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.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."