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.
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 get things started today with the catcher position.
The veteran catcher is not only a solid hitter that will likely hit in the fifth or sixth spot in the Cubs’ order this season, but he is also one of the absolute best defensive catchers in the game. Last season, Wellington Castillo was statistically the second-worst catcher in baseball in terms of framing pitches, costing the Cubs 24.3 runs on the season according to the good folks at Stat Corner. Montero, on the other hand, was baseball’s best catcher at pitch-framing, saving the Diamondbacks 24 runs.
While Montero may not hit as well as Castillo (and that is frankly a big if, because he may well hit better), the fact that he gives the Cubs a net boost of 48 runs just by being able to frame pitches is a HUGE asset to have.
At this point, it seems unlikely that Castillo will remain in the picture at catcher for the Cubs, considering that the team went out and acquired David Ross in free agency. The catcher was Jon Lester’s personal catcher with the Boston Red Sox, and even though his numbers have been declining a bit (he had a -0.16 WAR last season, and his slash numbers have been declining as well), the fact that he brings leadership and veteran experience to the locker room is a big asset for the Cubs.
Ultimately, the odds are that Castillo will be dealt to keep Ross on the roster, but the Cubs could get a decent bullpen arm or a couple of decent prospects in exchange for him via trade.
As of this moment, we have the Cubs’ catchers ranked as their fourth-best position on the big-league roster. If they were going to stick with Castillo as the back-up, they may have gone up a spot due to the offensive improvement, but having Montero and Ross as the two guys behind the dish is still a pretty solid tandem, and Montero’s defense is something that is really going to save the Cubs some runs this season.
The Cubs have one guy who could potentially be a game-breaker at the plate in Kyle Schwarber, but they don’t really have a stud defender behind the dish. Schwarber could potentially end up as the catcher of the future, as Montero has three years left on his current deal, but odds are the team will want to move him to the outfield to let him focus on his hitting.
Outside of Schwarber, there are a couple other prospects to look out for. Victor Caratini is one guy that we’ve been impressed by, and he is a really smart player all around. Mark Zagunis is also a guy that could potentially be an outfield/catcher hybrid, but he’s fast as all get-out and draws tons of walks, making him an attractive option as well.
Yesterday, we brought the blog out of dormancy to discuss the possibility of the Chicago Cubs signing Russell Martin to a contract. A four-year pact would have been a risky move, especially with a $16 million per season price tag, but with Kyle Schwarber still at least a few years away from the majors and Wellington Castillo not exactly making a strong case to remain the team’s backstop, it would have made sense for the Cubs to make the move.
Of course, just because a move makes sense doesn’t mean that it will happen, and the Toronto Blue Jays swooped in and signed Martin to a five-year deal worth $82 million. That figure is likely well over what the Cubs wanted to pay out for Martin, who will turn 32 in February, and the added bonus of playing in his hometown was likely what sealed the deal for the catcher to play in Toronto.
For now, the Cubs are going to be forced to proceed in one of two directions if they still want to explore the market for a catcher. They can either sign one of the remaining free agents (Geovany Soto and AJ Pierzynski are the two biggest names still available), or they can pursue a player via trade. Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero has been mentioned, as the team could be looking to shed the remaining three years and $40 million left on his contract.
To be honest, free agency doesn’t sound like the way to go at this point for the Cubs. They have plenty of other needs, most notably at starting pitcher, and overpaying for a guy like Soto would almost be a lateral move to just letting Castillo continue on as the team’s catcher. Making a trade for a guy like Montero could make more sense, as a three year deal worth about $13 million a season isn’t completely unreasonable.
If the Cubs could find the right package of prospects to make a deal like that happen, it’s one that they should strongly consider. He’s a solid hitter, hitting 13 home runs and driving in 72 RBI in 2014, and his skills at limiting stolen bases were also on display for the Diamondbacks, as he gunned out 29% of would-be base stealers (good for fourth in the National League).
The Chicago Cubs have generated plenty of buzz already during this offseason, with the signing of Joe Maddon serving as notice that they are serious about becoming contenders sooner rather than later. Their rumored interest in pitchers like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester has only made those notions gain steam, and they are clearly looking to spend some money in free agency.
One player who has reportedly been on the Cubs’ radar has been catcher Russell Martin. In 2014 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Martin hit 11 home runs and drove in 67 runs for the Buccos, and his .290 batting average was his highest since his second year in the league when he hit .293 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His OPS was .832, and he eclipsed the .400 mark in on-base percentage for the first time in his career.
According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are not only in on Martin, but they are also the “clear frontrunners to sign him”:
Executives involved in bidding for Russell Martin believe #Cubs are clear front-runner. Deal expected to be in four-year, $64M range.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 17, 2014
The Cubs’ interest in Martin shouldn’t be all that surprising, given their weak stable of talent at the position. Wellington Castillo had a decent 2014 for the Cubs, with 13 home runs and 46 RBI to his credit, but his OBP (.296) and slugging percentage (.389) lag well behind what Martin brings to the table for a potential suitor.
The veteran’s defense and leadership would also be welcomed in the Cubs’ clubhouse, but of course it would cost the Cubs a pretty penny to acquire him. Reports out have suggested that Martin could command in the neighborhood of $13 million in salary, and he’s reportedly asked for a five year contract.
According to Rosenthal, the Cubs would come very close to those demands with their offer. A four-year, $64 million deal would pay him above his asking price annually at the cost of one fewer year, and while there is certainly some risk to signing a guy to a long-term deal as he turns 32 years old, it could be a good move for the Cubs.
Castillo is a solid catcher, but Martin would represent a significant upgrade at the position. It would also help ease the pressure on Kyle Schwarber, the 2014 first round pick that is arguably the Cubs’ top catching prospect. Schwarber is still at least two years away from making an impact in the big leagues, and having Martin around to help him out in spring training and to play the position while he’s working his way through the minors could be a big boost for the Cubs.