Theo Epstein is hungry for more

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Theo Epstein is hungry for more

MESA, Ariz. Its hard to believe when the building is almost 100 years old, and the customers have been so loyal for generations, but the Cubs might as well be a start-up company now.

On a recent morning, Theo Epstein sat in front of a laptop inside his office at HoHoKam Stadium, sneaking glances out onto the field. He wore a dark Penguin polo shirt and a Nike cap, the casual look youd expect to find in Silicon Valley.

The copy of Sports Illustrated on Epsteins desk with Albert Pujols on the cover predicted that the Cubs will lose 96 games. The Cubs Way manual rested on another corner.

When you think of the Cubs, you can feel warm and fuzzy and picture sunshine and Old Style. But if Epsteins vision comes into focus, this organization will be innovative like Groupon, manage risk the way Aon Corp. does and find efficiencies faster than McKinsey & Co.

Six months ago, Epstein met Tom Ricketts at a residence the chairmans family owns in New York. They had sweeping views of Central Park and talked for six or seven hours. The general manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time said that he didnt walk out of there with a job offer.

I think he wanted to meet me to make sure I didnt have three eyes, Epstein joked. I think his concern, if he was honest, was: Would I bring as much energy to the Cubs as I did to the Red Sox? Or was I sort of kicking myself upstairs, so to speak, and putting myself out to pasture?

When the Cubs run out of the dugout on Thursday for first pitch against the Washington Nationals, it will mark the 163rd day of the Epstein administration. By Opening Day, the president of baseball operations had fired one manager (Mike Quade) and hired another (Dale Sveum).

The front office expanded with Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, two high-level executives who had helped build the Red Sox machine and restocked the San Diego Padres system.

Epsteins calls for the best and the brightest included Shiraz Rehman, who has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and pro scouting director Joe Bohringer, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A fresh perspective, Ricketts said over the winter. They just look at the questions a little differently.

So the Bloomberg computer system has been installed, focusing mostly on the amateur scouting side, with a basic major-league version up and running by the trade deadline.

Scouts have been given video cameras to shoot prospects. Spycam was installed at each minor-league affiliate, and you can watch the action in real time on your laptop. Each minor-league player received an individual plan for this year that outlined strengths and weaknesses.

To educate players on how to handle themselves off the field, representatives from Northeastern Universitys Center for Sport in Society ran seminars during spring training. There will now be background reports on potential draft picks that could run four- or five-pages long.

Remember that Moneyball gave away secrets to people like Ricketts throughout the industry. And spending restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement destroyed the financial advantage the Cubs planned to exploit internationally and in the draft.

The longer youre in baseball, Epstein said, the longer you realize that all were trying to do here is shift the odds slightly in our favor. There are no great obvious competitive advantages anymore.

If you have the best evaluators, the best systems, the best people, the best decision-making process, the best you can hope to do is shift your odds for any given transaction from maybe 5050 to like 5347.

Theres not a lot of ground that you can seize against your opponent. So if youre disorganized or if youre doing things by happenstance or if you dont have a sound process, and you sort of luck into a decision here and there and you cant repeat it, youre just losing ground.

Epstein has likened his ideal front office to a boiler room. Assistant general manager Randy Bush who took over on an interim basis when Jim Hendry was fired and is widely respected for how he guided the Cubs through the transition amplified that idea.

Theyve been very inclusive, Bush said. They like lots of opinions. They dont want people who just sit there and nod their head yes.

The same way that Ricketts wants to renovate Wrigley Field in phases, Epstein hasnt taken a wrecking ball to the front office, which contains many key employees who were already signed through 2012.

There is still room to grow, particularly in the statistical analysis and healthcare wings. Throughout the game, keeping players healthy, and preventing pitchers from breaking down, is viewed as the next big thing. For now, the Cubs are taking smaller steps, like bringing in an expert ophthalmologist as a consultant to test each players eyesight.

Everyone gives the same answer to that and everyone says medicine, sports science, and theyre right, Epstein said. But I dont think we quite know what it is yet. Everyones in the R&D phase of that exploration.

Sveum the third-base coach on the 2004 Red Sox team that won the World Series and reversed the curse has noticed Epsteins learning curve from wonder boy to brand name.

Being one of the smartest guys in baseball, hes always challenging himself, Sveum said. (Its): How can I make the team better every single day? (Hes) on a constant grind that way. Its just the way hes built.

But the one thing about Theo (over the years is) he really understands a lot about the mechanics of the game now. (Thats pitching and hitting), why guys succeed with certain mechanics, why guys struggle with certain mechanics. (Hes) almost a coach sometimes when it comes to that now, and I dont know if he had that ability (then).

In the Boston Globe op-ed column Epstein wrote last October (Farewell, Red Sox Nation), he cited football visionary Bill Walsh, and the idea that coaches and executives should seek change after 10 years with the same team. Does that theory still hold?

I think so, Epstein said, pointing out thats about how long he worked for the Padres and Baltimore Orioles combined. There are no hard and fast rules, and thats not for everybody, but (thats) just how Im wired.

Boston was 10 years and you start to get a little antsy. (You) provide your own motivation and your own stimulus as long as you can. But for me after 10 years, you need the environment to kick-start that again, so thats why change is good.

Epstein speaks in full paragraphs, but hes uncomfortable talking about himself. If the Cubs win it all on his watch, he will be on the fast track to Cooperstown, N.Y. If they dont, well, he should still be in the middle of his professional life. From here, you cant get kicked upstairs much higher.

Is this your final job in baseball?

No, I dont see anything as like final. Im 38 right now, Epstein said. I dont know. I honestly dont think in those terms. What I do think about when I wake up is: How the heck are we going to build enough minor-league pitching? Because we dont have nearly enough right now.

Whos going to pitch the seventh inning this year for us? Thats what I think about. I dont think about it in terms like: Hmmmwill it be 10 years for me here and is that the final step?

I dont see it that way. I know how much joy so many people feel when you can win a championship at a place that hasnt won in a long time, and how sustained that period of excellence can be if you do it with the right people and the right systems.

I havent been here long, but I think Ive been here long enough to see thats possible, but its a significant challenge. So were all pouring ourselves into it, because theres nothing better than seeing the looks on those peoples faces when you get there, and knowing you played a small part in it.

Veteran outfielder Peter Bourjos eyes role with White Sox

Veteran outfielder Peter Bourjos eyes role with White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As he surveyed the landscape this offseason, Peter Bourjos thought he and the White Sox would make for a good fit.

Adam Eaton had been traded and Austin Jackson departed via free agency, leaving the White Sox with Melky Cabrera and several young players to man a thin outfield. Bourjos, who lived in Chicago until second grade, pursued the White Sox and last month agreed to terms on a minor-league deal in hopes of earning a spot on the Opening Day roster. Last season, Bourjos, who was born in Chicago, hit .251/.292/.389 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 383 plate appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I always liked playing in Chicago,” Bourjos said. “It was a good fit and then spring training is here. I have two young kids. So packing them up and going to Florida wasn’t something I wanted to do either.

“We definitely look at all those options on paper. Evaluate what might be the best chance of making a team and this is definitely one of them. It seems like a good fit on paper.”

If he’s healthy enough, Charlie Tilson will get the first crack at the everyday job in center field. Tilson, who missed the final two months of last season with a torn hamstring, is currently sidelined for 10 days with foot problems. Beyond Tilson, the White Sox have prospects Adam Engel and Jacob May with Cabrera slated to start in left field and Avisail Garcia pegged for right. Leury Garcia is also in the mix.

But there still appears to be a good shot for Bourjos to make the club and manager Rick Renteria likes his veteran presence for the young group. Bourjos has accrued six seasons of service time between the Phillies, Los Angeles Angels and St. Louis Cardinals.

“Bourjy has been around,” Renteria said. “He knows what it takes. He understands the little nuances of major-league camp and how we have so many players and we want to give them all a look. We want to see Bourjos, we want to see him out there.”

Bourjos, who turns 30 in March, has an idea what he wants to do with his chance. A slick defensive outfielder, Bourjos wants to prove he’s a better hitter than his .243/.300/.382 slash line would suggest. He said it’s all about being relaxed.

“Offensively just slow everything down and not try to do too much,” Bourjos said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and it hasn’t translated. I think last year I got in a spot where I just tried to relax in the batter’s box and let everything go and what happened happened. I had success with that.

“I now realize what that feels like and it doesn’t work. Just take a deep breath and be relaxed in the box and good things are going to happen.”

Why Brett Anderson called Cubs fans ‘f------ idiots’ and loves the idea of pitching at Wrigley Field

Why Brett Anderson called Cubs fans ‘f------ idiots’ and loves the idea of pitching at Wrigley Field

MESA, Ariz. – On an October night where you could literally feel Wrigley Field shaking, Brett Anderson fired off a message on his personal Twitter account: "Real classy cubs fans throwing beer in the Dodgers family section. Stay classy f------ idiots."
 
The Cubs had just clinched their first National League pennant since the year World War II ended, beating Clayton Kershaw and playing as close to a perfect game as they had all season. Anderson kept up the entertaining commentary during the World Series, previewing Game 7 – "We can all agree that we're happy it's not Joe West behind the plate tomorrow" – and tweaking his future manager: "Aroldis (Chapman) might puke on the mound from exhaustion." 
 
In another generation, a veteran pitcher might walk into a new clubhouse and wonder about any awkwardness with a hitter he once drilled with a fastball or some bad blood from a bench-clearing brawl. But overall today's players share the same agents, work out together in the same warm-weather offseason spots and understand the transient nature of this business. When pregame batting practice is filled with fist bumps, bro hugs and small talk between opponents, it becomes trying to remember what you said on social media. 
 
"I'm kind of a sarcastic ass on Twitter," Anderson said Monday. "I kind of sit back and observe. I'm not a huge talker in person. But I can kind of show some of my personality and candor on some of those things.
 
"You look at stuff (when) you get to a new team. I'm like: ‘Wow, man, did I say anything about anybody that's going to piss them off?' But I think the only thing I said about the players is that Kyle (Hendricks) looks like he could have some Oreos and milk after pitching in the World Series. 
 
"But that's kind of the guy he is. Just the calmness that he shows is something that we can all try to strive for."
 
Anderson essentially broke the news of his signing – or at least tipped off the media to look for confirmations – with a "Wheels up to Chicago" tweet in late January. The Cubs guaranteed $3.5 million for the chance to compete against Mike Montgomery and see which lefty can grab the fifth-starter job. Anderson could max out with $6.5 million more in incentives if he makes 29 starts this season. 
 
After undergoing surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back last March, Anderson made three starts and didn't earn a spot on the NLCS roster.  
 
"I obviously wasn't in the stands," Anderson said. "Supposedly from what I was told – it could be a different story – but there was just some beers thrown on where the families were. I'm going to stick to my family and my side.  
 
"I wasn't calling out the whole stadium. (It wasn't): ‘Screw you, Cubs fans.' It was just the specific (incident) – whoever threw the beers on the family section. Everybody has their fans that are kind of rowdy and unruly.

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"That just happened to be a situation. But you like those people on your side. I played in Oakland, and they had some of the rowdiest fans. In the playoffs, it seemed like ‘The Black Hole' for the Raiders games.
 
"You have your bad seeds in every fan base. When people are rowdy and cheering on their team and have one too many beers, the next thing you know, you're throwing them.
 
"Just visiting (Wrigley), it's a fun crowd, because it's such an intimate setting and you feel like they're right on top of you and it's so loud." 
 
Imagine the matchup nightmare the Dodgers could've been if their pitching staff hadn't been so top-heavy and manager Dave Roberts could've confidently gone to someone other than Kershaw, Rich Hill or closer Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers had made Anderson the qualifying offer after a solid 2015 season – 10-9, 3.69 ERA, 180-plus innings, a 66.7 groundball percentage – and he grabbed the $15.8 million guarantee. 
 
Anderson turned around and did the knock-on-wood motion at his locker, saying he felt good after completing a bullpen session with catcher Willson Contreras at the Sloan Park complex. Anderson is a Tommy John survivor who's also gone on the disabled list for a stress fracture in his right foot, a broken left index finger and a separate surgery on his lower back.
 
"Yeah, it's frustrating," Anderson said. "When I'm healthy and able to go out there and do my work, I feel like I'm a pretty good pitcher. I don't think I've ever been able to put everything as a whole together in one season. I've had some good spots – and some good seasons here and there – but hopefully I can put it all together and have a healthy season and do my part."
 
The Cubs are such a draw that Shane Victorino signed a minor-league deal here last year – even with more than $65 million in career earnings and even after a fan dumped a beer on him while he tried to catch a flyball at Wrigley Field in 2009.   
 
Anderson wanted to play for a winner and understood the organization's pitching infrastructure. He saw his pitching style as a match for the unit that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year. He was even intrigued by Camp Maddon and the wacky stunts in Mesa.  
 
"It's obviously an uber-talented group," Anderson said. "(It's also) seeing the fun that they're having. I'm more on the calm and cerebral side, but I think doing some of the things that these guys have in store for me will hopefully open me up a little bit and break me out of my shell. 
 
"'Uncomfortable' is a good word, especially for me. You don't want to get complacent. You don't want to get used to rehab. You want to go out there and do new things and try new things and meet new people and have new experiences. All things considered, the Cubs offered the best mix of everything."