Patient approach to serve Cubs well at Meetings
Looking to fill needs, Epstein sticking to plan of building talented foundation
CHICAGO -- Each day at the Winter Meetings, someone from a team's front office meets with the media for a daily briefing. Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, has been the focus of several of these sessions. He's ready.
"I can give you the answer now," Epstein said when asked about his answer next week at baseball's annual winter gathering. "'Nothing quite yet, but we're working on something and when we have something to announce, we'll let you know.'"
The Cubs do have areas to address as they prepare for the 2014 season and try to rebound from a last-place finish in the National League Central. They're in the market for another starting pitcher, more relief help -- including a closer -- and another outfielder, preferably a right-handed bat.
New manager Rick Renteria hasn't placed any demands on Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer about what he'd like on the roster, but they'll talk during the meetings, held in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Epstein is sticking to his plan of rebuilding the organization and creating a foundation of talented players. Fans just have to be patient while top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and C.J. Edwards develop. One thing Epstein won't have to answer is whether the Cubs are involved in bidding wars for high-priced free agents.
"We feel the same frustration [as Cubs fans]," Epstein said of the last two seasons, which have resulted in 197 losses combined, "but I think I'd be really compromising the organization if we decided just because we were frustrated and people around us were frustrated that we would scrap the plan and try to add some things cosmetically to make it look better than it really is.
"There's a really high bar we're aiming for and we know we're going to get there and it's going to be sustainable," he said.
Rotation: The Cubs have Jeff Samardzija -- for now -- plus Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta. They'll look at Carlos Villanueva, Chris Rusin and Justin Grimm for the rotation as well. But Epstein and Hoyer also are looking to add another starter. Whether that pitcher stays for the entire season or is flipped at the Trade Deadline will depend on the Cubs' performance in late July.
Bullpen: There's an opening for a closer, and Epstein is hoping that dangling that job will be enticing to pitchers. The Cubs added another lefty on Wednesday when they signed free agent Wesley Wright to a one-year, $1.425 million deal. That should ease the workload on James Russell. Hector Rondon, acquired in the Rule 5 Draft last year, has emerged as a possible right-handed setup candidate along with Pedro Strop.
"There are pitchers we have on the roster who we feel comfortable pitching the ninth inning," Epstein said, "but at the same time, it's a nice carrot to be able to dangle to free agents. Maybe we can't match another team in some areas, but here we can give them the responsibility of the ninth inning and the marketability of the ninth inning and see if we can use that to an advantage to build a better bullpen."
Bench: According to a study by Hardball Talk, the Cubs' bench outperformed the regulars and ranked second in the Major Leagues in WAR. Last year, Nate Schierholtz platooned in right, and the Cubs could use a right-handed-hitting outfielder to share that spot. Junior Lake is the only right-handed-hitting outfielder projected to be a regular, and he's still learning the position.
Leadoff man: New hitting coach Bill Mueller has a tough assignment. Epstein wants the Cubs to lead the National League in on-base percentage sooner rather than later. There isn't a clear-cut leadoff man on the current roster, and the Cubs could simply go with what they have or try to find that David DeJesus-type batter who grinds out each plate appearance.
Who they can trade if necessary
Samardzija: Samardzija may want to turn off his phone as his name will be mentioned often in trade rumors. The right-hander is exactly what the Cubs want -- a young, power arm who is under team control for two more years. But he also may be the missing piece for a team that feels it is closer to the postseason than the Cubs are. He has been durable, reached 200 in strikeouts and innings pitched for the first time and is a gamer. What's not to like? Epstein has said Samardzija is just the type of pitcher they want and would like to sign him to a long-term deal. If Samardzija is traded, the Cubs will want significant players in return as they continue the rebuilding process.
Where are discussions between the team and the pitcher?
"It's in the same place it's been," Epstein said. "There's mutual interest. The situation sometimes makes things tough."
Outfielders Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson: Vitters and Jackson were the Cubs' first-round Draft picks in 2007 and '09, respectively. Both have been hindered by injuries. Both also might benefit from a change of scenery. Epstein and Co. have shown they don't feel the need to hold onto picks from the previous Cubs regime -- they dealt Andrew Cashner to the Padres -- so they could move the two.
The Cubs' top 10 prospects, per MLB.com, are Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Bryant, Mike Olt, Arodys Vizcaino, Pierce Johnson, Arismendy Alcantara, Matt Szczur and Dan Vogelbach. Of that group, Olt could be the Cubs' starting third baseman on Opening Day and Vizcaino, who has been rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, might be in the bullpen. The rest are part of the future, and teams shouldn't bother asking about Baez, Almora, Soler and Bryant. They're the core four.
Rule 5 Draft
The Cubs selected a pitcher in each of the last two Rule 5 Drafts, and did not plan on taking anyone this year. Because of a grievance filed by the Phillies, they lost their pick. The Cubs selected right-hander Lendy Castillo from Philadelphia's organization in 2011. Castillo spent most of the 2012 season on the disabled list with a groin injury, and appeared in 13 games for the Cubs. Any player selected in the Rule 5 Draft must stay on a team's active roster for the entire season. To prevent abuse of the Draft, the player selected must be active for at least 90 days. That keeps teams from selecting players and placing them on the disabled list for the majority of the season. Castillo missed 91 days in 2012, and spent all of the 2013 season in the Minor Leagues. The Phillies now have the Cubs' selection in the Rule 5 Draft as compensation.
Big contracts they might unload
Epstein and Hoyer trimmed the payroll when they dealt Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees last year (and will be paying $14 million in 2014 to cover a portion of the last year of the deal). The only large contract remaining is Jackson's, which will pay him $13 million each of the next three seasons. Jackson is durable but also led the Major Leagues in losses last season, which would make him tough to move.
The Cubs tendered contracts to seven of their arbitration-eligible players, which could cost about $19 million total, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. They have another $36 million committed to Jackson ($13 million), Starlin Castro ($5.857 million), Villanueva ($5 million), Kyuji Fujikawa ($4.5 million), Soler ($2.666 million), Anthony Rizzo ($1.536 million), and Ryan Sweeney ($1.5 million). The team had hoped to generate additional revenue through advertising on a new video scoreboard and other signage at Wrigley Field, but those projects have been delayed as the Cubs deal with the rooftop owners. Bottom line, Epstein has a tight budget.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.