The next phase

With a star manager and an ascending generation of talent, the Cubs have a bright future in the renovated Wrigley Field

Getty/AP

CHICAGO — Wrigley Field looks like it’s boarded up for a hurricane, with wood panels framing the iconic marquee. Sandbags line the chain-link fences surrounding the old ballpark.

The Cubs feel like this is the perfect storm, all their business objectives lining up with a wave of young talent that’s about to crash onto Chicago’s North Side.

Walk down Addison Street and it’s orange cones and roadblocks near the statues of Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Turn the corner and Sheffield Avenue is shut down for traffic. You still hear banging and clanging, but it’s not the El tracks rumbling overhead.

Construction workers wear hardhats and neon vests and take cigarette breaks on the sidewalk. The players’ parking lot across from the Chicago Fire Department’s Engine 78 house has been reduced to dirt and rocks, a bulldozer and a giant crane taking over the general area where you’d see Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac Escalades during the season.

This is Phase 1 of a neighborhood development that will cost around $600 million. People pull out their iPhones to take surreal photos. With the piles of rubble and knocked-down bleachers, it looks like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

The Plan is rational, methodical and cold-blooded, but it comes with no guarantees. The Armageddon scene in Wrigleyville leaves the question for another day: Uh, what if this doesn’t work?

 

Theo Epstein walked onto the stage at the Oriental Theatre and thanked the crowd for the warm welcome. The president of baseball operations said he couldn’t imagine what the response will be like when the Cubs don’t finish in last place.

Epstein is an introvert who doesn’t enjoy glad-handing or the retail aspects of his job. But he can turn on the charm when he has to, becoming a gifted public speaker with a razor-sharp feel for language and imagery and how to frame his message.

Following president of business operations Crane Kenney at the “On Deck 2015” event in early October, Epstein rolled through a slick presentation for season-ticket holders and a select group of Chicago reporters. The high-definition videos showcased elite prospects, featuring slow-motion actions clips and a soundtrack that sounded like something out of “Game of Thrones.”

It’s the type of event where the Cubs can run national-media blurbs on the screen, all that glowing praise for the farm system … without mentioning the Baseball Prospectus writer now works in the team’s scouting department.

It’s the type of event where the Cubs can caution that bad weather might slow construction … while also mentioning the Farmers’ Almanac has already predicted this will be a brutally cold winter … so you better book that trip to Arizona now and get tickets for spring training.

(In a session with Cubs bloggers just before Thanksgiving, Kenney would say the bleachers might not be ready for Opening Day 2015, a matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals that’s already been moved into ESPN2’s primetime slot on Easter Sunday, April 5.)

The Cubs bought Epstein’s brand name and golden-boy reputation three years ago, luring the Boston Red Sox general manager, who felt burned out at Fenway Park after breaking the 86-year curse and winning two World Series rings.

The Cubs needed some cover while putting their financial house in order after the Ricketts family entered into a leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co in 2009. (That $845 million deal included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Sports Business Journal recently reported the franchise is now valued at more than $2 billion.)

The Cubs also needed someone with the clout to preach patience for a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, the stature to silence almost all media criticism and keep the fan base at bay.

The hype got to the point where utility guys Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker dressed up as Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer for the “Superheroes” road trip in the summer of 2012. Dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants, with cell phones pressed to their ears, they looked at each other and realized: Dude, we’re so traded.

“They turned that organization around in Boston,” Johnson said. “Obviously, they have plans and agendas. I feel like they’ve got something going (where) they’re all kind of pulling in a certain direction. They know (where) they’re going. Some of the media and the fans might not understand it right away. But in the end, you’ve got to (look at) the history that they’ve had.”

Within three years, the Cubs have used their arbitrage system to trade away veterans on expiring/short-term contracts, deepen the pool of talent and increase their odds of winning later. Their internal numbers point to 10 major trades where they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control.

For about $100 million, the Cubs locked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro through at least 2020. They are both heading into their age-25 seasons after playing in this year’s All-Star Game.

At a time when scoring is down, offense is hard to find and testing is tougher for performance-enhancing drugs, the Cubs used three first-round picks on position players (Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber). They signed an unproven Cuban outfielder to a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract and watched Jorge Soler put up a .903 OPS during his 24-game audition this year. They traded their Opening Day starter (Jeff Samardzija) to the Oakland A’s in a Fourth of July blockbuster headlined by yet another shortstop, Baseball America’s No. 5 midseason prospect (Addison Russell).

So when the industry gathers next week at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront inside the winter-meetings bubble, the Cubs will be right in the middle of the action again, looking for frontline pitching. Sign Jon Lester to a $150 million contract? Deal those trade chips to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels? Why not?

“The two greatest currencies in the game right now are money (and) talented young players,” Epstein told the audience. “It creates limitless possibilities going forward. We’re not going to rush into 2015 and sell out to make this ‘The Year.’ I hope it is. We’re going to work really hard to make it ‘The Year.’ But we can do a lot of things to make ourselves competitive.

“There are great days ahead. There really are. And I hope I’m not being the salesman type that I detest so much. I’m excited about 2015. We’re competing for the (National League) Central (title) in 2015. But when you look at the longer-term future, I can honestly say I would not trade the Cubs’ longer-term future for any team in baseball.”

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green and AP Photo/Paul Beaty, File)

Joe Maddon leaned down and grabbed the microphone from the table, looking around the room for a bartender. The new manager had just finished the first leg of a marathon press conference at The Cubby Bear, the bar diagonally across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon promised to buy a round for everyone and dropped the microphone for a moment. He picked it back up again before walking off the stage.

“That’s a shot and a beer!” Maddon said. “That’s the Hazleton way!”

Maddon found himself more than 1,000 miles away from his Pennsylvania hometown when he met with Epstein and Hoyer at an RV campground on the Florida Panhandle in late October. They hung out around “Cousin Eddie,” Maddon’s 43-foot Winnebago named after Randy Quaid’s character in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movies. They sat on lawn chairs and drank beers by the water at Navarre Beach.

“We’ll always have Pensacola,” said Epstein, whose grandfather and great-uncle won Academy Awards for writing the “Casablanca” screenplay.

Maddon became a free agent when he used an opt-out clause that triggered once Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman left to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Epstein had already said his second handpicked manager here would “absolutely” be back next season and the Cubs had already announced their coaching staff for 2015. But this would be an easy decision made under awkward circumstances, with almost no public blowback.

On Halloween, the team sent out a 583-word press release with a sledgehammer headline: “Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.”

Epstein made Maddon a five-year, $25 million offer he couldn’t refuse. When the Rays pushed Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation, Epstein said: Bring it on.

Maddon brings style and substance with those hipster glasses, almost 200,000 Twitter followers and two American League Manager of the Year Awards. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo — who grew up a few miles west of Wrigley Field — remembered playing for Maddon in 1982 at an A-ball affiliate of the California Angels.

“Not much has changed,” Rizzo said. “He’s got a great personality for any city, but I think he’ll fit in with the working-class, blue-collar Chicago fan base very well.

“A manager with his success rate and his reputation adds a respect factor immediately walking through the door. If the players are smart enough, they’re going to (listen).

“Not only is he a great manager, but this guy was a great field coordinator. He was a farm director. He was a scout. He’s done a lot of aspects of the game and he’s a guy that really came from the ground up to the pinnacle of his occupation.

“You’d be foolish not to take that expertise as a player and run with it. He exudes personality, confidence and a trust factor.”

Maddon loves crazy, but it might be hard to find room for the zoo animals and DJs until the cramped home clubhouse is finally renovated for the 2016 season. He’ll be spotted riding his bike along Lake Michigan and dining at the city’s great restaurants. He felt the vibes and the energy downtown and doesn’t want to live in some country club or a gated community in the suburbs.

The Cubs have burned through 53 managers, and Maddon will be the fifth in the last six seasons on Opening Day 2015. Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella also came in with swagger, hoping to cement their spots in the Hall of Fame. But they looked completely worn out by the end, sick of the losing and tired of the second-guessing.

Do you have any idea what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into?

“I love it. The challenge is so outstanding. How could you not want to be in this seat?” Maddon said. “That was then. This is now. I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding that moment — or the last 107 years, whatever it’s been. This is a one-in-107-year opportunity for me right now.

“So I’m way too optimistic to worry about things like that. I’m kind of pragmatic, in a good way, I think. I don’t focus on stuff like that. I refuse to. After all, you would have never been the manager of the Devil Rays in the first place if you thought that way.

“Why would you not want to accept this challenge? In this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances, with that talent — it’s an extraordinary moment.”

 

Hoyer remembered taking a behind-the-scenes tour of Wrigley Field with Jason McLeod in the fall of 2011. They were leaving good jobs within the San Diego Padres’ front office and signing on with Epstein, their old buddy from Boston.

Hoyer grew up in New England, rooting for the Red Sox and starting out as an intern in Boston’s baseball operations department. Hoyer had helped close the deal with Curt Schilling at Thanksgiving time 2003, traveling to Phoenix and convincing the Arizona Diamondbacks big-game pitcher to waive his no-trade rights and sign a contract extension with the Red Sox. Hoyer got food poisoning after eating the Thanksgiving spread at Schilling’s Paradise Valley home. That forced Epstein to throw $20 bills at the vomit all around an Arizona Biltmore suite, trying to make it up to housekeeping.

Hoyer was also there a few weeks later when Epstein met with Alex Rodriguez at the Four Seasons in Manhattan, the $252 million man trying to escape the Texas Rangers and forever change The Rivalry with the New York Yankees.

Eight years later, Hoyer and McLeod were being shown around by Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his brother/board member Pete — who’s now Nebraska’s Republican governor-elect. The Ricketts took them to the home clubhouse to show them where and how pinch-hitters warm up without a batting tunnel.

“They showed us the net,” Hoyer recalled. “They showed us the wood that covers the TV. They showed us literally putting the tee up on the fridge.

“I laughed. I thought it was a joke: This is actually how your hitters get ready? It was incredible. It’s hard to believe that’s how a major-league team in this day and age prepares.”

McLeod — who directed drafts that produced Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and an emerging core for Boston’s 2007 championship team — became the new senior vice president of scouting and player development.

Hoyer already had a GM title with the Padres, a wife who was around seven months pregnant with their first child and what was supposed to be their new house in escrow back in San Diego.

But this is what everyone around the Cubs dreams about, the old ballpark jam-packed on cold October nights, the mosh pits outside Wrigley Field and the parade down Michigan Avenue.

“You think about what it would be like,” Hoyer said. “We did experience probably one of the biggest celebrations ever with the Red Sox in ’04. All of us have different images of what happened, but it was life-changing, watching the way people reacted to not having won in 86 years.

“Everyone has different anecdotes. I remember the souvenir stores across the street from our office and the line to get World Series paraphernalia right after we won was literally like snaking around, all the way down the block. It had thousands of people in this line and it was like that for days and days and days. Like they had to get merchandise.

“I remember, on the way back from the airport, all the buses. It was early in the morning (and) everyone stopped. Everyone’s jumping out of cars, standing on top of their car, construction workers up on buildings cheering. And then the parade was like a three- or four-hour rock concert it was so loud.

“I feel like we all have these images of what it would be like here, because we went through it. But I actually think this one would be that much bigger. It’s a bigger city and it’s a longer (drought) and in some way more tortured.”

 

Cubs executives believe free-agent decisions come down to years and dollars 99 percent of the time. Aramis Ramirez isn’t exactly the sentimental type, but even he felt the pull of the 1 percent.

Ramirez grew up in the Dominican Republic as the son of a doctor and an accountant, and he would have been wealthy even if he never picked up a baseball. That emotional detachment and sense of calm surely helped the third baseman thrive inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry pulled off a heist when he acquired Ramirez from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the summer of 2003. Ramirez had a good view that October as his friend Moises Alou drifted from left field into foul territory and toward the wall in The Bartman Game, five outs away from the World Series. (They booked flights home to the Dominican Republic before the Florida Marlins won Game 7.)

Ramirez still performed in the clutch, showing up in the MVP voting when the Cubs won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. Epstein’s front office let Ramirez walk after the 2011 season, gaining a compensation draft pick — which turned out to be well-regarded pitching prospect Pierce Johnson — when he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.

“If you win a championship in Chicago, you’re always going to be remembered there,” Ramirez said. “I don’t care if you’re a bench player, if you’re an everyday third baseman, or you’re a coach, you’re part of that team and you brought something to Chicago that hasn’t been done in a long time.

“Being in the World Series with the Cubs — it’s going to be special for anybody. I don’t care if you won five championships, six, if you’re with the Yankees. If you go to Chicago and win the World Series, it’s going to be different.”

Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro both made the All-Star Game before turning 25 (Getty Images).

Sometimes it almost feels like this group of prospects is treated with the same reverence as the ’85 Bears. But Epstein understands the Cubs haven’t accomplished anything yet, that the total teardown would always be the easy part.

Kenney’s business side still has to deliver the TV megadeal, but can’t start a Cubs network until 2020. That appears to be the only way to juice a major-league payroll that’s been slashed from more than $145 million to less than $90 million across the last five seasons.

Ricketts is an owner with several admirable qualities and a few blind spots. He pushed his father, Joe, the TD Ameritrade founder, to do the highly leveraged, complicated deal with Zell, a corporate raider who didn’t care at all about baseball and will be writing a memoir called “Gravedancer.”

Ricketts sees the big picture, investing about $6 million in a new academy in the Dominican Republic and playing hardball with Mesa officials to get a new spring-training complex built with public money in Arizona.

Ricketts doesn’t micromanage or seek the spotlight. He’s not all that comfortable talking to the media. He knows scouts by name and visits minor-league affiliates, showing a genuine interest in player development. He’s been willing to take the heat now while playing the long game.

The hands-off style won’t always work, and the family’s right-wing politics doesn’t always play well with the Chicago machine. Even if it wasn’t necessarily the franchise’s first choice, privately financing the stadium renovation was the right thing to do.

But on a beautiful Saturday morning in October, Ricketts finally got that formal groundbreaking ceremony, a shovels-in-the-dirt photo opportunity for Cubs executives, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and outgoing MLB commissioner Bud Selig.

The Cubs had gone 28-27 in August and September after another fire sale blew up the team in July (leaving them at 73-89 overall and finishing in fifth place for the fifth year in a row). Jake Arrieta (10-5, 2.53 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.46 ERA) stepped up in the rotation. Pedro Strop (2.21 ERA) and Neil Ramirez (1.44 ERA) combined for 37 holds. All four pitchers had been acquired in deadline deals.

Closer Hector Rondon — a Rule 5 pickup and Tommy John recovery case — notched 29 saves for what became a lights-out bullpen.

Kris Bryant emerged as the national player of the year for Baseball America and USA Today after generating 43 homers and 110 RBI in the minors.

The Cubs used 16 rookies while 10 players made their big-league debuts, including Javier Baez, an uber-prospect with Gary Sheffield bat speed and a powerful swing that’s been compared to Giancarlo Stanton. Baez oozes talent and confidence — he got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager — but he also struck out 95 times in his first 200-plus at-bats in The Show.

“This was a season that I was sad to see end,” Ricketts said. “We had an exciting young team on the field. You came to the park expecting to find something new and exciting, a performance of a player or something that affirmed their talent.

“When fans come back next Opening Day, the players that are on the field are players that are going to be on the field for a long time, and we haven’t been able to say that the first five years of our ownership.”

Same old Cubs? Sleeping giant? Who knows? Either way, this will be must-see TV.

“I think that when you look back at the history of the Cubs in the future,” Ricketts said, “2014 will be a year that everyone can point to where things really changed.”