Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein spoke to the media on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, and he covered a list of topics ranging from free agent priorities to the play of Miguel Montero to the development plans for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez.
To help recap the day at the Friendly Confines, here is a list of the five biggest takeaways from the press conference.
It’s The Pitching, Stupid
“The topic sentence is ‘we would like to add more quality pitching,’” Epstein said early on in his press conference. He went on to say that the team is looking to add “at least one quality starting pitcher” when free agency opens this winter, and he said that free agent pitching is a “necessary evil.”
Granted, none of that insinuates that the Cubs will go after one of the top-of-the-line free agents like David Price or Zack Greinke, but it would seem to indicate that they would be open to doing so. Both players will command large salaries, but with the savings the Cubs are getting as a result of having a lineup loaded with young, cost-controlled players, there is definitely incentive for them to add a top-of-the-line starter to take some pressure off of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
Schwarber Will See Time at Catcher, Outfield Next Spring
“We’re keeping all the options open, as long as we’re not getting in the way of his development,” Epstein said of Kyle Schwarber and whether he would continue to work on his game behind the plate. He also said that the team likes the “imperfect path” in terms of allowing Schwarber to develop while playing at the big league level, preferring to keep his bat in the lineup instead of sending him down to the minors for more seasoning.
There has been plenty of talk about Schwarber’s future as a fielder with the Cubs after his route-running came into question during the NLCS, but Epstein and the front office clearly believe that he can develop into a serviceable player at either position, and that keeping his bat in the lineup is a priority to forcing him to take extra reps at either position during a minor league stint.
Arrieta Contract Not Top Priority, but Cubs Open to Talk
“I’m sure there will come a time where we’ll approach Jake and Scott Boras and try to extend that window,” Epstein said when asked about Arrieta’s contract status. “We’re not going to talk about that time publicly, but we’d be foolish not to try to extend that window.”
Arrieta is not set to become a free agent until after the 2017 season, but with his dominant performance during the 2015 campaign, there are increasing calls for the Cubs to lock him up to a more team-friendly deal before a free agency campaign would likely raise his asking price. It doesn’t sound like Epstein is looking to lock up Arrieta any time soon, but conversations will surely take place with Boras this offseason as the Cubs pursue other free agents.
Hammel Will Likely Remain in Rotation
“He is that guy that you saw in the first half when he’s 100 percent and locked in, and it’s our job to get him that way for the first week of the season next year,” Epstein said when asked about Hammel’s status for next season.
There have been plenty of questions about whether the Cubs will add a top-line starter and a young, cost-controlled guy to the rotation, and about what that would mean to Jason Hammel’s status, but it seems that the Cubs are planning on having him in the mix for a starter’s job next season. Hammel will be entering the second year of a two-year contract that he signed with the Cubs, and he’ll be looking to rebound after an awful second half that saw his confidence dwindle and his performance suffer.
Baez, Bryant Could See Outfield Time
With the huge amount of positional prospects the Cubs have, it isn’t shocking that Epstein said the team is going to look at potentially giving both Javier Baez and Kris Bryant time in the outfield. Bryant played some at all three outfield positions this season, and with his arm and deceptive speed, he could potentially be a fit in right field for the Cubs if they choose to go in that direction.
The real question becomes, of course, whether the Cubs want to keep just one true outfielder and have Schwarber and Bryant serving as the corner guys. That is a big if from a defensive perspective, as we saw what happened when they skimped on defense during the postseason. A spring training spent developing talent and route-running could be just what the doctor ordered for both players, but it will be interesting to see how serious the Cubs are about having those types of players in the lineup on an everyday basis in those positions.
The Chicago Cubs bolstered the top of their rotation this offseason with the acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, but the back end of their rotation is still a big question mark, with several hurlers competing for the final spot in the five-man group.
One of those pitchers that will be competing for a job will apparently be Edwin Jackson, as manager Joe Maddon revealed on Friday that the pitcher will be stretched back out to compete as a starting pitcher. The last two years haven’t been kind to Jackson after he signed a four year deal with the club prior to the 2013 season. In those years, Jackson has a 14-33 record, a 5.58 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.54.
Last season was especially bad for Jackson, as he struggled through poor play, an inability to keep the ball in the yard (he gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings, his worst number since he made eight starts for the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers.
With those kinds of numbers, and with players like Travis Wood, Felix Doubront, Eric Jokisch, and Tsuyoshi Wada all competing for a spot, it’s going to be a tough slog for Jackson to crack the rotation, but he’s feeling confident even in spite of the obstacles in front of him.
“I’ve been just looking forward. I haven’t really looked back in the past too much,” he told MLB.com. “Those two years, they were what they were. I’ve been ready, getting in shape and ready to go.”
Jackson was also asked about what it was like to play under Maddon, who managed Jackson during his brief stop in Tampa Bay earlier in his career.
“It’s definitely cool having a good manager,” he told Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
That last statement stirred up a bit of resentment on social media, as some fans took it as unwarranted criticism of the job that Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria have done in the past two years as Cubs manager. Most fans who criticized Jackson blasted him for being cruel about previous managers while seemingly glossing over his own failures on the mound for the Cubs.
That is one way to look at it, but it all feels a bit overhyped. Jackson has struggled with the Cubs, and there’s no way that he’s going to be guaranteed a roster spot even though the team is stretching him back out as a starter. He’s merely expressing confidence that he can win the job, knowing full well that there is an open competition for it.
As for the Maddon quote, Jackson is merely saying what everyone in the organization has said and inferred since Renteria was dumped and Joe was brought aboard. Maddon’s hire represents a shift in the focus of the Cubs away from competing to avoid the NL Central cellar to competing for a division title.
When the new season begins for the Chicago Cubs, there will be some big changes both on the field and in the broadcast booth, as the team moves from WGN Radio to WBBM for the new campaign.
As part of that transition, the team will have a new voice handling pregame and postgame duties on the radio, and that man will be Mark Grote. Before he slides into the chair for the first time, he sat down with us instead and talked about his new job, what he expects from the Cubs this season, and whether or not he thinks the team can win the World Series.
Part two of the conversation can be accessed here.
Windy City Hardball: I have to go with the most obvious question first: what is the interview process like for a job like this? Did you have to pass a Cubs trivia test or anything crazy like that?
Mark Grote: My third gathering with Ron Gleason and Mitch Rosen stands out to me. I was asked to report to Ron’s office for a meeting with about ten minutes advanced notice, and no knowledge of the specific content. I was then sent into a production studio and told to do a few minutes of a Cubs pregame. Improvised. The way I would do it. Anything I wanted.
Beyond that, there was no ‘Cubs trivia test,’ per say. I was asked for my thoughts on the team and its players, and there was a natural flow of Cubs chatter throughout the sessions. The entire interview process was thorough and sincere. It was never interrogation style. Instead, (there was) a genuine curiosity of exactly how I would handle specific scenarios, and my philosophies of what a professional pre and post game should sound like.
WCH: Now that we’ve covered the “who,” let’s move to the “why.” What drew you to this job?
Grote: It sounds a bit flowery, but the Cubs truly drew me to sports and broadcasting in the first place. I was obsessed with the game, the players, and the announcers growing up. Jack Brickhouse, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, Harry Caray, Steve Stone, Dewayne Statts, and on and on. The broadcasters were just as important to me as what Jerry Martin would do on a typical day.
Beyond that, just from a pure broadcasting standpoint, it was a prime opportunity. The type of position that does not emerge frequently. My current full-time position as an anchor on the “Mully and Hanley” show on 670 the Score is an absolute blast because of the freedom those two allow me on their popular show, but I couldn’t resist making a play for the Cubs job.
WCH: Pat Hughes is making the trip over from WGN to WBBM, and that news has Cubs fans excited. Have you gotten to talk to Pat yet, and how excited are you to work with him?
Grote: Pat Hughes was the first person to call me when it was revealed that I had landed the job. What a thrill. It was funny, I told him, ‘Pat, I am just going to follow your lead, and play whatever role you and Ron Coomer need me to play during the broadcast.’ Pat’s response (in that great, syncopated Pat Hughes voice) was, ‘Oh no Mark. I want you to be YOU. Perhaps if the Cubs are leading the Mets 11-1 in the 7th, you can come on and do an impersonation or two.’
The key thing he told me is that we are going to have fun, and I do fun well. Hughes is an unbelievable play by play man. If you listen to him, you know he doesn’t miss things and that his recall is scary good.
In Part One of our conversation with new Chicago Cubs pre-and-postgame host Mark Grote, we discussed what the interview process was like, and what drew him to the job. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the on-field issues that the team will have to address in the coming year.
WCH: Now that we’ve covered the broadcast part of the equation, let’s talk a bit about the team. After seeing Javier Baez make his debut last season, what are your expectations for him in the new year?
Grote: Baez is that guy that took your breath away at times when he connected with that ferocious and wonderfully untamed swing, but the strikeouts are too much. I think the Cubs’ coaching staff has a very delicate task as it pertains to Baez. You don’t want to turn this guy into a doubles hitter, but striking out half the time is unacceptable. He could be a monster at Wrigley Field if he makes slight changes to his approach.
WCH: The other big prospect story with the Cubs concerns whether or not Kris Bryant will start the season at the big-league level. Do you think he’ll be on the team’s roster when they leave Mesa, or do you see him going back to triple-A?
Grote: I believe that Kris Bryant will be on the Cubs’ opening day roster IF he tears it up in spring training. I respect and understand the money clock, but there is a point where a baseball player becomes undeniable. Where the player means actual wins at the big league level now. And, if this is to be the next phase of the Cubs’ “rebuild,” they are going to have to act accordingly.
WCH: When he does make his way up here, do you see him staying at third base or shifting to the outfield?
Grote: I’d like to see him get a crack at third base. I realize his height is not ideal for the position, but it would be easy to rearrange pieces if necessary.
WCH: Out of the Cubs’ big offseason moves, which one do you think is the one that will make the biggest impact?
Grote: The answer is Jon Lester. Not just because of his immense skills, but because he allows the rest of the rotation to fall into place. He legitimizes things, as I like to say. Remember last year when everybody was asking if Jake Arrieta was a number one guy? No need for further inquiry.
A comfortable number two spot is where he can thrive. The jovial Jason Hammel seems tailor-made for the three, and where Lester really works his magic is with Kyle Hendricks, who was a pleasant surprise in his first year. Now he can continue to play it cool and perhaps take the next step without everybody EXPECTING him to take the next step.
It also puts Travis Wood in a perfect spot, and I do believe Wood will have a turnaround season (assuming he’s not traded).
WCH: What do you think this team’s biggest need is as they head to Mesa for spring training?
Dexter Fowler smoothed out the outfield situation, but what about left field? My vote is to give Chris Coghlan a shot. The former rookie of the year was fantastically consistent last season. I really like him, and not every position has to be ‘Cubs super-prospect.’ Coghlan could be one of those guys who is just now figuring it out. It happens.
WCH: Outside of the big stars and hotshot prospects, which player do you see being a surprise for the team this year?
Grote: I already alluded to my faith in Chris Coghlan to be something real. The other I keep thinking that may be ready to pounce is Jason Motte. He had 42 saves in 2012, and Joe Maddon is uniquely qualified to make those bullpen guys jump.
WCH: There’s one last question that absolutely has to be asked: do you, Mark Grote, think that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015?
Grote: Let’s see. I was just named the Cubs pre and postgame host. I’m going to be on the team plane, and around these guys 24/7.
OF COURSE THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN 2015!!
The real answer is that I would not predict the Cubs to win the World Series this season, but there is life. Real life. What one can begin to predict again is good things. It is safe to go back into the water.
The Chicago Cubs were late to the part on the bidding for free agent pitcher James Shields, but in a radio interview in San Diego today as he discussed his decision to sign with the Padres, the hurler said that it was still a two-horse race despite the Cubs’ tardiness.
“In all reality, it came down to the Cubs and the Padres – two great managers,” he said. “I think I made the right decision here. I’m really happy about it. I’m really happy to be a Padre.”
Shields, who signed a four-year deal earlier this week with an option for a fifth year, was one of the big three free agent pitchers available on the market when this offseason began, but as time wore on and Jon Lester and Max Scherzer were snapped up, Shields remained on the market much longer than anticipated. With that factor, and a dwindling number of teams interested in him, the Cubs ramped up their efforts late last week to land him, but ultimately their bid fell short.
One other interesting note from Dennis Lin’s recap of the Shields interview was the tidbit about how much the Cubs ended up offering the pitcher. According to Lin, the Cubs offered Shields a three-year deal worth a total of $60 million. While that money number is pretty high for a pitcher who is 33 years old and likely going to start declining in the near future, the fact is that the term was exactly in line with the Cubs’ front office philosophy: pay for future results, not past ones.
Despite the Cubs missing out on Shields, they still made it a competitive race, and they did their due diligence. You can’t ask for much more in a situation like this, and from our perspective, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer handled the situation well.
It appeared that it would happen all weekend long, but early Monday morning the news became all but official as reports came out that James Shields had agreed to a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres.
The report, which comes from Chris Cotillo of SB Nation, puts to an end a potential run by the Chicago Cubs to nab the starter off the free agent market. Originally the Cubs were priced out on Shields’ contract demands, but when the asking price started dipping and the amount of term being offered followed suit, the Cubs did their due diligence and “kicked the tires,” as just about every reporter following the situation said.
With Shields now off the market (unless something drastic) changes, it leads to an interesting question: do the Cubs continue to pursue another starting pitcher, or should they stand pat? There are still options via the trade market, with the Washington Nationals potentially looking to unload a starter after signing Max Scherzer to a massive deal. A guy like Jordan Zimmermann or Stephen Strasburg would look great in the Cubs’ rotation, although the cost in prospects may be something that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would hesitate to pay.
Another possibility is a fresh push to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies. There are likely still teams out there interested in acquiring him, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but getting a guy with his track record and skill set for a somewhat discounted price (trading for him with fewer years and money than they would have to pay him on the open market) could be an intriguing possibility for the Cubs.
If neither of those options proves to be feasible, the Cubs could simply go into spring training with what they have and still have an improved rotation. Adding Jon Lester and Jason Hammel via free agency bolstered the rotation in a big way, and having guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood in the mix for starting spots means that the Cubs will have some healthy competition out in Mesa to determine how the rotation shakes out.
The Chicago Cubs are preparing to head to Arizona for spring training next week, but it doesn’t appear that James Shields will be joining them as multiple reports have surfaced suggesting that he will end up signing with the San Diego Padres.
The deal, rumored to be four years and in the range of $72-76 million total, is one that might be out of the Cubs’ price range, and considering the position they find themselves in with a huge financial outlay already in place for a veteran pitcher, that may not be the worst thing in the world.
Even if that deal ends up happening and the Cubs miss out on Shields, it’s far from an indictment of the front office or a suggestion that they aren’t going to be trying their hardest to win a division championship this season. In fact, a “failure” to sign Shields would represent forward-thinking by a franchise that has shown a lot of it in recent years, and fans should be excited by the notion that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are sticking to their guns about not paying for past performance, but rather to paying for what will come in the future.
All of that being said, signing Shields still wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Cubs to do. Yes, there are guys like David Price and Zack Greinke that will hit the market next season, and yes there is something to be said about a guy whose strikeouts-per-nine is going down season by season. All of those innings will eventually catch up to him, but for the next year or two, it can be reasonably assumed that he would be a solid second or third starter in the rotation, and would really solidify the group going into this season.