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.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Monday, you know that Tuesday afternoon the Cubs became the talk of Spring Training, as prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in a preseason game they didn’t even win. Not that wins mean all that much in Spring Training anyway. In the hierarchy of what’s important, they rate far below player conditioning and far above whether an individual is allowed to bring their own food into the ballpark.
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.
As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We keep things rolling today with a look at the team’s options at second base.
The Cubs have a ton of options available to them at this position, but who the starter will end up being is up in the air. In all likelihood it is a two-horse race, with Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella going head to head for the job. Baez has plenty of upside and can hit the tar out of the baseball….when he makes contact. As for La Stella, his slash numbers were solid last season with the Atlanta Braves, and his plate discipline was a heck of a lot better than Baez’s.
The problem with La Stella is that he provides literally nothing else if he isn’t getting on base. His power is nonexistent, and going into his second season in the bigs, pitchers are really going to start adjusting to him in the new year. Baez’s power upside is definitely something that could give him an edge in the battle, but if he struggles in the warm air in Arizona, then we could see a shift in thinking on the part of the Cubs.
Either Baez or La Stella could get the primary back-up job at second base (Baez could get a leg up for a roster spot since he can also fill in at shortstop, and potentially at third base in a pinch), but Arismendy Alcantara will also see plenty of time at the position. With Dexter Fowler in center field, Alcantara will be looked at as a utility guy extraordinaire, and he provides a nice insurance option in case Baez and La Stella both struggle out of the gate.
The Cubs may have quite a few guys that can play the position, but we still have this spot ranked seventh out of the eight fielding spots. The questions about Baez’s plate discipline and about La Stella’s ability to continue hitting for average with the Cubs are serious concerns, and even though Alcantara does give the spot a bit of a boost, not having an established guy to man the position is a bit concerning.
The Cubs’ plethora of middle infield prospects is an asset that many teams would love to emulate. Logan Watkins made 68 plate appearances for the Cubs in the 2014 season, putting up an OBP of .269, so he could start the season in the minors. Gleyber Torres is another guy to keep an eye on, with an insanely high ceiling and some great tools that he could use to jump higher on the team’s overall prospect rankings.
One other player to keep an eye on this season is Gioskar Amaya. He could be poised for a jump after playing well in high-A ball last year with Daytona, and he has some decent speed (14 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 2014) to go along with a solid OP of .379 a season ago.
The Chicago Cubs unveiled their 2015 schedule on Monday afternoon, and while things are pretty standard for the most part, there were a couple of things that stood out on the slate.
First and foremost on that list was the fact that the Cubs will open the season against the St. Louis Cardinals on the Monday after Easter. Welcoming a big rival to Wrigley Field for Opening Day has the potential to really get the season off to a rollicking start at the Friendly Confines, and it will be interesting to see what kind of crowds the team draws.
Another interesting decision made by MLB was to once again have the Cubs play six games against the Chicago White Sox in 2015. Those series, which will take place in July (at Wrigley) and August (at US Cellular Field) are both weekend series, and should draw good crowds to both parks.
Outside of those interesting developments on the slate, there are five home series that are worth checking out if you’re going to be buying tickets to see the team at Wrigley next year.
May 25-27: Washington Nationals
The thought of the Cubs going up against players like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg is one thing, but to see those kind of power players go up against the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo will be even cooler. Expect some fireworks in this series.
May 29-31: Kansas City Royals
It is going to be an awesome homestand at the Friendly Confines as the Royals follow the Nationals into town. The Royals are in serious contention to win the AL Central this season, and with a young lineup and rotation, they should be in the conversation as one of the top teams in the junior circuit for years to come.
July 3-5: Miami Marlins
The Marlins are a team that has already alienated a lot of fans in South Florida because of their spendthrift ways, but with an opportunity to see Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez roll through the Windy City, Cubs fans shouldn’t miss this holiday weekend series.
August 18-19: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are only in town for two days, but with pitchers like David Price (who knows if he could be wearing a Cubs uniform in 2016) and Justin Verlander, odds are strong that the Cubs could see some of the best pitchers in the game in those contests.
September 25-27: Pittsburgh Pirates
The last home series of the season will be played against the Buccos, and even though the two teams are on opposite ends of the divisional race this year, it’s entirely possible that the Cubs could still be angling for a playoff spot when the rivals meet again.
The Chicago Cubs are not only starting to make some real progress on the field, but apparently the emergence of players like Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, and Jorge Soler this season has caused more fans to tune into games. Here is what Ed Sherman had to say on the subject:
“With the three young players leading the way, the Cubs’ 6-3 victory over Milwaukee did a 3.20 rating on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday. That means an estimated 115,000 homes tuned into an otherwise meaningless September game for the Cubs.”
The Cubs ended up being the third-highest viewed program in the Chicago area on Wednesday night, and those ratings spikes are coming at a good time. With renegotiation with WGN ongoing for their TV rights, as well as the possibility of a massive new TV deal in 2019, the Cubs are going to be looking to increase their footprint, and this is a good start.
Theo Epstein has also brought up how getting more money from television and other sources will impact the team’s ability to compete when he discussed their plans for the year ahead:
“As we get closer to a new television deal, and as we realize some of the revenues associated with a renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility.”
With work set to begin on those renovations in the next few weeks, and with players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell still primed to be called up next season, things are about to start accelerating quickly for the Cubs on multiple fronts, and clearly fans are tuning in to see the progress that the team has made over three lackluster seasons.
Unlike the past few Septembers, the atmosphere around Wrigley Field has been electric in recent weeks, and Tuesday night was no exception as the Chicago Cubs trounced the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1.
While plenty of the headlines will focus on the injury that Starlin Castro suffered in the first inning of the game, the contest was yet another showcase of the myriad of young players that the Cubs have working their way up through the system. Headlining that list was pitcher Jake Arrieta, who bounced back from a rough start against the Cincinnati Reds last week with a strong outing in this one. Outdueling Yovani Gallardo, Arrieta scattered five hits over six innings, allowing just one run and striking out four batters.
He varied up his speeds well, topping out at 95 MPH on his fastball and ratcheting down by 15-20 MPH on his offspeed stuff. His command was solid through most of the game, and even in tough situations like the one he faced in his final inning of work, he never strayed from his plan. With runners on second and third with two outs in the sixth inning, Arrieta struck out Gerardo Parra and got out of the jam with his team’s lead still intact.
Arrieta wasn’t the only youngster that shone in the game either. Arismendy Alcantara also had a nice night, slugging his eighth home run of the season to put a finishing touch on the rout. With Castro’s injury, we could end up seeing more of Alcantara at second base, but with the way he’s taken to playing center field in the big leagues, that might end up being a longer-term answer than some folks previously thought.
Javier Baez was also impressive in the game, despite only reaching base once. He looked much more patient at the plate, and he made some really good contact with the ball, including a shot to center field in the second inning that would have been a long home run on most nights at the ballpark. He also transitioned seamlessly from second base to shortstop when Castro left the game, and he fielded the ball perfectly in those eight innings of work.
Jorge Soler also continued his torrid start with the Cubs, picking up an RBI single in the first inning and nearly hitting a home run in the fifth inning. Unfortunately for him, the wind held the ball in the yard as Khris Davis made a warning track snag, but his bat speed and sharp eye at the plate were both on full display. He also made a couple of spectacular grabs of his own in the outfield, including a diving catch that ended a potential Brewers rally in the seventh inning.
With so many young and exciting players in the lineup, Cubs fans are a much more optimistic bunch these days, and even though the paid attendance was below 30,000 on Tuesday, the crowd was still engrossed in the game. The Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs this season, but if they continue to show the kind of improvement they have over these past few months, next season could be a lot more exciting on the North Side.
The Chicago Cubs knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1 on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, and even though the performance was arguably one of the team’s best of the season, there was still bad news that put a damper on the festivities.
That’s because Starlin Castro, who has had a resurgent season after chafing last season under Dale Sveum, was injured in the first inning of the game on an awkward slide into home plate. The shortstop was able to limp to the dugout under his own power, but he was understandably removed from the game. X-rays were negative after the game, but he will undergo an MRI on Wednesday to see if there’s any structural damage to the leg.
Add to that the frustrating back injury that continues to hamper first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is sidelined for at least the next 10 days after an MRI revealed a muscle strain, and the Cubs are looking as though they could be without their two best players for a good chunk of the remainder of the season. The team has declined to rule either player out for the remainder of the campaign, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team is going to play each injury cautiously.
The real question for the Cubs is this: even if Rizzo and/or Castro can come back and play this season, would the team be smart to just sit them both for the duration? After all, Rizzo already has 568 plate appearances this season, and he’s set career highs in home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. He clearly is more dialed in at the plate than he ever has been in his career, and as such he doesn’t really have much left to prove for the team down the stretch.
Chris Valaika on the other hand could earn himself a reserve spot on the team next season if he can have a strong finish to the season. He only has 71 plate appearances with the Cubs so far this season, with two home runs, seven RBI, and a .185 batting average. Those numbers aren’t all that great, but he has shown signs that he could be better than his numbers would indicate, and more plate appearances would be a nice audition for him.
Castro is also a player without much left to prove, as he has shown increased power and plate coverage in his fifth MLB season. He has a very respectable .290 average, 153 hits, and a career high .774 OPS. His defense still needs some work, but with so little time left in the season, it’s unlikely that he would get much more time at the position anyway, so cutting him off now would be a savvy move.
In addition to those factors, getting Javier Baez some more reps at shortstop could only be a good thing for the rookie. He looked perfectly comfortable at the spot on Tuesday after being forced to switch from second to short following the Castro injury, and he could really thrive if given some more reps at the spot.
Whatever the Cubs decide to do, they have the benefit of not only being out of the playoff hunt, but of having players capable of filling in if Castro and Rizzo have to sit out. That is a luxury that most teams would love to have at this point in the year, and the Cubs should take full advantage of the chance.
For fans of the Chicago Cubs, there is this weird feeling that is currently settling into the collective psyche. An emotion that many haven’t felt since the 2008 season, when the team won 97 games and looked poised to make mincemeat out of their World Series drought (spoiler alert: it didn’t happen).
That emotion: optimism.
Sure, the old refrain from Cubs fans is “there’s always next year,” but after many years of that being a hollow premise, it seems as though there might finally be some validity to the maxim. After all, the Cubs have called up several of their biggest prospects this season, including Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara (whose two-run homer on Tuesday helped lift the Cubs to victory), gotten a 30 home run season out of Anthony Rizzo, and have several prospects still in the minors, including Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, that are going to make a massive impact on the team in coming seasons.
The team’s decision to call up Jorge Soler to be their starting right fielder for the stretch run is yet one more example of that forward progress. Soler is a really good hitter with plenty of power, and after years of experimenting with a multitude of players, team management has to be hoping that Soler will finally lock down a position of weakness on the roster.
With eight home runs and 29 RBI in just 32 games for the Iowa Cubs this season, Soler has shown that he is ready to make the next leap forward in his development. Much like they have with their other top prospects, the Cubs have taken it slowly with the Cuban outfielder, and the 22-year old has certainly paid his dues as he made his way up the ladder. His bat is definitely a tantalizing addition to the lineup, and the thought of him hitting behind Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the Cubs’ lineup could make for a very interesting September.
Sure, Soler’s debut in the majors is likely to be fraught with growing pains, but Cubs fans that have already waited so patiently for these guys to make their way up to the majors aren’t going to panic over a September slump. There is still palpable excitement in the air when Baez strides to the plate, and he’s had four four-strikeouts games already in just 21 big league contests. If those kinds of struggles can’t dampen the enthusiasm of a fan base, then frankly nothing will.
No, Soler isn’t going to single-handedly bring the Cubs back into the wild card hunt. No, he probably isn’t going to sock 10 home runs in a month and make everyone in Chicago forget about Jose Abreu. No, he isn’t Kris Bryant. None of those things matter. All that matters is that the Cubs are clearly gearing up to make a serious leap forward in the 2015 season, and getting Soler his first MLB at-bats is yet another reminder that brighter days are ahead on the north side.