Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

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Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

With Theo Epstein and Co. firmly ensconced in the Cubs offices at Wrigley Field, Tuesday was time for Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts to finally discuss the process that he followed in wooing Epstein away from his hometown Boston Red Sox. Ricketts shed some light on the hiring and what it took to convince him to take on the ultimate sports challenge in trying to win a World Series with the Cubs.

I sat down with the chairman for a one-on-one interview for an "Inside Look" epsiode that will air in a couple weeks on Comcast SportsNet.

Ricketts touched on a multitude of topics, including the future of Crane Kenney, the Cubs' president of business operations who has come under fire from some members of the media as well as the Cubs' rabid fan base who have linked him to the failures of the past regime. However, Ricketts pledged tremendous support for Kenney and even went as far as announcing that he is working on a contract extension for him.

Day one, square one when we bought the team, everyone that was already here started fresh," Ricketts said. "What Ive seen firsthand is execution. The baseball side and the business side are two sides of the same coin. We have to be working together to push the team forward to be the best we can be on the field.

"Im talking with Crane on extending his contract. Were going to have him as part of this organization for a long time, locking down all the business side. Crane has done a great job of executing on the business side. There has been some stuff in the media (about Kenney) and that doesnt apply to me. I dont listen to that. Hes doing his job and hes doing his job well and Cubs fans need to know that.

While the Cubs ownership group understands the need to build through player development, Ricketts expects his major league team to be vastly improved in 2012 despite a rough 2011 season that saw the Cubs finish 71-91 and 25 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers.

"We don't talk about rebuilding," Ricketts said. "We are coming to win every year. However, we will not look at 2012 at the expense of our long term future."

With large contracts on the books for Carlos Zambrano (one year left at 18.875 million) and Alfonso Soriano (three years left at 18 million per season) many around the baseball world have assumed the Cubs are stuck with both players but Ricketts made it clear that if Epstein decides that he needs to eat both deals and move forward, then he has the authority from ownership to do just that.

"Theo and his team have complete and total authority on all baseball decisions," the chairman said. "You as the owner cannot insert yourself into the process. If you do, then you have no level of accountability in the organization."

Ricketts had been under fire from the media and an increasingly apathetic fan base as the 2011 season spiraled out of control and saw the Cubs far out of the race in early July. It was at that point that he had a meeting with then-GM Jim Hendry and both men decided it would be best for the Cubs and Hendry to part ways.

"We think we gave Jim a fair shot, but when it looked like it wasnt going to be where we needed it to be, we had a great conversation and just decided to part ways, and that got the process started," Ricketts said. "The period between when Jim left and Theo came in was a little awkward because you couldnt really tell people what you were doing. But there was never a moment where I didnt really feel we had it under control."

Ricketts spoke with approximately 20 people within the baseball world and got varying opinions on how to rebuild his baseball organization. But he posed one question to everyone he spoke with and their answers were key in how he proceeded to find Hendrys successor. The question was in a perfect world, who do you think is the right guy for this team?"

We went through all that process and, obviously, Theo came right to the top," he said.

With Epstein and his team now on board, the next big project on Ricketts' plate is the renovation of Wrigley Field and that process will have to be a team effort between the Cubs and the City of Chicago, according to the chairman.

"Where were at right now is we really just have to keep the dialogue going with our elected officials on what we can all work on together, because for the amount of money were talking about to really get Wrigley up to where it should be, its going to have to be a team effort," he said.

"Its going to have to be a contribution from us, a contribution from the different levels of government, a few other pockets if possible, to really package up something that works for everyone."

Ricketts has heard the suggestions of knocking down Wrigley Field from foul pole to foul pole and rebuilding the ancient grandstand from scratch replete with all of the modern amenities. However, he does not favor that model and believes that his intensely loyal fan base does not either.

"I dont think people want a replica of Wrigley Field; they want Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "And I think that fans, when they get here and get to their seats and look out on the field, theyre where they want to be. This is the best place to watch a game and the energy and the field, the charm are all there."

On the topic of how the new collective bargaining agreement will change how the Cubs do business because of the restrictions on spending in the amateur draft and in international free agency, Ricketts is confident that his new baseball operations team will maximize the value of their draft picks and will spend their available dollars wisely.

"What the league has done is theyve taken that play out of the playbook, where you spend a lot on the amateur players to build up the system which we probably would have done, much like we did in June," he said. "We probably would have kept that going and spent more on amateur players than well be allowed to spend in the current CBA. Its a fact of life; were just going to have to adjust the strategy around the new rules. And ultimately, I think well be fine.

"We have the best fans. They need to see a plan and with Theo, Jed and their team, they have a plan and fans can be confident about the future"

See more of Tom Ricketts on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove, CTL and SportsNet Central.

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

Cubs: The next steps for Kyle Schwarber

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Kyle Schwarber might have been the most dangerous hitter in a World Series lineup that featured the National League MVP plus four more All-Stars. After spending more than six months recovering from major knee surgery. Against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and a dominant Cleveland Indians bullpen.

“He’s not going to play winter ball,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said with a perfect deadpan delivery. “We felt like he proved he can hit major-league pitching.”

The Cubs spent Monday at the winter meetings inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, continuing their search for pitching on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Cubs are so stacked with hitters that manager Joe Maddon could write out a 2017 Opening Day lineup tomorrow and Theo Epstein’s front office would still have Jorge Soler left over as trade bait.

Schwarber could hit second for the defending World Series champs, and his presence would mean more than any player the Cubs could sign as a free agent. The Cubs expect him to be at full strength by spring training, though it’s unclear how much work, if any, he’ll get as a catcher.

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“That’s the hurdle we haven’t really gone over yet,” Hoyer said. “Can he do it? There’s no question he’s going to want to do it. I think he can do it. I think that we have to have discussions about how heavy a workload we put on him in that regard.

“One of the things we talked about even last year before he got hurt was (how) he’s doing full catching drills, running around the outfield, doing stuff hitting. That’s a lot to put on a guy, sort of like playing two ways in football.”

Schwarber, an all-Ohio linebacker in high school, has a run-through-a-brick-wall mentality and doesn’t like to hear about what he can’t do. He wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision in early April and needed a procedure that reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL.

It took only two warm-up games in the Arizona Fall League before Schwarber made his dramatic return as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, batting .412 (7-for-17) with a .971 OPS during the World Series. 

The Cubs appear to be set with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero behind the plate, but Schwarber is the type of baseball gym rat who enjoys breaking down video, giving input for scouting reports and being involved in every pitch.  

“We have to talk through all that stuff,” Hoyer said. “We know what his position’s going to be, so we have to figure out what our position’s going to be. I know he’s going to want to catch.

“But he knows he’s coming in as a left fielder next year. And we have to decide how much of the catching drills (he does).”

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

Kenley Jansen? Wade Davis? Cubs keeping an open mind for the ninth inning

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The San Francisco Giants had been three outs away from forcing an elimination game that Johnny Cueto would have started at Wrigley Field – and five different relievers couldn’t protect a three-run lead against a Cubs team that made a stunning comeback.

That October crash reverberated throughout the winter meetings as a $10 billion industry gathered outside Washington, D.C. The Giants bought peace of mind for the ninth inning on Monday and finalized a four-year, $62 million deal with Mark Melancon. For the moment, that will be the biggest contract ever for a closer, at least until Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman shatter that record.

The Cubs have been in contact with Jansen’s camp, sources said, monitoring his market to see if there might be a match as the World Series champs try to upgrade the bullpen this week at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t necessarily have a singular focus – believe the reports linking the Cubs to Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis – or the appetite to win a Jansen bidding war that will include the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins and perhaps the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals.

But after telling everyone that they did two offseasons in one last winter – and spending almost $290 million on free agents – this is where the Cubs could make a splash.

“It’s safe to say we’re kicking the tires on any pitching that’s available,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during his briefing with the Chicago media. “We’re not spending a lot of time on bats. We’re spending a lot of times on arms. Anyone that’s available, we’re going to sort of be in on and talking about.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon watched Jansen’s cutter up close and gave this endorsement during the National League Championship Series: “He’s like a 100-pound heavier version of Mariano Rivera.”

Jansen, a homegrown Dodger, converted from catcher and developed into an elite closer, saving 189 games while putting up a 2.20 career ERA and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Jansen just turned 29 and already showed a willingness to pitch outside the ninth inning and go for more than three outs, something that didn’t come easily for Chapman in an October where former Yankee teammate Andrew Miller became an American League Championship Series MVP for the Cleveland Indians.

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“The postseason was reliever-centric,” Hoyer said. “Bullpens have always been really valuable, but I think the way they were used and talked about – really, not even this postseason, but the last two or three postseasons – people are definitely putting a lot of financial importance on having a good bullpen.”

Kansas City’s blueprint for winning back-to-back pennants and the 2015 World Series featured Davis, who posted a 0.94 ERA during that championship season. But Davis dealt with a strained right forearm this year and will make $10 million in his final season before free agency, at a time when the Royals can begin to see their window to contend closing.

The Cubs haven’t made Chapman a priority – and Epstein’s group has been philosophically opposed to the idea of investing big money in a closer – but they also know they probably don’t get that parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue without that blockbuster deal with the Yankees.

“We see the value of it,” Hoyer said. “Look, we traded a great young prospect in Gleyber Torres to get Chapman, because we felt like that was an area that we were a little bit short. We felt like in order to win the World Series, we had to have that kind of guy at the end of the game. It proved to be right.

“In order to get those really difficult final outs in the postseason, having an elite guy is certainly a huge advantage.”

So if the White Sox become the Chicago team that makes most of the headlines here – and in-house options like Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop disappoint – the Cubs can always reassess at the trade deadline.

“We’ll bolster our bullpen,” Hoyer said. “Whether you do that by adding just a number of good relievers – or whether we do it by adding a guy that’s sort of a known closer – I’m not sure. But we’ll definitely add to our bullpen.”