Cubs: McLeod, Epstein looking for game-changers

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Cubs: McLeod, Epstein looking for game-changers

MESA, Ariz. Jason McLeod is looking forward to checking out his new office at Clark and Waveland. He knows he probably wont see it for another eight weeks.

The Cubs senior vice president, scoutingplayer development will be at Wrigley Field for Opening Day, and then hit the road preparing for the June draft. Flying all across the country, he will have some time to catch up on the Mad Men episodes he enjoys watching on his iPad.

McLeod has a fancy title and a big portfolio in baseball operations. Born in Hawaii and raised in San Diego, he gives off a much more laid-back vibe. He compares the database in a scouts mind to the way a gifted musician can remember what hes heard before, and make sense of how it all fits together, to where the recall becomes second nature.

Theo Epstein viewed McLeod and general manager Jed Hoyer as essential hires when he was offered the presidents job and the keys to the Cubs kingdom.

McLeod had drafted so many impact players for the Boston Red Sox Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and rebuilt the San Diego Padres system into one of the industrys best.

McLeod isnt as corporate or Ivy League, but he believes in all the MBA speak about processes and information management. The executive will be a key engineer for what Epstein has called the machine for scouting and player development.

The Cubs desperately need game-changers. They hold the sixth overall pick in the draft, and five within the first 101 selections.

If the new collective bargaining agreement hadnt restricted the amount teams can spend in the draft, the Cubs would have gone all in this summer and made the 12 million in bonuses they gave out last year look like spare change.

Its now a true scouting competition, and the Cubs are still strategizing when, within the new rules, it makes sense to go overboard and overpay. McLeod will be running meetings in Arizona starting Monday, the spring seasons midpoint, to narrow the focus for a front office where thorough is the new buzzword.

(We) really talk about: If the draft was next week, these are the guys were considering here, McLeod said. Then we really break them down and we start eliminating certain players and thats where we really start steering our coverage now. Were going to roll and rotate in on this group of players. And this next tier of players: This is how were going to attack them.

McLeods iPhone rang the other morning and it played The Whos Baba ORiley (Teenage Wasteland). Remember this is making multimillion-dollar investments on kids who just learned how to drive, in a field where you can be wrong 96 percent of the time and still have a pretty good year.

The Cubs want to know who hangs out with the wrong crowd, and what makes them tick. They want to see how they compete in other sports. Their 25 amateur scouts have been given cameras and must shoot at every game they attend, to create a video library.

Information as a whole is the currency of the draft, Epstein said. So there are different buckets of information scouting information, makeup information, medical information, statistical information, and our goal is to drill deeper than any other team.

The goal is to get to know the kids better than they know themselves, because youre looking at a 17-year-old. Youre projecting how hes going to be at 27. Its very difficult. You need to drill very deep to try to gain that kind of insight.

Everyone talks to the coach and the kids parents, right? Where can you make a difference?

Do you talk to the equipment manager? Epstein said. Do you talk to the guidance counselor? Do you dig deep enough to find out when the kid has struggled and (faced) adversity? What (has been) his biggest failure? How he bounced back from that failure?

Theres a lot of different ways to do it. Do you have a psychologist interview the kid? Do you have him take an objective test? Do you log your entire relationship with the kid, every bit of information that you get, so everyone in the draft room can share it and gain the insight?

You cant just wake up and do it in April and hope to have a good decision. Its like a 15-month process, minimum.

We know this approach gives us a better chance of being less wrong. (Thats) what scoutings about, degrees of being less wrong, when you draft 50 guys and you get two or three right. This isnt just something were doing for like window dressing. It evolved over 10 years in Boston. We feel pretty confident in the system.

Chairman Tom Ricketts has said how the new labor deal could create a new market for scouts, where the best talent evaluators can command higher salaries, because you cant just pay over slot for premium players.

The Cubs recognize they need to care of their scouts. McLeod e-mailed his staff last week to say that later this year scouts will be provided company cars, a benefit he had in Boston and San Diego.

(Its) creating an environment where they know that people care about what theyre doing, McLeod said. Theyre not just 2,000 miles away driving down a lonely highway and no one knows what the hell theyre doing out there. Because it can be a lonely frickin gig.

McLeod has known Epstein since the mid-1990s, when they were starting out in the business with the Padres, one in stadium operations and the other in media relations.

They were in their 20s and started hanging out after games, grabbing beers and talking baseball. They were given chances to drive to USC and Cal State Fullerton, and go watch Adrian Gonzalez play in high school, and began learning how to scout.

McLeod the great-grand nephew of Hall of Famer pitcher Carl Hubbell was drafted by the Houston Astros in 44th round of the 1991 draft and pitched briefly in the minors before taking an internship with the Padres.

But when the Padres first asked McLeod to transition to coaching, they had him as a rookie league hitting coach. So he spent an entire offseason at Qualcomm Stadium, three or four days a week, watching prospects in the cage alongside people like Tony Gwynn.

I would just sit there like a sponge, soak it up, McLeod recalled. Really, its just that old adage: Shut up and listen.

Near the end of a long conversation, McLeod is asked if hed ever be interested in running his own team, if this fast track could one day make him a general manager.

I think everyone thinks about: What would I do in this situation? McLeod said. Certainly, Ive had those thoughts: What would I do here? What would I do there? If the opportunity ever comes up, certainly I would be interested in looking at it.

McLeod paused for a moment and laughed: But were so damn busy here. Plus, The Trio just got back together!

Fast Break Morning Update: Bulls explode offensively to beat Bucks; Blackhawks battle Lightning tonight on CSN

Fast Break Morning Update: Bulls explode offensively to beat Bucks; Blackhawks battle Lightning tonight on CSN

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from a busy Sunday: 

Tonight on CSN: Blackhawks look to bounce back vs. Lightning

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Today on CSN: White Sox battle Dodgers in spring training game

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

White Sox rookie Charlie Tilson's foot could keep him out until late May

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Nick Delmonico takes advantage of fresh start with White Sox

Cubs expect Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell to be ready for Opening Night

Owners to consider on and off field changes this week during NFL meetings

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”