Friday, March 21, 2014
Sutcliffe: Not 'if' for Cubs but 'when'
By Jesse Rogers
MESA, Ariz. -- Soon, former Chicago Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe will turn in his Cubs uniform for a suit to wear on ESPN as the major league regular season commences. Sutcliffe has been a spring instructor for the team he won a Cy Young award with in 1984 and his passion for the Cubs runs deep.
He's been on the backfields with minor league players and in the locker room with the major leaguers, and his eyes have been on everyone from the injured Jake Arrieta to the powerful Javier Baez. This has been no spring break for the "Red Baron."
"I'm not here to walk down memory lane or just sign autographs or take pictures," Sutcliffe said Thursday, one of his final days as a coach. "I've been a big believer in [Cubs president] Theo Epstein for a long time. And when he called me he said, 'I would like for you to be a part of it, whatever you can do.' I'm just an extra set of eyes here."
Rick Sutcliffe, right, believes it's inevitable that Theo Epstein, left, will turn around the Cubs.
Sutcliffe is a believer because he saw what Epstein did in Boston and believes he'll do it in Chicago as well.
"When he's able to pull this off -- and notice I didn't say 'if' -- when he's able to pull this off and when you look at the history of baseball, all the big names like Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski couldn't do it, all the Hall of Famers that have worn this [Cubs] uniform and couldn't get it done. When you think of the one thing that the Red Sox and Cubs have in common, it's Theo Epstein. It was the challenge to begin with that excited him about that. Now, when he saw what he inherited here, he may have thought, 'Oh my goodness, what happened here,' but he's never varied from his plan.
"It was an absolute mess when Theo took it over. When you look at the history of draft choices, particularly the No. 1 picks, it's embarrassing that there has not been more production there. That's the reason for the last two years. I don't think Theo would admit it, but I think it was even worse than he would have thought. When you look at the Red Sox every year since Theo took over, there are one to three players that come through that system that helped them win."
And Sutcliffe claims that two years ago, the Cubs had no chance of building a winner with what was in the system, especially in his area of expertise, pitching.
"[Kerry] Wood and I have talked about it; our role is to help get these young pitchers to catch up with the everyday prospects," Sutcliffe said. "Then all of a sudden it becomes special and then it becomes what the Red Sox are when every year when you need help, all you have to do is call downstairs.
"Two years ago, Theo sent me down to minor league camp to take a look at all the arms, and when I came back I said, You're going to be pissed off at me. He said, 'Tell me the truth, that's why you're here.' I said I saw three guys that I think have a chance out of 65 guys. That's sad. When I go down there now, I see eight out of 10 that have a chance. You see the late movement or the velocity or the deception in the delivery. All it takes is to have one of those things to have a big league fastball. Watching C.J. Edwards, he has a chance to have all three of them."
Sutcliffe was on hand Wednesday as Edwards, the top pitcher in all of minor league baseball last season, started in a minor league game. Mike Bryant, a former player and the father of Kris Bryant, the Cubs' top pick last season, said Edwards' slight frame reminded him of his former roommate in the minors, Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd.
"This guy has a chance to be much better," Sutcliffe said. "He doesn't have half the man muscles that he's going to have at some point. But he won't be rushed. He can have some of the easiest innings you'll ever see because of the cut fastball. This guy can be special."
Sutcliffe started to invoke Mariano Rivera's cutter but stopped short because Edwards isn't that good, but he's got something special about him.
And speaking of special, no one is higher on right-handed pitching prospect Kyle Hendricks than Sutcliffe.
"The guy that gets me is Kyle Hendricks," Sutcliffe said. "Whatever 'it' is when you talk about pitchers, he has it. That's what I see. The tougher the situation, the better the location."
Sutcliffe likes the potential of C.J. Edwards, the minor league pitcher of the year in 2013.
Then there's Jake Arrieta, somewhat of a project for pitching coach Chris Bosio since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles. He's been slowed by a stiff shoulder this spring, but Bosio and Sutcliffe hope they can unleash the pitcher with the "best stuff" on the staff.
"We form a trust in each other," Sutcliffe said of getting to know Arrieta. "There are a couple things we've addressed to stay healthy. He has to learn how to have easier innings. He has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, and when you see what Chris Bosio has done [with other pitchers], it could happen."
The player who brings the biggest smile to Sutcliffe is Baez. Even as an expert in pitching, Sutcliffe sees the great potential in the Cubs' top pick of 2011.
"The guy that keeps coming to mind for me is [Gary] Sheffield," Sutcliffe said. "The bat speed just overpowers the arm speed. I haven't seen him take one swing at a fastball and miss yet. I don't care if it's 100 mph or 88 mph with movement. His hand-eye coordination, it's just one of those special things. This guy is going to be a star. Yeah, if you're trying to win Opening Day, he's in your lineup and hits third. But six years from now, you have a chance at losing him. ... If he's down till June, he's not a Super 2. He'll be that good. They know that.
"[Former player] Larry Walker was over at Talking Stick against the Rockies when Baez hit that ball [on Wednesday night]. He looked at me like, Really? I said, I see it every day."
Sutcliffe has empathy for both sides of the Jeff Samardzija situation. He was a player in a similar position, but he never saw the kind of money the pitchers make today. How much is enough? Samardzija will be a free agent after the 2015 season, and every day he's not signed to a long-term deal makes him a day closer to free agency. And likely to be traded.
"Back in 1984, before the trade to the Cubs, [GM] Dallas Green said we have to sign you to an extension," Sutcliffe said. "When you get that close to free agency, you're crazy if you don't take a look at what's out there. The salaries have never gone down.
"In 1979 I won Rookie of the Year and Don Sutton told me, almost bitterly, 'You are so lucky, you're coming along right when the big money is going to hit.' In 1984, I thought he was right. He wasn't close to being right. They make more now in a year than I made in my whole career."
Not that Sutcliffe believes all pitchers deserve the big money.
"This quality stat thing [six innings, three runs or less], I asked Nolan Ryan about that," Sutcliffe said. "He said, 'Rick, in my day we would have called that a poor performance.' Now they get multiyear deals for a 4.05 ERA. Back in the day, we'd get released."
Sutcliffe is happy with helping out and giving his opinion to the Cubs front office, then giving it to baseball fans on ESPN once the regular season starts. He does miss the uniform and has turned down offers to manage or be a pitching coach in order to spend time with his family.
"There's nothing like having an impact on a win," Sutcliffe said. "There is no better feeling in the world."