Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein knew it was going to take time to rebuild the Cubs organization and after a 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs entered 2013 knowing they are probably headed for another rough year.
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While Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer did add to the pitching staff in the offseason, the Cubs still field an everyday lineup that looks as if it will struggle to score runs. Add in a shaky bullpen and a major hole at third base and the 2013 Cubs have a realistic chance to lose 90-plus games for the third consecutive season.
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So does Epstein and his staff feel any more pressure to dive into free agency next winter to try to turn the major-league team around and to calm a fan base that is anxious for a return to respectability?
"No, we’re going to continue to grow the organization," Epstein told me. "You never want to get to a moment and be surprised, so you try and anticipate what it’s going to be. I know if we don’t have a good year this year, it’s going to be miserable in August and September. Fans are going to be all over us and ditto next year, but bottom line is there’s no choice. Based on where the organization was, it’s not like we sit here and say ‘oh, we want to tear this thing down and rebuild it’.
"We are not tearing it down; we’re building it up. You know we’re taking the farm system from where it was to hopefully one of the best in the game. We’re taking a team that was bereft of young core talent at the big league level and we’re gonna build up a young nucleus. Do I wish we could do that overnight? Absolutely, but it’s not a conscious choice to sit here and slow-play it so we can build it extra-organically. What we’re doing is building a winning organization because the choice is to -- like in 2011 -- ramp the payroll up to $145 million. [In 2011], they went after an older free-agent, traded prospects for a really good pitcher, and it got them 71 wins.
"But it’s not a choice to continue that. The only alternative is to build a healthy organization that’s going to win and we’re going to do it as quickly as possible, but are we going to change because there’s pressure? There’s going to be tremendous pressure, there’s going to be people really upset. And they should be until we get where we want to be, which is dominating this division and winning 90 games every single year."
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Epstein has also heard the cries from the fanbase looking for a Cubs team in a big market to be active suitors for the biggest free agents in the game. However, he is adamant there is no magic bullet to fixing what ails the Cubs and he is committed to a long-term approach, no matter how many calls there are for the Cubs to sign veteran free agents who will command long-term, big-money contracts.
"Take a look at that first offseason, and first base is a microcosm for organizational issues as a whole," he said. "So people looked at ‘oh the Cubs, big market’ and maybe they assumed we had more money to spend than we actually had. Everyone was jumping all over themselves to sign Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, you know, two good players…but two good players who, at some point during that contract, are going to be past their primes.
"So instead, we took one of the few pitching prospects that we had [Andrew Cashner], traded him and turned him into Anthony Rizzo, who is going to be in his prime when we’re winning this division and contending on an annual basis. That’s how we’re trying to address all the issues of the organization. Now, it doesn’t always work out that smoothly and those opportunities don’t always present themselves, but yeah, would it have felt good to sign Albert Pujols? It would’ve felt great at the time. Would it have served the best long-term interest of the organization? No. And would it have gotten us into the playoffs last year? No.
"So what we’re trying to do is take an overall approach -- the healthier this organization gets, the more games we’re going to win. The more games we win, the happier everyone’s going to be. There’s no single move that you can make to have that happen quicker."
Epstein had his eyes open on the state of the organization when he arrived in Chicago in October of 2011 and while he knew that minor league system was not flush with elite prospects, nothing could have prepared him for the lack of pitching talent in the Cubs' minor leagues. However, rather than bemoan that fact, Epstein has chosen to take the high road and has his scouts working to add pitching depth as quickly as possible.
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"There are some talented arms down there, but they’re not at the operative level of starting pitching prospects that you need, the volume that you need to develop one or two or three at the big level, so that’s made our focus really clear and it is what we need to do in the draft to continue selecting high-volume starting pitching and developing them," he said. "We hired a new -- and I think excellent -- minor league pitching coordinator [Derek Johnson] to help make that happen, so it doesn’t matter whether I was surprised by [the lack of pitching prospects] or not.
"What matters is how we’re addressing it, and we need to really to produce starting pitching internally because you see what the price of starting pitching is from outside the organization. That is unsustainable, to only rely on elite starting pitching from outside the organization. I don’t think there’s an organization in baseball that can afford that anymore."
While the baseball operations side of the Cubs continues to add to the system and looks to overhaul the organization from top to bottom, the business side of the franchise is involved in an equally important task of completing a deal with the City of Chicago to renovate 100-year-old Wrigley Field and to provide Epstein's players with greatly-improved facilities to help them train, prepare and play to the best of their abilities.
That project may not directly involve Epstein, but it does have his rapt attention.
"I am fully aware of what is going on," he said. "I’m not in the negotiations and I’m not briefed on it daily, but I talk to [President of Business Operations Crane Kenney] and [Chairman Tom Ricketts] a couple of times a week and we bounce ideas off each other. But I look at the negotiations, and I’ll look at the TV deal the same way I look at the draft. It’s not something that’s going to affect the 2013 Cubs, it’s not something our players need to be concerned about and it’s not something that’s going to show up in a box score, but it is one of those fundamentally important organizational issues that if we get it right, it’s going to make for a much better future a few years from now.
"We’re going to look up and be really happy that we got it right, just like we’re going be happy we got the draft right. If we get it wrong, we’re gonna be in a hole two or three years from now and say ‘how did we get here?’…’you know how you got here? Because we didn’t execute in the negotiations and we didn’t execute on draft day.'
"So our fans don’t have to be concerned with it. If I were a fan, I would just follow the box scores and follow the minor leagues, but for us, yeah, we have to be concerned about it because this is one we need to get right to get where we want to go."