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

922749.png

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.

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.”