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.
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 trotted out their biggest free agent acquisition in nearly a decade on Monday as they introduced Jon Lester to the media.
You know the numbers (6 years, $155 million, $30 million in signing bonuses), but if you didn’t watch the press conference, here are the five most important things we learned about what the Lester signing means for the Cubs.
Lester Hungry for New Challenge
The Cubs’ sales pitch was much different than that of the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants. While those teams could point to past results (Red Sox) or the fact that they have won World Series in three of the past five seasons (Giants), either one of the destinations would have been a safe one for Lester to go to.
As for the Cubs, their pitch was that they are on the verge of something great, but sometimes that isn’t enough to convince a free agent to come to town (see: Masahiro Tanaka). For Lester, it was.
“I believe in the plan they have in place for the future of the Cubs,” Lester said of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. “Leaving a place you’ve already won is difficult, but also relishing the chance of winning a World Series in a place that never has adds that little extra for me.”
Lester’s grasp of history isn’t quite where it should be (the Cubs have won two World Series titles), but his heart is in the right place.
Epstein Feels that Rebuild Was “Quick”
While the last three years have felt like an eternity for Cubs fans, it hasn’t felt like that long of a process for Epstein.
“It’s been a pretty quick rebuild,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t perfect, but thanks to a lot of the good decisions in the draft and trades, and the hard work of our scouts and our player development, we had a competitive team on the field (toward the end) of 2014. If it weren’t for those things, I don’t think Jon Lester would be choosing the Cubs.”
Epstein did also thank Cubs fans for their patience, but the point is clear. He looks at the whole rebuild as a long-term process, and three years really feels like a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term success that he envisions for the team.
Theo, Cubs Occasionally Do Appreciate the Role of Tradition
The Cubs are a tradition-rich team, and while you may be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been ignoring that tradition in recent years, thanks to new signage all over the ballpark and the big renovations occurring, there is still an element that persists in this front office.
When Lester was introduced to the media on Monday, he was given a jersey with the number 34 on it. Lester says the jersey was meant to honor Walter Payton and Nolan Ryan, but it also immediately brought up memories of Kerry Wood, who struck out 20 batters in a game while wearing the number.
According to reports, Epstein texted Wood and asked him for his blessing to use the number, and the former Cubs hurler said he would be “honored” for Lester to wear it.
Kudos to Wood for agreeing to it, and kudos to Epstein for reaching out to the pitcher about using the number. It wasn’t a requirement by any stretch, but it was a nice gesture.
Samardzija, Hammel Played a Role in Recruiting Lester
The Cubs may have traded away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel during the regular season, but even while they were in Oakland they played a role in selling Lester on the benefits of playing in Chicago.
“I asked a lot of questions to a lot of different guys about different teams and organizations, and I wanted to get their feel for Chicago and what made them happy here,” Lester said. “They weren’t the only guys I questioned, but obviously playing with them I had the privilege of talking to them more often about it.”
Now, both players are back in Chicago along with Lester, although Samardzija will be plying his craft on the south side with the White Sox while Hammel returns to the Cubs.
Love of Hunting Bonded Lester, Ricketts
While Joe Maddon bonded with Epstein and Hoyer at an RV park in Pensacola, Florida, Cubs majority owner Tom Ricketts used a different tactic: talking to him about hunting.
According to Epstein, Lester and Ricketts discussed the sport at dinner in Chicago while the team was courting the free agent pitcher. Epstein also added the helpful mental image of him soaked in deer urine, which he said he was willing to do if it meant that he would land Lester.
If there has been a dominant theme at baseball’s Winter Meetings over the past few days, it’s been tinged with blue stripes and red stars. The city of Chicago is absolutely holding court on one of MLB’s biggest stages, with both the Cubs and the White Sox addressing major needs and making huge splashes all over the place.
Now, with the Winter Meetings close to concluding, we have an opportunity to evaluate where each of the teams stands in terms of their offseason to-do lists. Which one is having the better time of restructuring their roster? Let’s find out.
Addressing Needs – Edge: White Sox
The Cubs came into the offseason needing to add a top of the rotation pitcher, and they also wanted to add a different, more defensively proficient catcher to the mix. They’ve done both of those things, signing Jon Lester to a rich contract and trading for Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While they will still be making moves as the offseason wears on, the White Sox have done a better job of addressing more of their needs. Right-handed pitcher to slot between Chris Sale and Jose Quintana? Done. Relief pitchers to shore up a horrendous bullpen? Done and done. A left-handed bat to help protect Jose Abreu in the lineup? Done.
The Cubs have really done a great job of addressing some of their needs, but Rick Hahn has really done some great work in shoring up the Sox roster.
Star Power – Edge: Cubs
While names like Adam LaRoche and David Robertson certainly move the meter in terms of what they can do for a team, they are no match for the talent that the Cubs have brought in. Montero is a pretty big name (at least from a catching perspective), but Lester was the top of the heap in terms of available pitchers, and landing Joe Maddon went a long way toward showing the baseball world that the Cubs mean business.
Bang for Your Buck – Edge: White Sox
The Cubs shelled out a ton of money for both Maddon and Lester, and the White Sox really paid a ton for Robertson to come protect the back end of the bullpen. They did get some really nice value in signing LaRoche for two years, but the one that’s most intriguing is adding Zach Duke for $5 million per season. He could be an excellent eighth inning guy, and the Sox could presumably use him in closing duty if Robertson is injured or needs a day off.
Having that kind of an arm in the bullpen is a huge asset, and while neither team has been particularly frugal this offseason, the Sox hold a narrow edge.
Long-Term Impact – Edge: Cubs
The Sox made a big move by trading for Jeff Samardzija on Monday at the Winter Meetings, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to sign him to a long-term extension before he hits free agency after the 2015 season. LaRoche is also signed for just two years, and while Duke (three years) and Robertson (four years) are signed for slightly longer, none of them figures to be a player that the White Sox build themselves around for the next five or more years.
On the other side of town, the Cubs’ additions have the potential to be those kinds of cornerstones. Of course, you get what you pay for in that regard, with Lester being signed for seven years, but the real thing that pushes this category into the Cubs’ column is Maddon. Adding him to the mix not only signals a seriousness of purpose on the part of the north siders, but it also means that the team will be able to get the most out of the young players working through their system, and by proxy means he’ll make a larger long-term impact than any other acquisition by either team this offseason.
Overall – Edge: Cubs
Both teams have made big splashes and important moves that have them poised to be a lot better in 2015, but we have to give the narrow edge to the Cubs in terms of the quality of their offseason. Maddon and Lester are a formidable combo that is tough to beat, but the White Sox and their additions of Samardzija, LaRoche, and Robertson do come very close.
It’s a tight race, but it looks like the north siders win by a nose.
If Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had drawn up a wish list before the offseason began, Jon Lester would have likely been at the top of it. On Tuesday night, they were able to add a check mark next to his name, signing Lester to a six-year deal worth a reported $155 million.
The news came as a delightful surprise to Cubs fans who were preparing themselves for the worst, waiting for the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants to swoop in and grab Lester out from underneath them. Instead, an offseason that began with the Cubs bringing in Joe Maddon to be their manager has hit a crescendo with the biggest name on the free agent pitching market heading to the north side.
The question now is a simple one for the Cubs: what comes next? The team has already addressed some of their biggest holes, adding a top of the line starting pitcher in Lester, bringing in more rotation depth with Jason Hammel, and bringing in an excellent defensive catcher in Miguel Montero. Other players from the minor league system will certainly be on the way to plug holes, with Kris Bryant likely joining Javier Baez and Jorge Soler sooner rather than later at the big league level.
All of those things are great, but there is still work to be done. Some reporters, including Ken Rosenthal, believe that the Cubs will continue to pursue a big veteran bat to add to their lineup. Whether that means trading for a big-name player like Matt Kemp or Justin Upton, or signing another free agent like Chase Headley, the Cubs could look to accelerate their rebuilding process even more than they already have by acquiring another bat.
Outside of making another big splash, there are still plenty of areas where the Cubs could shore up their roster. Adding another starting pitcher wouldn’t be out of the question, so a guy like Justin Masterson could be an interesting player to keep an eye on. He would likely come cheaper than some other options, and he would add more competition in a rotation that is already significantly deeper than it was over the past few years.
The Cubs could also be looking to move a starting pitcher or two in order to bring in other pieces. Travis Wood could be one of the guys moved, as he would likely yield a nice return in the event of a trade. He would also provide a really nice third or fifth starter for the Cubs, depending on where they would like to slot him, and so Epstein and Hoyer would have to make a tough choice in that regard.
Moving Edwin Jackson’s contract will also be a key thing for the Cubs to do. It will likely mean taking on another contract that a team is looking to unload, but if the Cubs could find the right trade partner, they could turn arguably the biggest mistake of the Epstein/Hoyer regime into less of a misstep.
The Cubs are obviously not where they want to be as an organization, but they are quickly making their way in that direction. With a new manager, a huge free agent acquisition, and a major trade, they have made massive strides toward competing in 2015, and with some more tweaks and additions, they could be poised for an even bigger leap toward World Series contention than they are at the moment.
Coming into the season, we were looking forward to providing some high-quality analysis of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox, but as it so often does, life gets in the way.
I’ll let David explain the real world stuff that’s been going on in his life lately (hint: it’s awesome news), but as for me, it’s simple: my paying journalism gigs have been ratcheting up in recent weeks. The Chicago Blackhawks are in the Western Conference Final for the second consecutive year. I’m covering the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings for NBC Los Angeles for the second straight season. I also had to cover the Chicago Bears and the run-up to the NFL Draft. Finally, there’s my job where I cover high school sports for a local newspaper.
All of those gigs can take a huge toll on my enthusiasm and my time, but for now, I’m going to try to bounce back more and write up as much about the Cubs as I can. It won’t be an everyday kind of thing, and there may be other times during the year where I miss some time in writing, but I’ll do my best to get back in the swing of things and actually keep this page somewhat updated.
For now, I hope you’ll settle for a few assorted thoughts that I have about the Cubs through their first 38 games of the season (and I’ll expound more on these thoughts when I release my First Quarter Report Card this weekend).
-Before the season started, I said that I didn’t think that Jeff Samardzija was worth the ace-money that he was going to be seeking, and so far, I’ve been proven completely wrong. In seven starts, Samardzija has a WAR of 2.3, a WHIP of 1.05, and an ERA of 1.45. Despite that success, he has an 0-3 record so far this season, and I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to punch out a couple of Gatorade coolers in a fit of Zambrano-esque rage.
Granted, a great stretch of starts doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m wrong about how much money to pay him, but I still remain convinced that his best chance at success remains elsewhere. The Cubs are doing a good job of getting the most out of him now, and they are making progress in terms of their rebuilding project, but they won’t be good enough soon enough to warrant Samardzija sticking around. His value is shooting ever higher, and the return the team could get in a trade for him could be the final piece to the puzzle for the club.
-Speaking of pitchers I made predictions about before the season, Jason Hammel has been proving me right when I called him this year’s version of Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm. In seven starts, he has a 4-1 record, a WAR of 1.7, and a WHIP of 0.86. He is still mixing his pitches as well as he was during spring training, and if he can keep doing that, then the team should get an even better return than they did in the Feldman deal, when they got Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
-Last season, both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo struggled in a big way, leading some to question whether or not the two hotshot youngsters were going to flame out before the Cubs’ rebuild could be completed. They’re definitely answering those questions well, with Castro batting .279 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 154 at-bats. Rizzo has slugged seven home runs and driven in 21 runs, and he’s already got 27 walks, which puts his OBP at nearly .400 (and his OPS at a very impressive .860).
The teammates are only a quarter of the way through the season, but their adjustments at the plate have already produced some serious results. Castro is making much better contact than he was for most of last season, and Rizzo seems to have a more consistent approach too. If they can keep that up, then Rick Renteria has to be given a good deal of credit for resurrecting them.
When the Chicago Cubs struck out on signing Masahiro Tanaka last week (sorry for the bad pun), there were plenty of folks who worried about what it would mean for their starting rotation in the 2014 season.
On Friday afternoon, the Cubs took a step toward bolstering that rotation a bit, reportedly signing pitcher Jason Hammel to a contract. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports had the initial report:
Sources: #Cubs in agreement with free-agent RHP Jason Hammel, pending a physical.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 31, 2014
About an hour later, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com chimed in with the contract details on Hammel’s deal:
hammel gets $6M, plus $1M incentives, for 2014 deal. #cubs
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) January 31, 2014
In eight seasons in the majors, Hammel has started 158 games for the Rays, Rockies, and Orioles. He has a career ERA of 4.80 and a win-loss record of 49-59. Last season with the Orioles, the 31-year old hurler went 7-8 with a 4.97 ERA in 23 starts (26 appearances). He also had a 1.46 WHIP and gave up 22 home runs, which was a career high despite only pitching 139 1/3 innings.
There is reason for optimism for the Cubs despite the lackluster numbers that Hammel put up last year. Under the Epstein/Hoyer regime, the team has brought in several pitchers off the proverbial scrap heap, gotten decent production out of them, and then shipped them out of town for nice returns. First, it was Paul Maholm, who was sent to the Atlanta Braves along with Reed Johnson in 2012 in exchange for prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery after the 2011 season, Vizcaino was one of the Braves’ top pitching prospects, and could very well find himself back among the hottest prospects in the game if he makes a full recovery.
The Cubs also pulled the trick off in 2013, signing Scott Feldman to a deal and then trading him away to the Orioles. In that deal, the Cubs not only got Jake Arrieta, but they also got Pedro Strop, who showed some serious promise out of the Cubs’ bullpen as the 2013 season wrapped up.
Feldman’s situation is perhaps most comparable to that of Hammel. In 2012 with the Rangers, Feldman had a 5.09 ERA and had a 1.38 WHIP. With the Cubs the next year, he trimmed that ERA down to 3.46, and his WHIP down to 1.14. You can blame that all you want on the fact that the National League is an easier league to pitch in, but differences that large seem to indicate that Epstein and Hoyer know when to buy low.
Are we postulating that Hammel will have similar success with the Cubs just because Feldman and Maholm did before they were traded? Certainly not, but it is worth keeping in mind if people are going to scoff at the notion of the Cubs acquiring players like Hammel.