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.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In their never-ending search for young pitching, the Cubs discussed a Matt Moore deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but wouldn’t consider trading Kyle Schwarber. To get Moore at the Aug. 1 deadline, the San Francisco Giants had to surrender the runner-up to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), plus two more prospects.

Moore finished one out short of a no-hitter on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, throwing 133 pitches against a deep Los Angeles lineup, two-plus years after having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Whether or not Moore helps shift the balance of power in the National League West, the Cubs should still have enough pitching.

To get through October. As long as John Lackey (shoulder) comes off the disabled list in early September and the rest of the rotation stays healthy. Surviving next season and beyond could be a different story, if Jake Arrieta becomes another team’s 2018 Opening Day starter, if Jon Lester breaks down in the middle of that $155 million megadeal and assuming Lackey finally retires around the 3,000-inning mark.

All that makes Mike Montgomery an interesting lefty swingman if the Cubs are going to maintain The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“I think he is a major-league starter, regardless of what happens tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s wild 6-4 comeback win that took 10 innings at Dodger Stadium. “This guy has the ability to be a solid major-league starter based on his strength level, his delivery, the variety of pitches that he throws. The strike-throwing ability is exceptional. He’s got all those different things going on.

“Just be a little bit patient with (him) and let him get his feet on the ground somewhere, because he’s the kind of guy that can take off if he gets comfortable in his environment.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If Montgomery didn’t ace this audition, he also didn’t bomb against a first-place team in front of a big crowd (48,609), either, showing the potential the Cubs saw in making last month’s trade with the Seattle Mariners.

Montgomery kept the Cubs in the game before Bryant’s clutch performance, allowing three runs in five innings and minimizing the damage on a night where he didn’t have pinpoint control (four walks, hit batter, wild pitch, 49 strikes across 91 pitches).

The Cubs are in trouble if Montgomery somehow winds up in this year’s playoff rotation, but he checks a lot of boxes for the future as someone with youth (27), size (6-foot-5), first-round/top-prospect pedigree, a high groundball rate and a service-time clock that won’t make him a free agent until after the 2021 season.

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

Cubs pay their respects to Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – There will never be another Vin Scully, who joined the Dodgers in Brooklyn as a kid out of Fordham University, moved to Los Angeles and became a face of the franchise, doing the one-man show that still connects and entertains generations of baseball fans.

The Cubs paid their respects to the legendary broadcaster before Friday night’s game at Dodger Stadium, with manager Joe Maddon and catcher David Ross visiting the Vin Scully Press Box for another photo op before the lyrical voice retires at the end of this season, at the age of 88.

“You’re ascending into the clouds to meet Mr. Scully,” Maddon said. “That’s like the window to the world up there when you sit in his booth and he talks about the purple mountain majesties on a clear day beyond the outfield fences here.”

The Cubs presented Scully with a green “67” scoreboard panel – to mark the number of seasons he’s worked Dodger games – as well as a Dodger banner from Wrigley Field. Maddon also gave Scully, who rocks the conservative coat-and-tie look on TV, several T-shirts from his collection, including “Try Not to Suck.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon said he told Scully: “Maybe at the end of the year, sitting by your pool with the sandals on, you can put a T-shirt on where no one can see you and just be Vin.”

As the tributes pour in from around baseball, CSN Chicago will carry Scully’s third-inning call live during Sunday’s broadcast from Chavez Ravine.

“He makes you feel like he’s known you for the last 50 years,” Maddon said. “Just really kind and gracious. And you have to be all of that to survive that many years. Besides being good, it’s his authenticity and how he interacts with people that really (keeps) you on that stage that long.”