Francona on Cubs: 'They're too smart and work too hard not to figure it out'

PHOENIX -- Former Boston Red Sox manager and current Cleveland Indians skipper Terry Francona never doubted his former bosses would turn the Chicago Cubs around.

“They’re too smart and work too hard not to figure it out,” Francona said Monday at a gathering of Cactus League front-office personnel and managers in Arizona. “And you’re starting to see that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Francona beat out current Cubs manager Joe Maddon for the job in Boston following the 2003 season and went on to win two World Series titles under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. He watched from afar as Epstein and Hoyer rebuilt the Cubs, all while finishing well below .500 in their first three years in Chicago. Expectations are much higher in 2015.

“It takes a lot of strength and resolve to take your lumps,” Francona said. “It’s not easy. I talked to Theo. It was hard, but you see where they are now. And I bet he’s excited because I know how he feels about young players. He loves that. When you go into the free-agent market, it’s a gamble, it’s a risk. Young players haven’t hit their peak yet. Then again when you’re doing it [free agency] with a guy like Jon Lester, someone he knows intimately, somebody pretty good to bet on.”

Francona saved his highest praise for Lester, calling the 31-year-old lefty a bulldog who will never want to come out of games.

“It's scary, I think, for teams to give away that kind of money,” Francona said of Lester’s $155 million contract. “But if there's someone you're going to give it to, he's phenomenal in just about every aspect of everything he does. I think he's probably embracing [the pressure], or he wouldn't have gone there.”

Francona joked about a Cubs/Indians World Series. Considering the history of both franchises, he knows it could be a long shot, but both teams have high hopes for this season.

“They’re doing good things and it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are,” Francona said of the Cubs.

Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia: Maddon’s good friend and former boss talked about Maddon’s ability to connect with people.

“He’s a Renaissance man,” Scioscia said. “Wherever he is he finds a way to connect with people. He’s passionate about a number of things and one of them is baseball. He’ll be in the middle of everything.

“Joe will bond with the city of Chicago. But he has to bond with the players. They come from all walks of life. I don’t think he’s going to have any problem.”

Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin: Melvin delivered a reminder of how hard it is to play good baseball for six months, recalling that his team went 9-21 down the stretch after leading the National League Central for much of last season.

“Fine line between winning 81 and 90 wins,” Melvin said. “The Cubs did a nice job of adding. It’s a great division. It’s even better now.”

Yoan Moncada: Many general managers said they were interested in the Cuban teenager who reportedly came to terms Monday with the Red Sox.

“We scouted him heavily,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “The Red Sox got a heck of a talent. He’s been on the radar for a long time.”

But with spending restrictions for international amateurs keeping the Cubs at bay until early July, they were unable to compete in the bidding for Moncada, which reached $31.5 million, reportedly.

“We had restrictions for 2015. ... But you never know when these guys are going to be unblocked and become available,” Hoyer said. “We scouted him as if he would be available to us.”

Cubs meet with Bryant: Cubs brass met with top prospect Kris Bryant, as they do with every player at the beginning of spring training. The offseason didn’t change their view of him.

“You could list off all his attributes,” Hoyer said. “Incredibly mature for a 23-year-old. Self-confident but also very self-aware. Works with a purpose. He just loves baseball. He comes across different than most 23-year-olds.”

Hoyer avoided any service-time questions regarding Bryant, only indicating that he needs to be a complete player before making his major league debut -- and that defense at third base is where Bryant needs to improve.