Tag Archives: Theo Epstein

Can Cubs Be Next Blackhawks?

An iconic franchise with a passionate fan base falls on very hard times, has a change in ownership and front office leadership and tries to lure back fans, gets some luck in the draft and then build around a couple of stars. The result? A string of championships.

It’s the blueprint that every Cubs fan hopes the team is following. But it’s one that the Blackhawks have already accomplished.

Wasn’t that long ago that “Dollar Bill” Wirtz wouldn’t show Hawks home games on TV, wouldn’t pay for talent and traded away budding stars. An Original Six NHL team became a laughingstock, making the playoffs once in 10 years between 1997-98 and 2007-08 and getting further and further away from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961. In fact, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports in 2004.

Then things started to change. General manager Dale Tallon drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and was even allowed to dangle some big money to free agents. But it seemed that no real stars wanted to play for the Hawks, who had developed a well-founded reputation for not doing what it took to win.

But Bill Wirtz died. You hate to say that the team started to live again after the owner died, but there’s a lot of truth to it this time. Wirtz’s son Rocky took over and started to right the wrongs of his father. He put home games on TV, he brought back exiled stars Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita as ambassadors, and he oversaw some bold moves in the front office and behind the bench. In the span of a few years, the stigma of the Bill Wirtz era was long gone. Casualties of the housecleaning were Tallon and coach Denis Savard. There was an uproar at the time but also a burgeoning trust in the new administration. Instead of saying “Damn Hawks, screwing things up again,” fans said “I feel bad for those guys, but let’s give it some time. Rocky and Co. have been doing some good things.”

The rest of the NHL must have noticed. All-Stars Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell accepted fat contracts from the Hawks, who were now featured on national TV playing in the NHL’s marquee Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Playoff appearances followed, along with another big star in Marian Hossa. The Hawks rewarded their own homegrown stars with long-term contracts. Ask Tony Amonte if that happened back in the day.

And the rest, as they say is history – two Stanley Cups and a perennial NHL threat in the playoffs. Man oh man, it feels good to write that.

Oh yeah, but how does this Hawks history apply to the Cubs? The parallels up to a point are pretty clear.

The Ricketts family bought the team from the Tribune Company and promised a less corporate, more fan friendly approach and smart approach to finally doing something that hadn’t happened in over 100 years, winning the World Series. Man, it feels crappy to write that.

The Ricketts’ started boldly, luring young genius Theo Epstein from the Red Sox in 2011 after he ended the Red Sox’s World Series drought. The new Cubs prez of baseball laid out a five-year plan that featured building the base of the team through the draft, international signings and shrew trades for young talent, making improvements to Wrigley Field to make the team more appealing to free agents, maximize earnings and improve the fan experience, and then spending on proven stars once a strong nucleus of talent had been developed.

So how’s Theo doing? Right on target.

How can you not think of Toews and Kane when looking at Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? They look like cornerstones, guys that might actually be able to lead the Cubs to pinnacle. But the Hawks aren’t a two-man show. They’re in the Cup finals because of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and others. Well, the Cubs are also trying to build a deep young nucleus. Couldn’t those secondary stars come from the likes of Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez?

And was Epstein true to his word on acquiring established veterans to complement the youngsters? I’d say Jon Lester more than answers that question. Theo didn’t just dip his toes into the free-agent waters, he dove in headfirst.

As the Blackhawks try to win their third Stanley Cup in six years, the Cubs’ plan is finally coming together. The team is extremely young, so this won’t be a meteoric rise. But a playoff appearance this season is not out of the question. And then what?

Could we be watching the first steps of a Cubs march to dynasty status, just like we saw with the Hawks in 2007-08? It sure feels that way.

You can reach me at Patrick@CubsFanTherapy.com.

It’s Christmas Eve For Cubs Fans

Christmas Eve when you’re a kid. Driving to a date with the person who could be “the one.” Going to the hospital for the birth of your child. Walking to your boss’ office to get that big promotion you’ve been waiting for. ANTICIPATION OF SOMETHING BIG. That’s what it feels like to be a Cubs fan right now.

The product on the field is showing signs that inspire real hope — not the pipe dreams that we’ve been smoking for too long, but real hope. Theo Epstein and Company have built pretty much a complete lineup of young, potentially really good or even great players.

Then today the Cubs announced that renovations of Wrigley Field will begin as soon as this weekend. In the next few years we’ll be looking at a new videoboard, new bullpens under the bleachers, new signage and infrastructure repairs. The players will enjoy a new modern clubhouse and batting cages. It really is like Christmas Eve, with presents for everyone.

Some might argue that the Cubs haven’t won anything, so there’s no reason to get excited yet. Not true I say. What’s happening on the North Side should be celebrated because what we’re seeing and what we’re going to see are the products of old fashioned good ideas. Tom Ricketts hired Theo Epstein and they decided that they were going to really fix what ails the Cubs. They weren’t just going to throw money at the team and hope to stumble into a window of success that maybe, just might, possibly end a 100-plus year drought.

No, they made a frank assessment of the organization and found an overpaid, underperforming major league roster, a lack of homegrown talent, a crumbling ballpark and an inferior television deal compared to other big-market clubs. And they decided to systematically address these ills. They said that change wouldn’t happen overnight, but positive chance would happen. They preached patience and actually started to show results before the patience ran out. Congress should take a page from the Cubs playbook.

It hasn’t been easy. Losses have piled up like the national debt. Rooftop owners have fought the Cubs’ plans for improving Wrigley. The Cubs aren’t completely free from TV contracts until 2019. But the tide is turning.

How does this 2015 lineup sound?

Coghlan LF, Castro SS, Rizzo 1B, Bryant 3B, Soler RF, Baez 2B, Alcantara CF, Castillo C (or maybe Russell Martin)

How about Jon Lester as the Opening Day starter? Maybe it won’t be him, but I feel confident saying it will be somebody good. Why shouldn’t we trust Theo and Co. when they say that the Cubs will spend to fill in the gaps around the young (and cheap) lineup? They haven’t lied to us so far.

Whoever is the ace, the Cubs will have a roster that should be able to compete for a playoff spot.

I also trust that the Cubs will maximize their TV/digital options. If this ownership group knows anything, it’s how to find revenue streams. Think they aren’t looking at the Yankees and Dodgers and thinking they want a piece of that action?

Then there’s dear old Wrigley. When the product on the field stank like stale beer year after year, fans still flocked to the embrace of the Friendly Confines. The park has carried the organization, but the weight has proven too much and it’s finally crumbling. Even that problem is being addressed, so we don’t have to worry that our kids and their kids won’t get to enjoy the greatest sports venue on the planet.

What a great feeling. I just have one question. When do we get to unwrap the presents?

You can reach us at Cubs Fan Therapy.

Theo, It’s Tamper Time To Get Lester

Red Sox bigwig Larry Lucchino said today that contract talks between Boston and ace Jon Lester are being shelved until after the season. Do you see Theo Epstein meeting the left-hander in the shadows of a parking garage? I do.

Theo: “This conversation never happened. Do you hear me?”

Lester: “Got it.”

Theo, lowering his voice: “Larry’s gonna try to screw you. Don’t listen to his crap. And believe me I’ve heard plenty of it. If you sign, you lose.”

Lester: “Are you saying you can do better?”

Theo, raising his voice almost above a whisper: “I’m not saying that. I can’t say that. without tampering. I didn’t work my whole life to get to this point to be brought down by trying to steal another team’s player.”

Lester: “You sound kind of nutty, Theo. And why are we in a parking garage? Can we go get a beer or something?”

Theo, in his normal voice: “Sure.”

They start to walk out.

Theo: “And by the way, I’ll definitely do better than Boston. We need a guy like you in Chicago, and I’d love to stick it to Larry.”

Have you ever changed jobs? Then you know that there is often behind-the-scenes discussions between people who know each other. Friends lure friends to work for their new company. Happens all the time. Does anyone acknowledge it? No. Do leagues have rules against it? Absolutely. But there is no doubt it happens.

If Theo isn’t working his relationship with Lester to try to get him to Chicago, he’s not the leader we think he is. And I think he’s a pretty good leader.

Lester is exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs need this offseason. Will Theo have to overpay for a 30-year-old? Definitely. With so many young hitters signed to very, very team friendly contracts, the Cubs can afford to overpay for an ace type starter. It’s a better scenario than losing some of the Cubs highly touted and meticulously assembled prospects in a trade for pitching. Many people think that’s what the Cubs would have to do to land someone like David Price.

Lester might not be Price, but he’s pretty darn good. Take a look at his numbers and you’ll see that he’s consistently really good.

Lester is paying lip service to the fact that waiting to negotiate until after the season doesn’t mean he wants to leave Boston. That’s perfect. Maybe the Red Sox will be inclined to keep him through the end of the season. We need Boston to remain within striking distance of the weak AL East lead to solidify that possibility.

And then the Cubs strike and steal him from Boston. In the meantime, Theo can keep the courtship going on the down low. Maybe not in a parking garage.

You can reach us at Cubs Fan Therapy.

Fortune Teller Knew Manny So Important

Discussion with a fortune teller before the baseball season this year:

“Oh fortune teller, tell me who will be a key player for the Cubs this season,” I say.

“The crystal ball knows all,” she says in that fortune teller cheesy ethereal voice. “I see the face of Manny Ramirez.”

“Manny Ramirez? Are you high?” I say. “Sorry, you sure you didn’t drop that crystal ball this morning?”

“No, the ball knows all.”

“Wait, am I high?” I say. “Is it still 2014? Am I in a time warp? It’s 2008, right? The Cubs made a trade. Oh god, do I have brain tumor?”

“No tumor,” she says. “Manny Ramirez.”

“You are such a quack,” I say. “I’m out of here.”

“$20.”

Well, the fortune teller was right, and I still can’t believe it. In typical tricky fortune teller fashion, she didn’t clarify that Manny would NOT be a key player on the field. He would, however, prove to be a key “player” in the organization.

Ramirez, the 42-year-old who has hit 555 home runs but who hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2011, was signed to be a player/coach at Iowa in May. The move raised some eyebrows, but Theo Epstein and Co. made it clear that resurrecting Manny’s career wasn’t the focus; rather he would serve as a mentor to young Cubs hitters. Jokes about teaching them where to inject steroids in their butts ensued.

Halfway through the season, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive and the level of trust and responsibility the Cubs are entrusting to Ramirez has only increased. He’s worked with prized prospect Javier Baez. The Cubs just promoted Cuban phenom Jorge Soler from Double A to Iowa in part to work with Manny.

Soler idolizes Ramirez and recently talked to CSN Chicago about working with him in the past.

“He game me a lot of information to help me out with my hitting. Like how to get to the ball. He’s a very good person,” Soler said

Early on in the Manny Experiment, Baez told ESPN.com: “Before Manny got here I thought he was going to be hard to talk to, because you know his name or whatever. But it’s not like that; I thought he was going to be cocky and stuff, but he’s just like another player, he’s a great teammate, he talks to everybody on the team and he’s just a great person.”

Kris Bryant, another Triple A star for the Cubs, told ESPN.com: “He’s come up to me after he watched my at-bats and he told me, he said, ‘Just look middle-away this at-bat.’ And the first pitch the guy threw was a fastball middle-away, and I got a single to right field. It’s kind of cool to see results like that just from him saying one little line to me.”

Mike Olt was just demoted to Iowa after striking out 84 times in 187 at-bats. He worked with Ramirez when they were both in the Rangers organization and had only positive things to say about him. I’m sure working with Manny is a key part of the decision to send Olt to Iowa and not to a beer softball league in Berwyn — where his stats suggest he might be better off.

When the Cubs signed Ramirez, Epstein said that he “has proven to be a gifted teacher with younger teammates who have worked with him in the batting cage.”

We’ll see if he can work wonders with Olt, who has ungodly power on the rare occasion he makes contact. He can learn a lesson from Baez. He started the season horribly, but has really come on, improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio and pounding balls in the zone. Manny deserves some of the credit for the turnaround.

Ramirez appears to be embracing his new role.

“When you help somebody and see them grow up and maybe down the road you’re going to be in your house and say, ‘Wow, I worked with this kid. Look at him now. He’s doing it.’ — I think that’s great satisfaction,” Ramirez said, according to Yard Barker.

So I’m going to ignore the 25 times the fortune teller told me THIS was the Cubs year. I’m now going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really did channel the bark of my dead dog.

She got Manny right.

You can reach us at Cubs Fan Therapy.