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.

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from Monday:

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

President Obama, with Cubs at White House: 'Among Sox fans, I'm the Cubs' No. 1 fan'

At Cubs' White House visit, President Obama touts Michelle Obama's Cubs fandom, shouts out Jose Cardenal

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

WASHINGTON – A "Let's go, Cubbies!" chant started at 1:38 p.m. on Monday when the team walked into the East Room. One minute later, a voice from above announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." 

"They said this day would never come," Barack Obama said once he got in front of the podium. "Welcome to the White House, the World Series champion Chicago Cubs."

With those words that still sound weird more than two months later, Obama began his last official event at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., rolling through a speech that lasted almost 22 minutes and delivering a powerful message on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"Sometimes people wonder: 'Well, why are you spending time on sports?'" Obama said. "Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country's divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle, but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.

"It is a game and it is a celebration. But there's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and the city being able to come together and work together."

As Washington prepares for Donald Trump's inauguration – with the neighborhood turning into a maze of risers, fences and barricades – this became a parting gift from the White Sox fan in chief to all the Obama staffers and alumni who love the Cubs and are now facing life after the White House.  

"Listen, I made a lot of promises in 2008," Obama said, "and we managed to fulfill a large number of them. But even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series.

"But I did say that there's never been anything false about hope."

After a searing election, Obama stood front and center in between Cubs board members Laura Ricketts (a Hillary Clinton superdelegate) and Todd Ricketts (Trump's pick to be deputy commerce secretary). With a booming voice and some good speechwriting, Obama commanded a room filled with Hall of Famers (Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg) and Illinois politicos (Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Mike Quigley, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett).        

Obama mentioned how his administration had hosted at least 50 championship teams in the Oval Office. Until the Cubs showed up, FLOTUS hadn't participated in any of those ceremonies, but she did make time for a private meeting with the group that ended the 108-year drought for her hometown team.    

"The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was president," Obama said. "Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison (were) still alive. The first Cubs radio broadcast wouldn't be for almost two decades. We've been through World Wars, the Cold War, a Depression, the space race and all manner of social and technological change.

"So the first thing that made this championship so special for so many is the Cubs know what it's like to be loyal and to persevere and to hope and to suffer and then keep on hoping.

"It’s a generational thing (that) Michelle is describing. People all across the city remember the first time their parents took them to Wrigley, their memories of climbing onto their mom and dad's lap to watch games on WGN.

"That’s part of the reason, by the way, why Michelle wanted to make sure Jose Cardenal was here, because that was her favorite player. Back then, he had a big Afro and she would describe how she would try to wear her hat over her Afro the same way.

"You could see (it in) the fans who traveled to their dads' gravesites (and) wore their moms' old jerseys to games (and) covered the brick walls of Wrigley with love notes in chalk to the departed fans whose lifelong faith was finally fulfilled."       

Obama gave shoutouts to David Ross – "we’ve both been on a yearlong retirement party" – and "my fellow 44, Anthony Rizzo." Obama congratulated newlyweds Kris and Jessica Bryant and described how chairman Tom Ricketts met his wife, Cecelia, in the Wrigley Field bleachers "about 30 years ago, which is about 30 years longer than most relationships that begin there last."

Obama turned toward groovy manager Joe Maddon, who wore a black turtleneck and an olive coat, and said: "Let's face it, there are not a lot of coaches or managers who are as cool as this guy. Look how he looks right now."

"He used costume parties and his shaggin' wagon," Obama said. "He's got a lot of tricks to motivate. But he's also a master of tactics and makes the right move at the right time, when to pinch-hit, when to pinch-run, when to make it rain."

The no-shows included Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, but 22 players stood behind Obama. Dexter Fowler – the first African-American Cub to play in the World Series and now a St. Louis Cardinal – brought Obama a personalized pair of Air Jordans. The group photo included guys from Puerto Rico (Javier Baez), Venezuela (Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras), Cuba (Aroldis Chapman) and the Dominican Republic (Pedro Strop) who will be remembered together forever.

Before Obama exited the stage and the Cubs went to visit the wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the president delivered a final thought.

"Sports has a way of sometimes changing hearts in a way that politics or business (can't)," Obama said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of us being able to stay relaxed from the realities of our days. But sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.

"When you see this group of Cubs – different shades, different backgrounds, coming from different communities and different neighborhoods all across the country and then playing as one team and playing the right way and celebrating each other and being joyous in that – that tells us a little something about what America is. And what America can be."