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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."