Jonathan Papelbon sees Cubs revival building under Theo Epstein
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com April 29, 2012 5:16PM
“I’ve already noticed some of the moves that he’s made and ... I thought it looked kind of familiar,” Jonathan Papelbon said. | Hunter Martin~Getty Images
Cubs at Phillies
The facts: 6:05, CSN, 720-AM.
The pitchers: Chris Volstad
(0-3, 6.14 ERA) vs. Vance Worley (2-1, 2.16).
Updated: June 1, 2012 8:15AM
PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon can’t help himself. The closer for the team that has set the bar in the National League for the last five years finds his attention being drawn toward the last-place team in the NL Central.
“It’s kind of funny because I’ve already noticed some of the moves that he’s made, and I’ve made little mental notes in my head that I thought it looked kind of familiar,” Papelbon said.
“He” is Cubs president Theo Epstein, Papelbon’s former general manager with the Boston Red Sox.
The moves Papelbon is talking about barely register a yawn with most people. But they are signs — if not storm warnings — to those in the game who know Epstein, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer and scouting/player development boss Jason McLeod well.
“Like with Michael Bowden,” Papelbon said of the young pitcher acquired in the Marlon Byrd trade with the Red Sox nine days ago. “Just little things I’ve seen him do so far since he’s been there have kind of made me say, ‘Wow, that looks familiar.’ ”
It’s not going to happen this year, four wins in the last six games notwithstanding. But the tremors created since the hiring of the Theo Trio last fall already are being felt by some of the established powers in the National League.
“I don’t personally know Theo Epstein, but I’ve watched some things,” Phillies manager Charlie Manual said. “I think they’ll build their system back up quickly. I think you’ll see some growth on their team probably within the next year or two. You’re going to see a vastly improved team.”
The first pitcher acquired by the new front office, Paul Maholm, beat the top pitcher in the game, Roy Halladay, on Friday. The frontline pitcher the new regime is hoping to sign to an extension, Matt Garza, struck out 10, retired 18 in a row and allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings to beat the Phillies 5-1 on Sunday.
But those only touch the surface of the signs opponents see. It’s more about what’s going on in the minors, with players such as premier slugging prospect Anthony Rizzo. It’s the work being done in Latin America, including the continued effort to land touted Cuban prospect Jorge Soler when he becomes eligible to sign. It’s the work being done for the draft in June, in which the Cubs hold the sixth pick.
It’s what Papelbon seems to know is coming that has people taking notice.
“The Cubs could get there real quick, I think,” said Manual, who compared the Cubs to the surging Washington Nationals, and who sounded impressed with the Cubs’ starting pitching and All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro. “Those are the kind of guys that you need when you jump-star your organization. You got two or three of those guys, it’s easier for you to go out and mix [and add] around them.”
Add? On Friday, potential Phillies free agent Cole Hamels told the Sun-Times that he thinks enough of the Cubs’ chances to contend in the near future that he would strongly consider them if he was pursued.
“[Epstein’s] got the pieces of the puzzle to do it with,” Papelbon said. “Now I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Nobody knows that. I do know that he’s going to do some good things for that organization. I know that.
“It’s like when you play somebody in chess and they’re always beating you. It’s like they can think two moves ahead. He’s got that talent, and he’s always lurking in the bushes, it seems like.”
Papelbon admitted “we didn’t always see eye-to-eye” as he pitched on year-to-year contracts through his arbitration years with the Red Sox. But he remains impressed less with what Epstein did to “break the curse” in 2004 than with what he did after that.
“That wasn’t his team, that wasn’t his system, that wasn’t his way,” said Papelbon, who pointed out that the Red Sox’ championship three years later was led by players — including himself — who were drafted and developed under Epstein’s “Red Sox Way.”
“That to me is what makes him special.”
It’s also what makes Papelbon think the Cubs are about to rise, and maybe even why Papelbon headed to Philadelphia as a free agent.
“The reason why I’m not there [in Boston] right now is because I saw Theo leave, I saw [manager Terry Francona] leave,” he said. “And a light bulb kind of went off over my head that, ‘Hey things may not be the same if I come back.’ ”