Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Rick Renteria met with the media Thursday at Cubs Park for the first time this spring. The President of Baseball Operations, General Manager and Skipper covered a variety of topics, announced two signings and provided updates on several of the players.
The Cubs’ front office spent the two days leading up to the first day of camp in organizational meetings. There is a tremendous amount of talent in the system and Epstein said there is a belief within the organization the Cubs are “on the verge of something special.” Epstein explained, “There’s a real dichotomy between how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it internally.” Epstein added the Cubs have to forge ahead and pointed out it takes time to turn an organization around “but it is happening.” Epstein said, “Being patient isn’t hard but it’s not fun.”
Theo Epstein feels the arms in the Cubs’ system are underrated but admitted the organization needs twice as many pitchers as they have right now. Epstein said, “We will continue to draft more arms going forward. Maybe not with the first pick, but we’ll see how it shakes out after that and we’ll continue to hit that area of the draft.”
The Baseball Department spent every single dollar available to them the first two off-seasons Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were calling the shots. Baseball Ops did not use the payroll it had at its disposal this winter.
“In the two previous off-seasons, we’ve spent every dollar available to us and this is the first winter where we ended up keeping some in reserve to be used on players that are hopefully prime age, impact-type players down the road. It gives up a bit of a leg-up as we look toward next winter or an in-season move that might make the present and future better. Rather than just spend the money to spend it, if we can book that and have it available to us to sign that international free agent who comes along in the summer or to acquire a player in trade who carries a significant salary but fits for the long term, or to just start out next off-season knowing we can be a little more aggressive on the guys we really want early because the money will be available to us, that made more sense than spending the money now just to spend it.”
Several pitchers worked out and threw off a mound under the watchful eye of Chris Bosio. Photos of Jason Hammel throwing his first pen surfaced before the team made his signing official and James McDonald also worked out at Cubs Park prior to his deal being announced. Edwin Jackson and Chris Rusin threw bullpens on Thursday as well.
Thursday’s press conference began with Jed Hoyer announcing the deals with Jason Hammel and James McDonald. The Cubs signed both right handers to Major League contracts. The deal with Hammel was expected but after a report surfaced the Cubs added McDonald on a minor league contract at the end of January, the Major League contract caught many off guard.
Jed Hoyer explained the Cubs added pitching depth to the organization in the wake of Jake Arrieta dealing with tightness in his shoulder this winter. Arrieta is not expected to begin the season on time.
Rick Renteria will address the pitchers, catchers and position players that have reported early prior to Friday’s on the field work out.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Rick Renteria fielded questions about several of the players that will be in big league camp. Here is a player-by-player breakdown of the updates the trio provided.
The Cubs “slowed down” Jake Arrieta after he experienced tightness in his shoulder this winter. Arrieta “will be late throwing bullpens in camp” and the Cubs will be cautious with him throughout the spring. The upcoming season was seen as a big one for Arrieta. And with that said, the Cubs have no plans to rush him back. They will make sure Arrieta is ready and healthy enough to pitch.
Rick Renteria said he is not expecting Arrieta to begin the season in the Cubs rotation. Arrieta has started throwing again and is feeling good. The Cubs would not put a timetable on when he would throw off a mound this spring.
Justin Grimm said during last month’s convention that the team asked him to report to camp prepared to start. But those plans apparently changed. Grimm has been moved to the bullpen, a role many feel best suits Grimm moving forward.
Grimm was the first name Renteria mentioned was he was discussing the depth the Cubs now have in the bullpen. Grimm recently said he feels he is in the Cubs’ plans for the upcoming season if he is able to do what he is capable of on the mound. Grimm looked very good last September in a relief role (0-2 in 10 games with a 2.00 ERA, 0.79 WHIP). But that was September and this is Spring Training. Grimm has the stuff to be a very good option in the backend of the Cubs’ pen.
Arodys Vizcaino is healthy and ready to pitch this spring. In response to a question about Vizcaino, Hoyer responded, “I think his stuff certainly is as good as anyone in this camp when he’s healthy, and he’s healthy right now.”
The Cubs hope Vizcaino’s permanent move to the bullpen is able to help him stay healthy. And whether or not he starts the season on the big league roster will depend on how he performs in the Cactus League games.
Carlos Villanueva will be used as a starter this spring. The Cubs are viewing him as depth in the wake of the injury to Jake Arrieta.
If there is a spot open in the Cubs’ rotation at the beginning of the year, the front office should try to use Villanueva to fill it. He is signed to an affordable contract for the season ($5 million) and being in the rotation would help add value as contending teams attempt to find ways to fill in voids left by injuries.
Rick Renteria likes what he has seen from the options he has to fill out his bullpen. Renteria thinks there is more depth than a year ago (Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, James Russell, Wesley Wright, Blake Parker) and the components are there for them to have success out of the pen. Renteria needs every reliever to contribute.
Epstein added, “We just went over all the pen arms that we have in camp here, and there’s no comparison between the quality of power arms that are in camp now and candidates to make the pen and the depth that we’ll have at Iowa behind them and where we were two years ago.”
Rick Renteria reiterated what he said during the convention that Jose Veras will begin the season as the Cubs’ closer. The other roles in the pen will be sorted out and defined during camp and when the season begins.
Kyuji Fujikawa had Tommy John surgery on June 11 and is feeling “really good” according to Jed Hoyer. Fujikawa is throwing on flat ground and is progressing nicely. Hoyer cautioned that setbacks can occur with pitchers that have Tommy John surgery but he should start throwing off a mound soon. A June timetable as a possible return for Fujikawa was mentioned on Thursday but not directly from Epstein, Hoyer or Renteria.
The Cubs signed lefty Tsuyoshi Wada to a minor league contract this winter to provide depth in the rotation. Wada is healthy and the Cubs are excited he is in the organization. Due to injuries, Wada has not been able to show what he can do in the majors. Hoyer said Wada could be used in a relief role if necessary.
When asked about Starlin Castro, Jed Hoyer emphatically said, “Castro is our shortstop.” The front office has said all off-season that Castro is their shortstop and Hoyer reiterated that again Thursday, but with a little more conviction.
The Cubs have no doubt that Javier Baez can play shortstop at the big league level. Baez will begin the season as the I-Cubs’ shortstop. Hoyer said Thursday that Baez “may be exposed to second base and third base in the spring.” Baez is open to moving around the diamond and he will play wherever the Cubs want him to play. Hoyer added a team cannot have enough shortstops and centerfielders in the organization.
The Cubs do not plan on moving Kris Bryant off of third base, at least for now. Bryant will stay at third base and is penciled in at the hot corner for the Smokies (Double-A) on Opening Day.
Jed Hoyer said Arismendy Alcantara, who has played shortstop and third base in the minors, will only play second base this year. Alcantara is expected to start the season with the Iowa Cubs.
Luis Valbuena, Donnie Murphy and Mike Olt
Third base is becoming a position of strength in the Cubs’ system. Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy will likely begin the season as the Cubs’ third basemen. But after Valbuena and Murphy, the Cubs have Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, Kris Bryant and Jeimer Candelario in the organization. Olt “looked great” during the Cubs’ rookie program last month. Hoyer said Olt is excited he has an opportunity to put last year behind him. The Cubs are hoping Olt has a good spring and they appear to be in a wait and see mode with Olt as to where he could start the season.
Darwin Barney has reported to camp and admitted he did not try to add weight this off-season. Barney told Bruce Levine, “I was bulked up like Rizzo last year. I wanted to get back to my previous weight and get more flexible again.”
The Cubs plan on giving Junior Lake every opportunity to win a starting job in the outfield. Hoyer said Thursday that Lake needs to have a good Spring Training and carry it into the regular season. Lake could see playing time in more than just left field during the exhibition season.
The Cubs have not announced it yet, but RHP Chang-Yong Lim is on the Cubs’ Spring Training roster. Lim was non-tendered in December but remained Cubs’ property due to the fact he signed a two-year, minor league contract with the team in December of 2012.
The convenient pocket roster the Cubs’ media relations department handed out Thursday included Lim and he is with the team on a non-roster invite.
And for those holding out hope there would be a bunting tournament this spring, Carrie Muskat asked the question and was told “not likely.”