Cubs finally seem interested in building a solid foundation
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org March 7, 2012 10:10PM
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is asking fans to be demanding. He says they should expect a winner. | Ross D. Franklin~AP
Updated: April 10, 2012 11:26AM
MESA, Ariz. — The binder is fat, maybe two inches thick. It doesn’t look particularly splashy or inviting. If it were titled, “Specifications for the V8 Engine’’ or “Drywalling Illustrated,’’ you wouldn’t blink.
The one on Theo Epstein’s desk is titled, “Player Development Manual.’’ You blink.
It’s a point-by-point, almost painfully detailed handbook for how the Cubs want baseball to be taught to their players, at all levels. It’s a rough draft of the manual that soon will be distributed to coaches and managers throughout the organization and, eventually, to all Cubs minor-league players.
There are sections on pitching, outfield play, infield play, strength and conditioning, catching, baserunning, basestealing and team fundamentals.
It would more aptly be titled, “The Cub Way.’’
That suggestion surely will give rise to all kinds of jolliness: Apparently, “Lost’’ and “One Hundred Years of Solitude’’ were already taken as titles. Et cetera.
But you might not want to laugh too much. The Cubs are doing what they should have done a long time ago. Lots of teams have a uniform philosophy to go along with their uniforms. The Cubs were decades behind in that department. You would be right to ask what took so long, but the answer is that this is an organization whose locomotion has been dictated by the snail shell on its back.
Epstein, whom the Cubs hired in October as president of baseball operations, took pains Wednesday to point out that the idea of an organizational manual is nothing new in major-league baseball. But it’s a culture shift for a franchise whose memory of winning is, shall we say, foggy.
“We’re not tooting our own horn,’’ he said. “But if you skip this step, there’s no foundation for success. You might run into being a good team one year, but you don’t know how you got there. You might have developed an All-Star, but can you do it again? Do you have the right people with the right information teaching the game the right way?’’
The idea is simple. The hitting coaches at each level should share the same philosophy and use the same terminology. Same with the pitching coaches. Same with the strength coaches. If they don’t, players will be confused.
The success of this depends in part on whether the foundation is based on solid principles. If it isn’t, the only uniformity you’ll have is uniform disappointment. For now, we’ll have to trust that Epstein, who won two World Series with the Red Sox, identified the right people when he put together his scouting department and coaching staffs. They’re the people who helped put together the manual.
During the club’s organizational meetings in February, each manager, coach and scout came prepared with ideas about winning baseball. Each facet of the game received the kind of attention normally reserved for the Zapruder film.
“We spent six hours just on baserunning, all of us in the same room,’’ Epstein said. “Down to every detail — literally, what foot are our players going to hit the bag with when they make that turn going from first to third or second to home? We spent six hours on fielding, six hours on hitting, six hours on pitching.
‘‘It was everybody bringing their ideas to the table so we can agree on a set of core beliefs on what we’re going to teach. If we’re not all on the same page as a front office, as a major-league staff, as minor-league instructors, as scouts, how can we expect our players to be?’’
The Cubs aren’t expected to be good this season, but these are exciting times regardless. Given the fact the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in — stop me if you’ve heard this — 103 years, Epstein has a captive audience inside the organization.
“There’s a universal recognition here that we need to try a different way,’’ he said. “The 103 years … I basically ignore it, but I think it provides a really nice mandate to get back to basics and to try a different approach. So everyone’s on board. The fact that it’s been awhile here creates universal buy-in.’’
The Cubs need good players to go by the team’s good book, and Epstein admits the talent level in the minor-league system isn’t nearly high enough, especially in the pitching department. In other words, this is going to take time.
He calls the draft “the single most important day of the year.’’ You might not want to hear that on a first date, but you do want to hear it from the guy running your baseball team. For years, the Cubs were understaffed in the scouting department. The farm system got little attention as Tribune Co. chose to throw money at veteran free agents. It’s how you get eight years of Alfonso Soriano and his escapades in left field.
Epstein will never be confused with a carnival barker, but he is selling something.
“There’s an opportunity for the fans to get in on the ground floor,’’ he said. “We’re not asking them to be patient. We’re asking them to be demanding. They should expect a winner.
“… They can get invested with this 2012 club and the players, but they can also follow along with the way the organization is being built. Pay attention to the draft and the prospects.’’
It’s the new Cub Way. Are you buying it?