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.
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On a day that’s only occurred six other times in my 31 ½ years on this earth, the Cubs are hours away from getting their 2015 playoff season under way in Pittsburgh. As you’ve probably heard by now the game is set for first pitch at 19:08 hrs. Military time on 10-7 or 107 years since the last title. Let’s try to get past superstitions and try to plant a seed of why this year is different than the past. Here’s five reasons I’m picking the Cubs to move the Pirates to face their arch nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Joe Maddon
Maddon has been the talk of baseball all season. The best move of the offseason, Maddon has made the right moves all season. Whether it be drawing the media’s attention away from the club when they’d have issues, playing players in different positions so he has as many options as possible, sitting players in a slump to get a spark out of them, or keeping things light around the club house with late arrival days and costume days. They say managers are responsible for a few wins or loses a season. Baseball Reference used their Pythagorean W-L formula to calculate the Cubs at 90 wins, so the argument could be made Maddon is responsible for at least seven of the Cubs wins. Win or lose, Maddon should be manager of the year with how he’s managed this team.
1A. Jake Arrieta
To say Arrieta has been dominate in the last half of the season would be a true understatement. In the first half of the season he went 10-5 in 18 starts, giving up 35 earned runs in the process. In the second half of the season, Arrieta went 12-1 in 15 starts while only surrendering 9 earned runs in those games. On normal days rest (4 days), Arrieta is 11-2 with a 1.02 ERA in 16 starts. In night games, Arrieta is 14-2 with a 1.51 ERA in 20 starts including two complete game shutouts. In PNC Park this season, he has a 0.82 ERA in three starts this season with 0 home runs and 17 strikeouts. Lastly, the Cubs ace is 13-1 on the road this season with a 1.60 ERA this season.
Tired of stats? How about this last goodie: Against the Pirates, Arrieta is 3-1 in five starts this season with a 0.75 ERA. It’s the second best ERA he has against a team that he’s faced two or more times.
Feeling better going into this game? The man has been dominate this season and is well deserved to be in the Cy Young Award conversation. After listening and seeing interviews with Arrieta leading up to this game, the guy is definitely confident. Some have even called it cocky, but,on this team, it’s exactly what they need. This is the biggest reason I’m picking the Cubs.
- Starlin Castro
This season Castro has definitely been a hot topic among Cubs fans, whether it be his hitting slumps or his lack of attention in the field. However, ever since Maddon benched Castro after a pitiful defensive display against the Cincinnati where he had three errors. Castro has had 17 at-bats against Cole in the last five seasons and has a .353 average with four RBI’s against him. This could be Castro’s chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Cubs fans and the best news is he’s been hot. In the last 27 games Castro has hit .369 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in. The other bright spot about his performance lately, Castro has had only one error since his 3 error game Aug. 31st. I believe his bat will be alive tonight versus Pittsburgh and he’ll leave the game with no errors.
The defense has been solid across the board (especially lately with Castro’s head back in the game). For the 2015 season the eight position players have combined for 85 errors (including Castro’s 24 errors). The one question a lot of media has brought up yesterday and today is whether having Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in not at their respective usual positions of third and left field going to cause an issue. The outfield in Pittsburgh is larger than normal in left and right fields. The foul line in left is 325 ft. from home plate and left center jumps out to 410 ft. deep which is actually longer than center field (399 ft. deep). That’ll be the challenge for Bryant and Dexter Fowler to deal with in tonight’s game defensively.
In right, the jump isn’t quite as deep but it goes out to 375 ft. in right center. Schwarber will have to navigate that on his side of the field along with making sure to not run all the way to the wall if a ball is going to ricochet off the wall. I believe both guys have the speed and baseball smarts to be able to play well in the outfield. By the end of the game both may not be in the outfield anyway due to double switches and defensive subs.
The other issue on defense people have been talking about is Tommy La Stella playing third base. According to Jesse Rogers of ESPN 1000AM, he watched La Stella take several grounders at third base yesterday prepping for tonight’s game. La Stella only has played 52 innings at third base this season. Eleven of those games have come since August 26th, and he only had one error in those appearances.
The feeling is that Maddon is trying to load his lineup with lefties to face the right-handed Garrit Cole tonight. This season La Stella has hit .286 with one home run and 11 RBI against right-handed pitchers. There probably come a time in the game where for defensive reasons or even just straight up pitching hitting substituting, La Stella will probably exit the game in the 7th inning or later.
- Anthony Rizzo
If you’re looking for a side bet heading into these playoffs, bet on who will be hit more in the playoffs: Anthony Rizzo or every other team’s players? Rizzo has been hit by a pitch a whopping 30 times this season. Since he covers the plate so much, I wouldn’t be shock if while trying to jam Rizzo, Cole hits him at least one time.
Rizzo stands the best chance at seeing a pitch over the plate. He’ll have to do as much damage as he can with those pitches. He carries a .353 batting average against Cole with one RBI. If the Pirates decide to shift on Rizzo, don’t be shocked if the bases are empty, and Rizzo actually attempts to lay down a bunt or a chop swing to the left side to try to beat the shift.
This game will come down to cleverness. Something like Rizzo bunting to the left side could lead to a big inning or even the one run Arrieta needs to carry the Cubs. The Cubs have a clever manager and young, fun, clever players who would do anything Maddon asks them to do.
Prediction for the game
5-1 Cubs win. Arrieta goes eight innings with one earned run on 4 hits, 7 strikeouts, and one walk. Rodon comes into the game in the 9th and will give up one hit, a double-play and a strike out to close out the game.
The Chicago Cubs have started out their season with a series split against the St. Louis Cardinals, getting shutout on Opening Night and then shutting out the redbirds during their first day game of the season on Wednesday.
Before the team starts out their next series against the Colorado Rockies (which we will be previewing this afternoon), we had some thoughts we wanted to share on the opening series of the season.
Jake Arrieta Still Rolling As He Opens Year With a Bang
He looked wild in the first inning of the game, but he settled down in a big way on Wednesday afternoon as he pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out seven batters and walking three in a 2-0 victory for the Cubs.
Arrieta is a player that is going to be a big key for the Cubs’ pitching rotation this season. A lot of attention is being paid to Jon Lester, and rightfully so, but the fact remains that Arrieta has the potential to make this rotation into a much stronger one if he can maintain his 2014 form, and if his effective performance against St. Louis is any indication, he’s hellbent on making sure there’s no regression on his part.
Lester’s Inability to Keep Runners Honest a Concern
A lot was made in the run-up to Opening Night about the fact that Lester hasn’t made a pick-off throw to first base since April of 2013, and that narrative gained a bit of steam on Sunday night as the Cardinals swiped three bases off of the Cubs’ hurler in the 3-0 victory.
To his credit, Lester brushed off criticism of his approach to handling base runners.
“This really wasn’t a big issue until someone brought it up on TV,” he said. “So I’m standing here answering your questions about it. Like I said, I think I had eight or nine or 10 stolen bases allowed (in 2014).”
Lester is the type of pitcher that is going to emphasize changing speeds in his delivery in order to keep baserunners off balance, but it still does seem like he should at least consider throwing over every once in a while to help keep things under control. It’s definitely a story worth keeping an eye on.
Offense Will Heat Up As Weather Does
In two games, the Cubs are now 1-for-16 on the season with runners in scoring position, with their lone hit coming on Starlin Castro’s seventh inning single that knocked in Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs the lead. Miguel Montero also lifted a sacrifice fly to right field in the game, and Castro scored to give the Cubs their second run of the season.
Even though some fans are concerned about the team’s offensive woes so far, they have to remember two things: in the warm weather of Arizona, the ball carries farther, and the Cubs’ team power came to the forefront. The same thing should happen here. The other thing to remember is that Joe Maddon is still experimenting with lineups, and once he hits on the right combination, the team should score more runs.
Panic is premature at this point. Obviously.
Jorge Soler’s Triple a Sight to Behold
Soler stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game with no one on base, but that didn’t stop him from putting a huge charge into the ball and picking up a splendid triple:
Accordding to JJ Cooper of Baseball America, it only took Soler 11.7 seconds to get from home plate to third on the play. About the only way he could’ve gotten there faster would have been if he had run up the third base line instead.
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.
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.
The Chicago Cubs are done adding pitchers with hefty price tags this offseason, but with the price tag on one free agent dropping down to more reasonable levels, the team could be pulling the trigger on a move after all.
For those that can’t read the tweet, here’s the gist of Kaplan’s argument: the Cubs have been waiting for the market to take shape for Shields, and it’s becoming apparent at this point that he’s not going to get a contract worth more than $100 million this close to spring training. With teams preparing to report in two weeks (!), he’s looking to make a decision by the end of the week, and his history with Joe Maddon could make Chicago an attractive landing spot.
With those things in mind, a Shields signing would make perfect sense for the Cubs under the right parameters. If the deal is going to be in the three year range, the Cubs should jump on it and offer him as much money yearly as they want. A four-year deal would still work too, but going over $20 million per season would probably be a bit much.
The reason for an aggressive push if the term of the deal is right is simple: the Cubs don’t have a ton of salary on the books for the next few years as some of their impact players have cheap deals. Guys like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell are all on really cheap deals during that time, and if two or three of them pan out as advertised (still a sizable if, but a much more reasonable thought than the notion that all four will be stars), having a guy like Shields added to the rotation could make the Cubs a serious contender during that time.
If Shields was paired up with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, the Cubs would have a rotation that would rival anything that an NL Central foe could throw out there, and they’d likely have one of the top five or six rotations in all of baseball. When coupled with the offense that the team is potentially going to have with guys like Miguel Montero added to the fold, and their dreams of making Back to the Future 2 could be much closer to reality than fans dare hope.
* = Kaplan is fairly plugged in with the Cubs, but he also has occasional misses (as do most reporters), so take this and all reports of activity on the North Side with a grain of salt.