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 started out their season with a shutout loss to the St. Louis Cardinals with Jon Lester on the hill, and they finished off the first half of the campaign in identical fashion as they dropped a 6-0 decision on Monday night at rain-soaked Wrigley Field.
Aside from the crazy similarities between games 1 and 81, the fact remains that the Cubs are in a pretty good spot. They are nine and a half games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but they do hold a two and a half game lead over the New York Mets for the second wild card spot in the National League, they have gotten some tremendous pitching as of late, and young stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have been playing very well for a team that is looking to be a serious contender for the first time in nearly a decade.
Even with those positives, there are still plenty of reasons for concern. The team has one of the worst offenses in the National League, ranking near the bottom of the heap in the senior circuit in terms of runs scored (11th), batting average (13th), and strikeouts (most in the NL). They haven’t gotten the type of production they’ve needed from guys like Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, and players like Starlin Castro still aren’t quite living up to expectations.
Add to that the fact that Jon Lester has had difficulty performing consistently (although measures like Fielding Independent Pitching and others indicate that he is better than he’s been given credit for) and the fact that the Cubs are just 2-8 against the Cardinals this season, and there are some reasons for concern and pessimism after the halfway mark of the season.
Despite those negatives, the positives far outpace them. Joe Maddon’s team has developed a never say die attitude, going 19-15 in one-run games so far this season. They may be striking out a lot, but they’re walking a lot too, with the fifth-most free passes of any team in baseball. They are stealing bases at an excellent rate, converting on over 73% of their attempted steals. They have found ways to win even as their offense has sputtered, winning thanks to creative tactics and tremendous pitching over the last month or so of play.
Most importantly of all, the Cubs have persevered through injuries and the second-toughest schedule in baseball this season and still are in prime position to secure a playoff spot. Maddon has this group believing in themselves, and with all of his techniques and little tweaks to the lineup and the strategy of the team, he really has effected a serious culture and attitude change within the 25 men on the roster.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, represents why Cubs fans should be optimistic after the first half of the season. This team has fully bought into what Maddon has been preaching, and although their offense has struggled and the final order of the bullpen hasn’t been established (although adding Rafael Soriano to the mix will make an already strong bullpen even better), this team has found ways to win, and that’s the key ingredient if a team wants to make an October run.
The Chicago Cubs welcomed new third baseman Kris Bryant to Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon for his first big league game, and after only getting three hours of sleep as he flew in from Des Moines, the star was ready to get things underway.
“Right now, it’s a little overwhelming, but I’m ready to have fun with it,” he said in a pregame media availability.
Joe Maddon and the Cubs aren’t hesitating to throw the youngster to the wolves right away, as he will bat in the clean-up spot and play third base in Friday’s game against the San Diego Padres. With Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both on the disabled list, Bryant has an opportunity to grab a roster spot for the long haul over the next few weeks, but he’s focused more on the day-to-day chances that his new spot gives him.
“When you start putting expectations that are way out there, you start losing sight of what’s important in this game,” he said.
High expectations can be the downfall of many players, but Bryant doesn’t seem to be one of them. He has excelled at every level of professional baseball he has played at so far, and even after he was sent down following a nine-home run stint in Cactus League play, he slugged three more home runs for the Iowa Cubs before his call-up.
Fans can count Maddon among the chorus of people who don’t believe that Bryant will be affected by the pressure surrounding him.
“I don’t think he’s going to be impacted by any of that,” he said. “Whether we batted him first or ninth, it doesn’t matter. He’s still going to play the game. I told him that my expectations are that (he) respect 90 feet and enjoy himself.”
As for what the plans are for Bryant after his initial time at third base, Cubs President Theo Epstein indicated that he believes the slugger will remain at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
“The need right now is at third base, and we’re very comfortable with his defensive abilities,” he said. “I think this guy can play third base for a while.”
Bryant is only 23 years old, so his career with the Cubs could end up lasting a very long time. Even with that bright future ahead of him, his debut is still a moment for celebration for him and his family, and they will be in the building at Wrigley Field on Friday.
“I’ve never seen my dad cry before. That’s what it’s all about,” Bryant said. “Now my family, friends, girlfriend get to watch me on this stage.”
Throughout my life as a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I’ve seen all manner of prospects make their big league debuts. Whether it’s a player like Corey Patterson, touted for his five-tool ability, or a player like Mark Prior, who came out of college touted as the best pitcher to ever toe a slab, the team has had plenty of guys for me and my fellow fans to be excited about.
Kris Bryant is different. Kris Bryant is a different animal altogether.
Ever since the Cubs grabbed him with the second pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, I’ve kept an eye on his stats on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I watched a few of his college games before that, but it was when the Cubs selected him in the draft that I fully grasped the enormity of what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had pulled off. This guy is a special player, and he was going to be playing for my favorite team.
Seeing him in person for the first time in spring training in 2014 was a bit of a letdown. He bobbled an easy play at third base (before he ultimately made the throw across), and he was stranded in the on-deck circle before I even got a chance to see him hit. This spring was a heck of a lot different, as I got to witness his home run against the Cleveland Indians (you know the one, as it was part of the trio of consecutive home runs by Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler) and I got to witness two more when I saw the Cubs play against the Seattle Mariners. All I could do for that second set of bombs was whistle, because I was in the press box and aggressive fist-pumping and hooting is generally frowned upon.
Today will be the first time Bryant will be in the lineup for the Cubs, and he will be batting fourth for Joe Maddon. That sentence doesn’t have any particular meaning other than this: it feels like a dream to me. Ever since Maddon led the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008, I’d harbored fantasies about him managing on the North Side. Adding a guy like Bryant to the mix only heightens the sense for me that this team is becoming something special.
At the same time that I’m salivating over the possibility of Bryant hitting in the heart of the order for the next seven years (thanks arcane MLB free agency rules!), I’m also well aware of the fact that the Cubs are a team that historically hasn’t had much to cheer about when it comes to homegrown talent. Guys like Ryne Sandberg (acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade) are about as close as we can get to that, but Bryant could be this team’s Ken Griffey Jr. He could be this team’s Mike Trout. He could become the prize that the Cubs didn’t steal. He could become the shiniest crown jewel.
Feeling the sense of giddiness that I do about Bryant becoming a member of the Chicago Cubs is an emotion that I hope I never lose. Writing about the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bears full time for NBC, I feel like my enthusiasm for both teams has dulled over the years. That isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact beneficial as I try to dispassionately analyze both teams. I do miss that rush of adrenaline that I used to get, and baseball has become one of the only outlets I have when I’m looking to get my “fan on,” so to speak.
Bryant reminds me that sports are supposed to be fun. Bryant reminds me that it’s okay to get really excited about something in the sports world. Today is going to be a day that a lot of us are going to remember for a long time, and I hope it’s another step up the ladder toward a championship that would mean more to me than I probably realize as I type these words.
The Chicago Cubs have a decision on their hands as they decide what to do with third baseman Kris Bryant after spring training, but on Tuesday afternoon, it became clear that a key member of Bryant’s camp has ideas on what the North Siders should do.
“Cubs ownership has a choice,” Bryant’s agent Scott Boras told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.”
Boras clearly wants Bryant to be up with the Cubs when camp breaks in early April, and his motives likely have more to do with his client’s major league service clock (if Bryant opens the year with the Cubs, the team would have to spend options to send him back to the minors if they chose to do so, and it would mean that Bryant would likely become a free agent after the 2020 season, not the 2021 campaign) than the Cubs’ chances of winning a World Series.
Cubs president Theo Epstein had a blunt response to Boras, saying that “comments from agents, media members, and anybody outside our organization will be ignored.”
To be blunt, there is only one correct choice for the Cubs to make here: starting Bryant in the minors. Bringing him up with the team out of Mesa would give the early season games a bit of extra juice, but at what cost? Getting Bryant 10 or 11 extra games this season at the expense of losing an entire year of relatively cheap service time during the prime of his career?
This isn’t even a debate, but Boras’ desire to frame this as a matter of the Cubs choosing to deliberately shoot themselves in the foot competitively shouldn’t be taken as gospel. He’s merely an agent trying to get his client a bigger payday sooner rather than later, and fans would be smart not to buy into his comments.
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.
The Chicago Cubs are a team in transition this season, bringing aboard fresh-faced prospects and high-priced free agent veterans alike as they try to turn over a new leaf with manager Joe Maddon.
On Monday at Cubs camp in Mesa, Maddon discussed the team’s plans for one of the prospects who will be looking to make an impact this season, saying that Kris Bryant will play at both third base and in the outfield as the team plays its Cactus League schedule.
“He gets it,” Maddon told the media. “I think he understands the work involved that’s necessary to being great.”
Bryant had an incredible 2014 season, skyrocketing through both the double-A and triple-A levels. In 594 plate appearances, he slugged 43 home runs and drove in 110 RBI, and he stole 15 bases in 19 attempts for good measure as he established himself as the top prospect in not only the Cubs’ system, but in all of baseball.
While speculation that Bryant could end up as the team’s left fielder (depending on what happens with Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell in the infield) has been bandied about quite a bit, he hasn’t played any outfield since he was drafted by the Cubs in 2013. He has played all 177 of his career minor league games at third base, putting up a respectable fielding percentage of 94.6 percent while improving on his defense at each stop along the way.
It will be something worth keeping an eye on as Bryant works out the kinks in left field, and even though the odds are that he’ll begin the season in triple-A to avoid starting his big league service clock, it’s possible this move will give him even more versatility when he finally does make the jump.
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 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.
Stay tuned to the blog over the next few weeks, as we prepare for a website relaunch in time for spring training. We’ve got a lot of cool stuff in the works, and we’re hopeful that you’ll want to see it in action.
The Chicago Cubs have made a ton of moves this offseason that have put them in a position to be competitive sooner rather than later, but if one national publication is to be believed, that ability to compete for a playoff spot may come sooner than a lot of us think.
In an article published on their website, The Sporting News revealed that the Cubs are their pick to win the World Series in 2015. That’s right. A team that went 73-89 and finished in the NL Central basement in 2014 is the team that SN is picking to win its first championship in 107 years.
Here is what Jesse Spector had to say about the Cubs, and why the publication picked them to win it all:
“The Cubs have the talent in place to make a quick jump in the standings. Once playoff time comes, it’s just about making the right plays at the right times and getting good pitching performances. Several teams are capable of winning the World Series this year – as the Giants and Royals both showed last year, if you get into the playoffs, you can make some noise. The Cubs are the pick to win the 2015 World Series because, after 107 years, they’re good enough to get there and, honestly, aren’t they due a couple of breaks?”
While we appreciate Spector’s enthusiasm, it’s probably best to pump the brakes just a bit. The Cubs are almost assuredly going to be a lot better than they were last season, but with teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates to jump over in their own division (and not to mention teams like the Nationals, Padres, Giants, and Dodgers to jump over in the rest of the National League too), it’s going to be a tough hill to climb for Chicago to even make the postseason, much less win a championship.
That isn’t to say that Spector didn’t make several good points, such as the potential emergence of Kris Bryant, their hugely-improved pitching staff, and their solid bullpen. Those are all things that could help the Cubs turn around their record quickly, but it still seems slightly premature to crown them as predicted champions.
Of course, what the heck do we know. This team has underperformed for so long that they may just be due to overperform after all.