Early Off-Season Storylines for the Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ managerial search continued on Monday when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer reportedly interviewed Rick Renteria in San Diego. Renteria is the third candidate known to have interviewed for the Cubs’ job. Epstein and Hoyer are expected to speak with Dave Martinez this week in Chicago about the skipper’s job after receiving permission from the Rays to talk to Joe Maddon’s bench coach.

The Cubs’ skipper search is expected to expand and include additional candidates, but as of Monday, some consider Rick Renteria to be the frontrunner for the job.

Theo Epstein is looking to hire his new skipper by the General Managers meetings on November 11. Once the Cubs have the new manager and coaching staff in place, the front office’s attention will turn to the other areas of the team that should be addressed this off-season.

It figures to be anything but a quiet winter for the Chicago Cubs and there will be many storylines to keep an eye on as the calendar year comes to an end.

Wrigley Field Restoration

While some may view the Wrigley Field restoration project as a side story, that is simply not the case. The Cubs are not just trying to line their pockets with additional revenue. The nearly 100-year old park needs a major overhaul, starting with the players’ facilities, which in many cases are not up to minor league standards.

The Ricketts family has said since last January they need to make certain additions to the beloved ballpark to pay for the nearly $300 million required to update Wrigley. Tom Ricketts has been consistent in his statements that he is not willing to begin construction, which will take five off-seasons to complete, until he receives the proper assurances from the rooftop owners they will not pursue legal action to protect their views.

The Cubs and rooftop owners must work out their differences as soon as possible so the team can move forward with their five-year plan so patrons, inside and outside of the park, have a product they are willing to pay to see.

Arizona Fall League

The 2013 AFL season is underway and the Cubs have several prospects that will garner attention in the fall league. Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Wes Darvill and Armando Rivero are off to good starts while Jorge Soler, Dallas Beeler and Matt Loosen have been solid over the first week. Lendy Castillo, unfortunately, has been Lendy Castillo so far.

The front office was in attendance for the first few games and is using the AFL to get Almora, Bryant, Soler and Beeler the development time they missed during the minor league season. The Cubs need to see Almora and Soler stay healthy and on the field and for Beeler to stay on the mound. Loosen has a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see how he performs against many of the best young players in baseball. Wes Darvill is an intriguing player that the front office is trying to see what he can do against top-notch competition.

How these players perform in the AFL should have an impact on how they are slotted in the system when Spring Training begins which in turn will either speed up their target date for the big leagues or slow it down.

Catchers Wanted

Welington Castillo made big strides during the season both at the plate and behind it. The front office has said that Castillo is part of the core and the organization is very high on his future. But there is very little in the system behind Castillo and Rafael Lopez is the closest catcher to the big leagues and he played the entire season at the Double-A level.

So where will the Cubs go for a backstop?

Dioner Navarro is a free agent and figures to demand a big payday after a career year. Is Navarro worth a two-year deal in the $10-$12 million range? And if so, he is likely out of the Cubs’ price range.

Rumors have connected the Cubs to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Brian McCann, but neither of those two veteran catchers would fit the Cubs’ need if they view Castillo as a piece to the team’s future.

The Cubs will soon have one catcher on their 40-man roster and this should be the first area the front office addresses after the manager and coaching staff are in place.

Darwin Barney

Will the Cubs trade their Gold Glove second baseman this winter? Darwin Barney is coming off another excellent year in the field and should be in the mix for his second straight fielding honor, but Barney took several steps back offensively and is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter.

Barney hit .208/.266/.303 with 25 doubles, one triple and seven home runs in 141 games. Barney managed a career low .569 OPS.

Darwin Barney’s glove would help a contending team with a good offense. Will the front office move Darwin Barney this winter and open a spot for Javier Baez in the infield?

Pitching, Pitching and More Pitching

The Cubs are expected to add pitching to the mix this off-season, both starters and relievers. The bullpen showed improvement at the end of the season but there are more questions than answers as the off-season begins.

It appears the Cubs will not re-sign Kevin Gregg this winter and will spend the off-season with Pedro Strop penciled in as the closer. And while that might not seem like a big deal, the team is eventually going to have to learn how to win games and nothing is more demoralizing to a young team than to play well for seven or eight innings just to lose the game. The best way to build a pen is from the backend up. And while Gregg was effective, there are too many similarities between his season and the one Shawn Camp put together in 2012 to spend free agent dollars to keep him in the fold. The Cubs have a few young arms that could fill roles. Justin Grimm, Zac Rosscup, James Russell, Daniel Bard, Hector Rondon and Blake Parker, plus veteran Chang-Yong Lim figure to begin the spring slotted in the the pen. It will be interesting to see if the front office adds a veteran or two to the mix this winter.

As for the starting rotation, there was talk at the end of the season that the team and Scott Baker had mutual interest in him re-signing in the off-season. Baker had two good starts and one that was not-so-good (six runs on nine hits in 15 innings with six strikeouts and four walks, 3.60 ERA, 0.87 WHIP) and he would figure to be asking for a similar contract to the one he signed last off-season (one-year, $5.5 million). It would seem that Baker will receive more interest this off-season than last winter and the Cubs’ managerial hire could have an impact on if Baker would like to return.

Rumors have suggested the Cubs will go after free agent Bronson Arroyo, but the fly ball pitcher might be looking for a contending team to sign with as he figures to be inking his last multi-year contract this winter.

Jeff Samardzija

Will the Cubs sign Jeff Samardzija to a long term extension this winter? Or, will the front office spend the off-season shopping their Opening Day starter?

The Cubs have made it known they would like to sign Jeff Samardzija to a long term contract. Samardzija is under team control for two more seasons and figures to be paid more than $6 million in his second year of arbitration.

Samardzija is coming off his first full season in a Major League starting rotation and was inconsistent at best. Samardzija set career highs in innings pitched (213 2/3) and strikeouts (214) and gave up less hits (210) than innings pitched. Samardzija finished with a 4.34 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP with just under a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. And arms like Samardzija are not easy to come by.

Jeff Samardzija reportedly turned down an extension worth more than $30 million last winter and he could be looking for guarantees from the front office they are looking to win games now and not trade off every sellable piece by the end of July before he inks an extension.

If the Cubs can’t come to an agreement relatively quick with Samardzija, look for the front office to try to maximize his value this winter.

Travis Wood

Travis Wood is coming off an excellent season, one in which he posted career highs in innings pitched (200) and strikeouts (144) while allowing less hits (163) than innings pitched. Plus, Wood allowed career-lows in runs allowed (73) and earned runs (69).

Travis Wood has been mentioned as being a part of what the front office calls the core, could they be looking to sign him to a long term extension as well? Wood is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and figures to receive quite a jump in pay from the $527,000 he earned last season.

Masahiro Tanaka

Will the Cubs put in a bid for Masahiro Tanaka? In one of his last chats on ESPN Chicago, Bruce Levine reported that Masahiro Tanaka would be the Cubs’ number one priority this off-season. But the Yankees and Giants are among the teams believed to be interested in Tanaka and the Yankees could outbid other teams for the right to negotiate a deal with him while still staying under the self-imposed $189 million payroll for next season. The posting fee, which could exceed $60 million, would not count against the team’s payroll and the Yankees could keep below the $189 million by signing him to a similar contract to the one Texas inked Yu Darvish (six years, $56 million). New York is looking to keep their 2014 payroll under $189 million to reset the luxury-tax money.

Teams are reportedly high on Tanaka and many see him as a top of the rotation starter. Whether or not he will be successful in the majors appears to be a gamble that could cost a team more than $120 million to roll the dice. Will the Cubs be at the table to place a bet?

 

The storylines will change on a daily and weekly basis as soon as the final out of the Fall Classic is recorded and once the manager and coaching staff are in place. The Cubs have a big off-season ahead of them in order to make the third year of the Theo EpsteinJed Hoyer regime a success.

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