Theo putting pieces in place, from coaching staff to front office

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Theo putting pieces in place, from coaching staff to front office

The Cubs gave Theo Epstein the keys to the kingdom and put his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee.

Theo Watch had become a national story last October, beginning in secret when the Red Sox general manager met chairman Tom Ricketts at his familys New York residence overlooking Central Park.

On Yawkey Way, Epstein and his boys in baseball operations had fantasized about what it would be like to field an entire team of homegrown players (like, say, Anthony Rizzo at first base instead of Adrian Gonzalez).

Cubs executives on the business side liked to point out the obvious similarities between Boston and the North Side charming old neighborhood ballparks, passionate fan bases, etc. But the Cubs offered Epstein something completely different a new canvas, hands-off ownership, more personal space, a more relaxed (though still neurotic) media market and the chance to break another curse, which would cement his place in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Twelve months ago, Epstein gave his Baseball is Better speech during a stadium club news conference introducing the new team president. October 25, 2011 was supposed to be a game-changing day in franchise history that would eventually lead to a parade down Michigan Avenue. The fans and the local press corps are still in wait-and-see mode.

I have a lot more gray hair now than I did a year ago, Epstein said Tuesday. My wife reminds me of that all the time. But I do feel really energized by a lot of the things that are going on here.

Think of this like an episode of The Wire. You could put all the mug shots on a big board with branches moving in every direction, all leading up to Epstein at the top, with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod as his inner-circle lieutenants. Tuesdays announcements mapped out where the Cubs are heading and what they are thinking:

Major-league coaching staff

James Rowson is no longer the interim hitting coach and will keep the job next season. David Bell a third-generation big leaguer whose father Buddy is a White Sox executive becomes the new third-base coach.

The rest of Dale Sveums coaching staff remains intact: Chris Bosio (pitching); Jamie Quirk (bench); Dave McKay (first base); Lester Strode (bullpen); and staff assistants Mike Borzello and Franklin Font.

Epstein had tried to hire Bell for Bostons organization. Bell managed the past four seasons in Cincinnatis minor-league system, rising this year to Triple-A Louisville. Bells final season as a player 2006 coincided with Sveums first year as Milwaukees third-base coach.

A native New Yorker, Rowson left the Yankees organization last winter for what was on the surface a lateral move (minor-league hitting coordinator). Rowson is only 36 years old, a fresh voice to explain the approach that drags out those four-hour prime-time games in the American League East.

If theres one thing that I was surprised by in a negative way, Epstein said, it was sort of how pervasive the lack of plate discipline was in the whole organization the major-league level, upper minors, lower minors, draft decision-making and protocol.

It was just something that really has not been a factor here for a long time, and were paying the price for that. Its embedded. Its institutionalized. So we need to be really, really vigilant in turning that around.

The Cubs did lead the National League in on-base percentage (.354) in 2008, when they won 97 games and their second straight division title, but that doesnt fit the new narrative.

Front office

Randy Bush, who remembers the good old days, recently agreed to a three-year extension after what Epstein described as a 15-second negotiation.

Bush has the instant credibility that comes with winning two World Series rings as a player in Minnesota. The assistant general manager helped guide Epstein with his institutional memory and relationships inside the organization. Bushs presence had to be reassuring to the Jim Hendry loyalists.

Mark ONeal will not continue working as head athletic trainer, though hes expected to remain in the organization. ONeal has a family and didnt want to spend so much time on the road. Epstein views keeping players healthy and more accurately predicting who will break down as the next frontier. The job description isnt exactly written yet, but ONeal should still be involved in medical operations. There are plans for a kind of science wing in the new spring training facility in Arizona and a renovated Wrigley Field.

International

The Cubs won the Jorge Soler sweepstakes and want to keep building their pipeline in the Dominican Republic. Louis Eljaua gets bumped up to international scouting director, with Paul Weaver shifting to a role as the international crosschecker and Pacific Rim coordinator. Jose Serra the scout who signed Starlin Castro was promoted to director of Dominican operations.

Player development

Director Brandon Hyde brought in Tim Cossins from the Marlins organization as field coordinator. Alex Suarez who helped close the Soler deal was promoted to another hybrid position as assistant director of player developmentinternational scouting. David Macias whos bilingual and played at Vanderbilt University and in the Cubs system was added as an assistant for those two departments.

Amateur scouting

Tim Wilken got a contract extension and a bigger portfolio with Jaron Madison coming over from San Diego as director of amateur scouting. Lukas McKnight was promoted from regional crosschecker to assistant director of amateur scouting. The No. 3 in this department is an interesting hire Shane Farrell, a former Marshall University pitcher and Cape Cod League scout whose father John is the new Red Sox manager.

Looking at the big picture, the Cubs have recently added three new area scouts, three new pro scouts and two more major-league scouts while making several more promotions within baseball operations.

Within the past year, Epstein and his crew have also fired: perhaps the highest-paid hitting coach in the game (Rudy Jaramillo); the executive (Oneri Fleita) viewed as a father figure by Castro, Carlos Marmol and the Latin players throughout the organization; the popular traveling secretary (Jimmy Bank) who took care of Ron Santo all those years on the road; while not renewing the contract of the third-base coach (Pat Listach) who helped turn second baseman Darwin Barney into a potential Gold Glove winner.

After losing 101 games and laying the framework for what he thinks will become an annual contender Epsteins fingerprints are clearly all over the organization.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."