The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

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The plan of attack for Epstein and Hoyer

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are undefeated. They won the press conferences. They began uniting the front office. They passed on Ryne Sandberg without any blowback.

But the Cubs executives know that the real work is ahead of them. They feel an obligation to put a good product on the field every year. Its not in their nature to just punt the entire 2012 season.

Epstein has talked about the parallel fronts the Cubs will be working on, improving the big-league team you pay a lot of money to see while assembling the scouting and player development machine.

So the Cubs wont be the Miami Marlins, who seem to be wooing almost every free agent of consequence, hoping they take their talents to South Beach. They wont cut corners in the amateur draft or the international market, because they have the luxury of time and ownership stabilitysupport.

You cant put Run Prevention in lights across the Wrigley Field marquee, the way you could Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

But thats the direction Epstein and Hoyer appear to be heading. Pitching and defense will be a focus when they gather for the general manager meetings this week in Milwaukee.

That plans probably going to evolve a little bit because we dont know the personnel quite as well as we will in years to come, Hoyer said. Its no secret we need to get some depth in the rotation. Depth of pitching hurt the team last year.

We need to find ways to improve the defense and we need to probably find a little bit more athleticism on the bases. Those are all things were going to try to solve.

The Cubs witnessed a system-wide breakdown last season. Their rotation finished last in the National League with a 4.79 ERA, and near the bottom of the majors in innings pitched. They blew 24 saves, committed 134 errors and gave up 66 unearned runs.

The Cubs will need to plan for when its 42 degrees in Chicago and theyre playing 3-2 games. More team speed and smarter base-running will help manufacture runs in April and May, when the skies are gray and Wrigley Field plays like a totally different ballpark.

This thinking will factor into the search for a manager. Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. spent two decades as a big-league catcher, learning the psychology of pitching, game-planning for lineups and looking out across the whole field.

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux could be another difference-maker. Bud Black (San Diego Padres) worked closely with Hoyer the past two seasons, while John Farrell (Toronto Blue Jays) has connections with Epstein. They have set the template.

The game is so much about pitching and defense, Hoyer said. From my experience in San Diego, the relationship between Bud Black, (pitching coach) Darren Balsley and (bullpen coach) Darrel Akerfelds, its almost like having three pitching coaches. Buddy did a terrific job of also relating to position players. Certainly my sense from Mike was that hed do the same thing.

Right now youve got Bud Black and John Farrell as excellent managers who are pitching coaches and I think that trend is something that youll probably see continuing down the road.

Sources said the Cubs have made contact with Kerry Woods camp. Wood has said that hell only pitch for the Cubs or else retire but it shouldnt come to that. Theres optimism that he will return to strengthen the bullpen and mentor the younger pitchers.

The Cubs have essentially wished Aramis Ramirez good luck and told him goodbye. They could look for a defensive upgrade at third base. Hoyer declined to comment specifically on Carlos Pena and whether or not the first baseman fits into their plans.

Weve had a number of conversations, about both free agents and trade targets, Hoyer said. Its exciting to go up to Milwaukee and start having face-to-face conversations with teams about our guys. Ive been trying to make as many GM phone calls as I can (to) lay the groundwork.

Itll be interesting to see what ideas other teams have, what players have interest. (Theo and I) are really excited to get up there and get started.

Eventually, the buzz will start to fade from these franchise-changing hires. There will be negative headlines. The hard decisions are coming. But Epstein and Hoyer have a plan, even if they dont want to share the specifics. Let the second-guessing begin.

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from Monday:

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

President Obama, with Cubs at White House: 'Among Sox fans, I'm the Cubs' No. 1 fan'

At Cubs' White House visit, President Obama touts Michelle Obama's Cubs fandom, shouts out Jose Cardenal

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

WASHINGTON – A "Let's go, Cubbies!" chant started at 1:38 p.m. on Monday when the team walked into the East Room. One minute later, a voice from above announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." 

"They said this day would never come," Barack Obama said once he got in front of the podium. "Welcome to the White House, the World Series champion Chicago Cubs."

With those words that still sound weird more than two months later, Obama began his last official event at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., rolling through a speech that lasted almost 22 minutes and delivering a powerful message on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"Sometimes people wonder: 'Well, why are you spending time on sports?'" Obama said. "Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country's divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle, but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.

"It is a game and it is a celebration. But there's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and the city being able to come together and work together."

As Washington prepares for Donald Trump's inauguration – with the neighborhood turning into a maze of risers, fences and barricades – this became a parting gift from the White Sox fan in chief to all the Obama staffers and alumni who love the Cubs and are now facing life after the White House.  

"Listen, I made a lot of promises in 2008," Obama said, "and we managed to fulfill a large number of them. But even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series.

"But I did say that there's never been anything false about hope."

After a searing election, Obama stood front and center in between Cubs board members Laura Ricketts (a Hillary Clinton superdelegate) and Todd Ricketts (Trump's pick to be deputy commerce secretary). With a booming voice and some good speechwriting, Obama commanded a room filled with Hall of Famers (Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg) and Illinois politicos (Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Mike Quigley, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett).        

Obama mentioned how his administration had hosted at least 50 championship teams in the Oval Office. Until the Cubs showed up, FLOTUS hadn't participated in any of those ceremonies, but she did make time for a private meeting with the group that ended the 108-year drought for her hometown team.    

"The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was president," Obama said. "Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison (were) still alive. The first Cubs radio broadcast wouldn't be for almost two decades. We've been through World Wars, the Cold War, a Depression, the space race and all manner of social and technological change.

"So the first thing that made this championship so special for so many is the Cubs know what it's like to be loyal and to persevere and to hope and to suffer and then keep on hoping.

"It’s a generational thing (that) Michelle is describing. People all across the city remember the first time their parents took them to Wrigley, their memories of climbing onto their mom and dad's lap to watch games on WGN.

"That’s part of the reason, by the way, why Michelle wanted to make sure Jose Cardenal was here, because that was her favorite player. Back then, he had a big Afro and she would describe how she would try to wear her hat over her Afro the same way.

"You could see (it in) the fans who traveled to their dads' gravesites (and) wore their moms' old jerseys to games (and) covered the brick walls of Wrigley with love notes in chalk to the departed fans whose lifelong faith was finally fulfilled."       

Obama gave shoutouts to David Ross – "we’ve both been on a yearlong retirement party" – and "my fellow 44, Anthony Rizzo." Obama congratulated newlyweds Kris and Jessica Bryant and described how chairman Tom Ricketts met his wife, Cecelia, in the Wrigley Field bleachers "about 30 years ago, which is about 30 years longer than most relationships that begin there last."

Obama turned toward groovy manager Joe Maddon, who wore a black turtleneck and an olive coat, and said: "Let's face it, there are not a lot of coaches or managers who are as cool as this guy. Look how he looks right now."

"He used costume parties and his shaggin' wagon," Obama said. "He's got a lot of tricks to motivate. But he's also a master of tactics and makes the right move at the right time, when to pinch-hit, when to pinch-run, when to make it rain."

The no-shows included Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, but 22 players stood behind Obama. Dexter Fowler – the first African-American Cub to play in the World Series and now a St. Louis Cardinal – brought Obama a personalized pair of Air Jordans. The group photo included guys from Puerto Rico (Javier Baez), Venezuela (Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras), Cuba (Aroldis Chapman) and the Dominican Republic (Pedro Strop) who will be remembered together forever.

Before Obama exited the stage and the Cubs went to visit the wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the president delivered a final thought.

"Sports has a way of sometimes changing hearts in a way that politics or business (can't)," Obama said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of us being able to stay relaxed from the realities of our days. But sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.

"When you see this group of Cubs – different shades, different backgrounds, coming from different communities and different neighborhoods all across the country and then playing as one team and playing the right way and celebrating each other and being joyous in that – that tells us a little something about what America is. And what America can be."