Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents

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Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents

During a quiet moment with his son, Theo Epstein walked around Wrigley Field on Sunday and noticed how the ivy had turned into a collage of red, yellow and orange.

One year after the Cubs hired Epstein away from what was once his dream job, it all came into focus.

I just kind of flashed to how great it would be playing baseball this time of year at Wrigley, Epstein said Tuesday. Thats the goal to get there but to get there in a way that allows us to do it year in and year out. You cant help but look at what the Cardinals are doing and the Giants now and teams that are able to be factors in October, year in and year out.

Thats our goal to grow this so that we get there and stay there. Thats the way to win a World Series. (So), yeah, there is urgency, but that urgency will (be) paid back through hard work to get us there and get us there to stay. It wont necessarily translate into panic to get us there, or taking a shot at getting us there quicker, if it means a less healthy organization.

Its hard to imagine too many other executives being able to say that with such conviction or even a straight face after losing 101 games. But thats the kind of juice Epstein brought to the North Side after winning two World Series titles with the Red Sox. And the mandate from ownership remains the same methodically build the team through scouting and player development.

So while there are clear needs when the Cubs go shopping this winter, dont expect them to splurge. (Forget megadeals for Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke too much baggage and too many question marks.)

Ideally, Epstein is looking to add at least two starting pitchers, the kind who wont be fighting for a job in spring training and can be plugged into the Opening Day rotation.

With Brett Jackson ticketed for Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs figure to be in the market for an outfielder David DeJesus is versatile enough to go back to center or a corner spot.

If Ian Stewart is non-tendered and wont accept a pay cut as he recovers from wrist surgery Epstein wouldnt commit either way and said the Cubs are continuing to gather information theyll also need a third baseman.

When Epstein took over last October, the Cubs possessed only one core player in his mind All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, who at the age of 22 was ultimately rewarded with a seven-year, 60 million extension.

Twelve months later, Epstein can point to Jeff Samardzija, a self-described big Jim Hendry guy who has emerged as a legitimate starting pitcher. The Cubs went out and acquired Anthony Rizzo, who has followed this front office from Boston to San Diego.

Darwin Barney could be on the verge of winning a Gold Glove at second base, while Epstein sees Welington Castillo at the doorstep of being a legitimate everyday catcher. Javier Baez (2011 first-round pick) made a huge leap during his first full season of professional baseball, while the organization added Albert Almora and Jorge Soler with the expectation that they will one day be part of the nucleus.

Epstein said that you dont just go into free agency looking for stopgaps or placeholders. So he was asked what a potential core player might look like, and if it would be realistic to sign one. His answer revealed a pessimistic view of the market, particularly in the age of big television deals and revenue sharing.

Every teams looking for the same thing, Epstein said. Youre looking for a player whos entering his prime, so those younger free agents are always more attractive. The guys who hit free agency at 28 or 27 like a best-case scenario 26 are always the real targets.

Because if youre going to pay top-of-the-market dollars, you ideally want someone whos continuing to improve or will at least maintain his level of performance for a number of years or throughout the majority of the contract.

Youre looking for somebody who checks all your boxes. So from a position-player standpoint, youd love someone who is very solid defensively, ideally a middle-of-the-field-type player because they can always move to the corners as they age. Someone who controls the strike zone, gets on base, because thats something that we dont have enough of (here). Somebody with power to be a threat, drive the ball through the gaps and out of the ballpark.

Somebody who runs the bases and has good leadership qualities. I think your highest-paid players should be your leaders. Someone who sets a good example, represents the organization well. Someone who has a nice health history, projected to stay on the field.

I just described somebody whos probably a 150 million player. There will probably be a day when were staring at that player and we wont hesitate, regardless of the price. But because of the nature of free agency and the nature of the baseball economic landscape these days, players dont tend to reach free agency.

The Cubs actually have only one major-league free agent on their roster Shawn Camp, a veteran reliever they have an interest in re-signing. Though theyve talked internally about giving James Russell a shot at starting, its likely the left-hander will be back in the bullpen.

The Cubs will build their 2013 rotation without Arodys Vizcaino, the prospect acquired from the Braves in the Paul Maholm deal near the trade deadline. Vizcaino will be on an innings limit and eased back after Tommy John surgery, though he could still make an impact at the big-league level next season.

Alberto Cabrera has shown enough that he may be stretched out as a starter in Iowa. Epstein put Chris Volstad a non-tender candidate, even with a huge need for pitching depth in the well see category.

By October, there was already a strong sense in the clubhouse that the Cubs absolutely have to get off to a fast start next season and generate a sense of momentum. A good April could keep the front office at bay, maybe even convince them to add a few pieces. A couple bad weeks and theyd be looking to sell off parts and bracing for the possibility of another 100-loss season.

By this time next year, Epstein hopes to be in the playoff conversation, and expects to have added around six more future core pieces to the organization. Its no secret which one will be his No. 1 priority.

I have a burning desire to satisfy the publics need to win, Epstein said. Thats something that I feel every day, my own need to win, our collective need to win, the Ricketts need to win. That urgency is part of what we feel every day. But I also feel like the real way to satisfy that is to put us in a position to win every year and to be playing October baseball every year.

Forget the analytics, Joe Maddon sends will-to-win message to Cubs: ‘Don’t forget the heartbeat’

Forget the analytics, Joe Maddon sends will-to-win message to Cubs: ‘Don’t forget the heartbeat’

MESA, Ariz. – To set the tone for 2017, the Cubs gathered in a theater on Saturday morning and watched highlights from their unforgettable playoff run last year. The clips showed that Giant comeback in San Francisco, the nearly perfect game at Wrigley Field that beat the Dodgers to capture the National League pennant and a World Series Game 7 for the ages in Cleveland.

“I would say that a high percentage of teams would have lost that game,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But we were able to regroup and come back, just based on the heartbeat. And I really wanted them to understand the heartbeat.”

That became Maddon’s primary message inside the Under Armour Performance Center as steady rain fell in Mesa, washing out the first full-squad workout and postponing the first wacky team-bonding exercise for this camp.

Maddon would never completely channel Hawk Harrelson’s will-to-win spirit and stand up and tell the room: Save it, nerds.

But in an industry where practically every team is fluent in analytics and searching for that next cutting edge, a data-savvy, open-minded manager wanted to recapture what led Jason Heyward to call a players-only meeting during the rain delay at Progressive Field, emphasizing what allowed the Cubs to survive 10 high-stress innings against the Indians.

“I think in our game today, the way it’s run on a lot of levels, it’s more about math than people sometimes,” Maddon said. “I want our guys to understand that we understand the heartbeat around here, so don’t forget the heartbeat.

“We won that game purely because of competitive natures and the fact that we wanted to win and the heartbeat was so good. It has nothing to do with statistical information, mechanics physically. It had everything to do with people.

“And I really want our guys to understand that, because we’re going to do all the other necessary work. We’re going to do all the math work. We’re going to do all the physical work. We’re going to do all the work. But at the end of the day, man, (when it’s) a different uniform than you, you compete. You try to beat that guy in the other uniform. Don’t forget that.”

Tom Ricketts delivers state of Cubs address: Donald Trump, Steve Bartman, All-Star Game, global domination

Tom Ricketts delivers state of Cubs address: Donald Trump, Steve Bartman, All-Star Game, global domination

MESA, Ariz. – Chairman Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to be known as one of the greatest sports franchises on the planet, a first-class brand synonymous with winning.

With that ideal in mind – and setting specific policy ideas or agendas aside – has the first month of the Donald Trump administration matched up with the organization’s values? 

“I don’t really know what that question was,” Ricketts said Saturday during his annual state-of-the-team news conference in Mesa.

It’s worth asking, because at this time last year, Trump cryptically threatened the Ricketts family on Twitter, and then later in spring training told The Washington Post editorial board that the family has done a “rotten job” running the team. Ultimately, the family’s right-wing influence shifted from a stop-Trump movement to helping bankroll the Republican nominee’s presidential campaign.      

Beyond ending the 108-year drought and finally winning the World Series, the Ricketts family laid out the planks of the franchise’s platform and has in many ways lived up to it: investing in high-character people; creating a vibrant corporate culture; being a good neighbor in Wrigleyville; and growing Cubs Charities.

Do those community concepts line up with the rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House?

“I don’t really know how to answer that,” Ricketts said. “I think the fact is that we do have a good culture at the Cubs. And I don’t think anything that the White House has done – or hasn’t done – has any impact on that at all.”   

Ricketts is a patient, big-picture executive who showed how to think beyond the next day’s headlines, giving the green light to modernizing the entire operation, upgrading the infrastructure in Chicago, Arizona and the Dominican Republic and allowing team president Theo Epstein to oversee a complete teardown and rebuild.

The Cubs are no longer defined by that history of losing, but on some level their brand is now also tangentially associated with an early-stage administration of alternative facts, Chicago-to-Afghanistan comparisons, the Muslim ban, the border wall, murky Russian connections and a Holocaust memorial statement that didn’t mention the Jewish people.

Ricketts posed for a photo with his two brothers and Trump at a black-tie inauguration event. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Republican governor, posted it on his official Twitter account.

“Obviously, my brother Todd is a nominee for undersecretary of commerce, so he’s waiting for that process to play out,” Ricketts said. “My sister (Laura) was a bundler for Hillary Clinton. The family has different political views. Away from that, I don’t think anything that’s going on in D.C. has any impact on us right now at all.”

• Ricketts wasn’t certain if Todd would have to step down from the team’s board of directors to accept that Cabinet position: “I know there are the conflict of interest kind of things and ethics rules. He may have to. I’m not really sure. But he’s got to go through the nomination process first.”

• Ricketts addressed the team inside the theater in the Under Armour Performance Center, thanking the players for all their contributions on a rainy day that washed out the first full-squad workout.  

“I also said I think we have a unique opportunity to not only be considered one of the great sports teams in the U.S.,” said Ricketts, who recently returned from the Laureus Sports Awards in Monaco. “But I just got back from Europe and I think that our long-term goal should be (having us) considered one of the great sports organizations in the world.” 

• Up and down the chain of command, the Cubs believe they can be in that conversation, given their talent base, financial muscle and a stable ownership group that plans to control the team for generations (an arrangement that currently includes an equity stake in CSN Chicago).

“What separates a really good team from a truly great team is the consistency of results,” Ricketts said. “We’ve won one World Series. Hopefully, we’ll be in the mix again for many years to come.

“If you look at the Yankees of 15 years ago, the Patriots of today, they’re just always right in the mix. On the global side, you look at teams like Man U or Real Madrid or the All Blacks and they just set the standard for how people perform. And their team means something all over the world.

“I’d like to think that one day – if we’re consistent enough and if we win – that Cubs logo will mean something to people around the world. Not just a team that didn’t win for a long time.”   

• Amid the afterglow three months ago, Ricketts told USA Today that the Cubs would reach out to Steve Bartman at some point and try to come to an understanding after a foul ball during the 2003 National League Championship Series forced the fan into hiding.

“I personally haven’t,” Ricketts said. “The team was thinking about it. I’m not sure what they did or what they didn’t do, to be honest.”

• Ricketts will defer to Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer when it comes to Jake Arrieta’s countdown to free agency and how to negotiate with the Cy Young Award winner after this season.

“That’s a Theo and Jed decision,” Ricketts said. “They have the right perspective on (how) they have to put a great team on the field this year. But they also have a longer-term perspective in realizing that decisions that effect this year might hurt us in a few years.

“But I’ll leave it up to them. I imagine that they’ve got a strategy around that and they know what they want to do.”

• The competitive-balance-tax threshold – which the new collective bargaining agreement sets at $195 million this year – appears to be a kind of soft payroll ceiling for the Cubs moving forward.

“The way it’s structured, it can be very punitive if you just ignore it and just blow through it,” Ricketts said. “So we’ll be thoughtful and strategic about when we go over the tax and when we don’t. But I’ll leave that mostly up to Theo.”

• The Cubs are lobbying Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball officials to host the 2020 All-Star Game at a fully renovated Wrigley Field.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Ricketts said. “I think that it would be great for the league, great for the game and it would be great for Chicago to have it at Wrigley Field. But nothing’s inevitable on that. There’s a process that we have to go through and hopefully at some point soon the commissioner will give us the nod.”