Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents

Win later: Theo looking to pass on big free agents
October 24, 2012, 4:57 am
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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.