complete and total authority on all baseball decisions," the chairman said. "You as the owner cannot insert yourself into the process. If you do, then you have no level of accountability in the organization."

Ricketts had been under fire from the media and an increasingly apathetic fan base as the 2011 season spiraled out of control and saw the Cubs far out of the race in early July. It was at that point that he had a meeting with then-GM Jim Hendry and both men decided it would be best for the Cubs and Hendry to part ways.

"We think we gave Jim a fair shot, but when it looked like it wasnt going to be where we needed it to be, we had a great conversation and just decided to part ways, and that got the process started," Ricketts said. "The period between when Jim left and Theo came in was a little awkward because you couldnt really tell people what you were doing. But there was never a moment where I didnt really feel we had it under control."

Ricketts spoke with approximately 20 people within the baseball world and got varying opinions on how to rebuild his baseball organization. But he posed one question to everyone he spoke with and their answers were key in how he proceeded to find Hendrys successor. The question was in a perfect world, who do you think is the right guy for this team?"

We went through all that process and, obviously, Theo came right to the top," he said.

With Epstein and his team now on board, the next big project on Ricketts' plate is the renovation of Wrigley Field and that process will have to be a team effort between the Cubs and the City of Chicago, according to the chairman.

"Where were at right now is we really just have to keep the dialogue going with our elected officials on what we can all work on together, because for the amount of money were talking about to really get Wrigley up to where it should be, its going to have to be a team effort," he said.

"Its going to have to be a contribution from us, a contribution from the different levels of government, a few other pockets if possible, to really package up something that works for everyone."

Ricketts has heard the suggestions of knocking down Wrigley Field from foul pole to foul pole and rebuilding the ancient grandstand from scratch replete with all of the modern amenities. However, he does not favor that model and believes that his intensely loyal fan base does not either.

"I dont think people want a replica of Wrigley Field; they want Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "And I think that fans, when they get here and get to their seats and look out on the field, theyre where they want to be. This is the best place to watch a game and the energy and the field, the charm are all there."

On the topic of how the new collective bargaining agreement will change how the Cubs do business because of the restrictions on spending in the amateur draft and in international free agency, Ricketts is confident that his new baseball operations team will maximize the value of their draft picks and will spend their available dollars wisely.

"What the league has done is theyve taken that play out of the playbook, where you spend a lot on the amateur players to build up the system which we probably would have done, much like we did in June," he said. "We probably would have kept that going and spent more on amateur players than well be allowed to spend in the current CBA. Its a fact of life; were just going to have to adjust the strategy around the new rules. And ultimately, I think well be fine.

"We have the best fans. They need to see a plan and with Theo, Jed and their team, they have a plan and fans can be confident about the future"

See more of Tom Ricketts on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove, CTL and SportsNet Central.

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”