Wilken believes Cubs can build the foundation with Epstein-McLeod


MINNEAPOLISTim Wilken was driving across Florida last fall when he abruptly cut off a conversation with his new boss.

Gotta go, the Cubs scouting director said into the speaker inside his car, and essentially hung up on Theo Epstein.

A cop pulled over Wilken, whos still not sure why he didnt get a speeding ticket on the way home to Dunedin from Fort Lauderdale.

For a franchise that has tried to erase the myths of black cats and billy goats, maybe this was a sign of good fortune: The player Wilken had just scouted was Albert Almora.

At the time, Almora was training with Team USA for the Pan-Am Games in Colombia. Almora led the 18-and-under national team on a 9-0 run and was named tournament MVP, winning one of his five gold medals in international play.

Almoraan 18-year-old outfielder who just graduated from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardensjust became the first player drafted by the Epstein administration. Though the No. 6 overall pick is being advised by super-agent Scott Boras and has played up the idea of going to the University of Miami, Cubs officials are quietly confident a deal will get done.

Epstein framed the draft as the most important days of the year for an organization that lacks impact talent.

The president of baseball operations has overseen a merger, hiring Jed Hoyer as general manager and Jason McLeod as the new head of scouting and player development, while inheriting a staff that was signed through 2012 and loyal to Jim Hendry.

It was a little bit of a feeling-out process, (but) all the guys got to speak their peace, Wilken said. You could see the room coming together as a unit. It was good stuff between Theo, Jed and Jason and the holdovers.

Wilken grew up with Hendry, and they played together at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Alabama. But Wilken made his mark during 25 seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, working for Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick and helping build back-to-back World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. The Cubs hope to combine old-school scouting with new-wave thinking.

You couldnt have had much of a better blend, Wilken said. It was like putting together some music.

Wilkenwho was involved in the Blue Jays signing Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter out of high schoolbelieves that both sides share similar philosophies. In the room, the Cubs had always stressed arm action, athletic bodies and repeatable deliveries when analyzing pitchers.

But Wilken admitted that the 2012 draft reached a new level of detail. Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod visited Almoras home in South Florida as part of an extensive background check.

Scouts were given cameras and had to shoot every game they attended, to create a video library inside the new Bloomberg computer system.

The Cubs had obviously broken down film before, but never had this kind of database to bring everything into focus.

It really helped you just put a picture in your mind, Wilken said.

A new collective bargaining agreement forced the Cubs to improvise. Wilken said you used to be able to almost script out the first 15 plays, like Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, but spending restrictions changed all that.

Last year, chairman Tom Ricketts consulted with Hendry and poured 12 million into a draft class they hoped would be game-changing. As the signing deadline approached, Wilken had no idea his old friend was already fired.

The Cubs are limited to just under 8 million this year, and crossing that limit would lead to severe penalties. Wilken doesnt concern himself with what could have beenthe draft was a line item that didnt remain steady on the Tribune Co. budgetbut he does see one big problem with the new labor deal.

Epstein and McLeod liked to overpay football players and get those later-round picks to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Wilken fears baseball is going to lose out on two-sport athletes and the Jeff Samardzijas and Joe Mauers will pursue their NFL ambitions.

Its not going to benefit any club, Wilken said. I dont think its fair to those guys. I think it needs to be reviewed down the road.

Were asking them to come out of their sport and come over to our sport. Weve closed off one side of the avenue. Im kind of worried for the industry.

The Cubs are looking for any advantage they can get. Wilken knows the odds, that of the 42 players they just drafted, it would be a major success if three or four guys are contributors to contending teams in 2016 or 2017.

You get the sense that Wilken would like to stick around that long, even though he didnt get a new contract from Ricketts last September, like vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita did before the Epstein hire.

Wilkenwho has sat with Ricketts in Boise, Idaho, scouting the minor-league systemappreciates the support from ownership and said Epsteins crew has been first class.

McLeodwho drafted Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury for the Red Soxhas said that earlier in his career hed make a point to get a drink with Wilken at the winter meetings to learn more about the business. McLeod also doesnt want to spend 200 nights a year in Marriott hotels across the country.

Both egos were checked at the door, Wilken said. Were trying to bring in the players (to) bring (a) World Series here.

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