Cubs searching to find the next big thing

Cubs searching to find the next big thing
January 15, 2012, 9:25 pm
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At the age of 38, Theo Epstein is at a different place in his life. Hes no longer the intern out of Yale University. Hes an established brand.

The Cubs could have paraded out some big-ticket free agents over the weekend. Instead, they made their splash by hiring a president of baseball operations.

The Cubs Convention closed Sunday after essentially amounting to a victory lap for ownership and the new front office. The Ricketts family is betting that they will be paying for future results, and not past performance.

Epstein has promised to stay hungry, obsessed with finding the next competitive advantage in an industry that has caught up with a lot of things the Boston Red Sox used to do.

Its something (thats) like inbred in Theo, Cubs executive Jason McLeod said. I dont think he knows what the word stagnant means. Its always thinking outside the box, trying to be creative (and) innovative. He certainly keeps you on your toes with it, because as soon as you start feeling comfortable with how things are running, hes asking you why we arent trying other things.

Its in his DNA and it really filters down to all of us.

The senior vice president of scouting and player development goes back to the mid-1990s with Epstein, when they were both just starting out with the San Diego Padres.

McLeod framed this as a big week for the organization. Cubs scouts will be meeting in Chicago to go over methodology and how they might cover the country. They will also be introduced to some version of the computer system that will be designed in partnership with Bloomberg Sports.

This isnt revolutionary. McLeod acknowledged that most clubs have the same information in terms of raw data. This is just a way to organize it where everything on a player is one click away. The Cubs want to have more background and medical information than anyone else.

Moneyball burst out as a New York Times best-seller and generated Oscar buzz in Hollywood. The secrets are out and a new collective bargaining agreement has also leveled the playing field.

The Cubs cant spend unlimited amounts in the draft and internationally under a cap-and-tax system. There will also be a less generous form of draft-pick compensation, which eliminates Type A and Type B free agents. The Red Sox were known for letting those players walk and collecting the extra selections.

We tried to tilt the odds in our favor a little bit, like a casino, Epstein said. Whos more likely to hit on the superstar, the Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia or Jonathan Papelbon-type player: The team thats picking once in the first round or the sandwich round, or the team thats picking three times?

This is a little more complicated. Cubs officials say it will become a scouting contest, where talent evaluators could become much more valuable on the open market.

We need to hire the best scouts (and) pay them well, Epstein said. We can challenge our scouts to get to know the players inside and out, what they eat for breakfast, what theyre like in school, what theyre like after they win (or) lose. (Its) how good a teammate are they? What kind of family support structure do they have? How have they dealt with adversity in the past?

We have to answer all of those questions better than the other 29 teams.

In terms of manpower, the Cubs brought in Joe Bohringer, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, to oversee pro scouting.

Scouting director Tim Wilken who thought he used to be the only man in baseball responsible for running both the professional and amateur sides will now focus exclusively on the draft.

Shiraz Rehman who got his MBA at Columbia Business School was added as an assistant to general manager Jed Hoyer. There are indications that money that would have gone toward the draft could be funneled toward the scouting department.

Were always trying to find that next thing (thats) going to be the breakthrough, Hoyer said. People always act as though (with) all these analyses out there now, the final frontier has been found. And the reality is if you can look back in time 15 years from now, someones going to find something that changes the game again.

We want to be the team to find that. You might not have as long a runway anymore. It might only give you two or three years of an advantage until (others) catch up. Thats a huge difference. If we can find that next thing and be smart enough to do that, then itll give us a huge advantage. And thats sort of how we see baseball analysis in general: Theres going to be a next frontier. Lets make sure were the one that finds it.

By spring training, The Cubs Way manuals on scouting and player development will be distributed to staffers.

Brett Jackson, a 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley, walked through the Hilton Chicago wearing jeans and a blazer and a scarf thrown over his T-shirt. He has shaggy hair, a full beard and some swagger.

The Cubs are downplaying the possibility of Jackson making the team out of spring training, though he could be playing center in Wrigley Field sometime in 2012. Right now, Epsteins crew has everyone thinking big.

Im working every day to make that a reality and be part of something special here in Chicago, Jackson said. Well leave the important decisions up to the new guys who clearly know what theyre doing. People are raving about them being rock stars. Were excited to see what kind of show they put on.