Day one of Cubs On Deck 2015 took place Friday at The Oriental Theatre in Downtown Chicago. The second annual event is put on by the team for the season ticket holders.
With a theme of “Building to Win,” the Cubs believe the organization is on “The Greatest Journey in Sports,” a journey that began five years ago when the Ricketts family bought the team. Crane Kenney stated Friday the Cubs are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And the organization’s turnaround started when Theo Epstein was hired almost three years ago and he brought in Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod.
Crane Kenney was quick to point out the Cubs have not accomplished anything and all of the accolades the Cubs have received from the various media outlets don’t mean anything. “The only measure of success always will be whether we are playing baseball in October,” Kenney explained.
The Cubs feel the organization is getting closer to reaching the ultimate goal.
Theo Epstein just returned from spending time in Arizona at the Cubs facility in Mesa and ended his part of Friday’s meeting with a story about how the youngest players in the system view being in the Cubs organization.
Epstein reminded everyone about the ridiculous national narrative and perception of the Cubs. The “Lovable Losers,” poking fun at the Cubs by saying the team will never win the World Series because something will always go wrong. And “Cubs” is used in a mocking manner when it comes to winning.
“The absolute opposite dynamic is in play with our young prospects. They think ‘Cubs’ stands for excellence and it does for them,” Epstein said. “Think about it. If you are one of our younger prospects you are part of the best farm system in baseball. Maybe you came out of the Dominican Republic and you spent your first season at the best Dominican facility in all of baseball. Then you went to your first Spring Training and you had a state of the art Spring Training facility. You got World Class instruction, the Cubs Way, by great instructors in the minor leagues. Then you look around the clubhouse and see how talented your teammates are. Maybe you were part of that Kane County team that won 90-plus games and won the Midwest League Championship. Then you turn on the TV at night and know that is Jorge Soler, who I played with last year here in the Midwest League and he’s picking right up where he left off in the minor leagues and he’s excelling at the big league level. There’s Kyle Hendricks and I played with him the year before at High-A ball, look at him he’s winning all of these games at the big league level.”
“To these players ‘Cubs’ stands for excellence and winning and playing the game the right way,” Epstein said. “And that is the way it should be and that’s the way it’s going to be. They use ‘Cubs’ as an adjective. We had a game the other day in the Instructional League where a player hit a groundball and didn’t run hard to first base. And the other players, 18, 19-year old prospects yelled at him, ‘Hey, run hard, that’s not Cub’ and he started running hard. Then a guy made a great play to end the game and everyone said ‘That’s Cub right there. Great play’
“Winning baseball. Playing the game the right way means excellence, so these young players that we have don’t hear the national narrative, and that’s good,” Epstein said. “And I’m glad.”
The players in the system want to make it to the big leagues as quickly as possible to be part of the team that wins it all.
On Deck 2015
Crane Kenney spent the first half of the meeting with the season ticket holders discussing the business side of Cubs baseball and Theo Epstein talked about the product on the field and in the minor leagues in the second half. And both Kenney and Epstein answered a few questions from the audience before the meeting wrapped up.
Here are highlights from the afternoon meeting with the season ticket holders.
Commitments the Cubs made they feel are necessary to succeed: 1) To invest in talent on the baseball side and in the front office 2) Develop a core of young talent through draft, trades and free agency 3) Invest in World Class Facilities 4) Develop partnerships to help the Cubs compete 5) Surround the players with elite instruction both in terms of coaching and technology
Since 2012, the Ricketts family has invested in people and doubled the size of the Cubs full-time staff both on the baseball side and on the business side. Translates into more scouts, more player development staff and more front office personal needed to build a winning organization.
The Cubs have signed lucrative corporate partnership agreements with Anheuser-Busch, Benjamin Moore, Giordano’s Pizza, Weber, Under Armour and ATI which allows more resources to be put back into the organization.
The Cubs new radio deal with CBS Chicago is one of the three most lucrative broadcast deals in baseball. The Cubs contract with CBS also includes national marketing and concert components.
The Cubs have more projects underway near Cubs Park in Mesa including the construction of a 170-room Sheraton Hotel next to the ballpark that should be open by the start of the Spring Training games.
Crane Kenney showed photos of the Cubs new facilities in the Dominican Republic and in Mesa and showed photos of the old facilities as a comparison. The Cubs have improved all of the facilities throughout the organization except for the most important one of them all … Wrigley Field. The Cubs are on the precipice of having the best facilities, throughout the organization, in the game.
The Restoration and Expansion of Wrigley Field is the most important of all the facilities and the players should have the best facilities in the game at the big league level by the start of the 2016 season.
It will take four off-seasons to complete the Restoration and Expansion of Wrigley Field.
The entertainment plaza will be worked on throughout the 2015 season. The clubhouse at Wrigley is scheduled to be completed by Opening Day 2016. The Cubs are targeting for the entertainment plaza to be completed at some point during the 2016 season.
Theo Epstein started his part by saying he appreciated the warm welcome and is looking forward to the ovation he receives when the Cubs do not finish in last place.
The Cubs want to make sure all of the difficult years the fans have been through are means toward “a wonderful, glorious end.”
Epstein was happy to stand in front of the crowd and say the team is ready to compete. The Cubs are no longer in pure talent acquisition mode. Epstein feels the Cubs are at the point where there is enough talent to compete. The Cubs were the youngest team in the all of baseball. The Cubs battled all season long despite again trading away 40 percent of the starting rotation. Epstein pointed out the Cubs finished strong even with the injuries to Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro and were 31-28 since July 28.
Epstein reiterated the Cubs goal for 2015 is to win the National League Central Division … and he admitted that felt really good to say.
For Theo Epstein the team on the field begins with Anthony Rizzo. Epstein thought Rizzo was one of the best players in the National League last season and he grew into a leadership role. Rizzo embraced the leadership role and grabbed it.
Epstein emphatically said Rizzo is the Cubs leader and he is recognized as the leader in the clubhouse.
Rizzo deserves to be top five in MVP voting but should finish in the top 10 in NL MVP votes.
To Epstein, Starlin Castro goes hand in hand with Anthony Rizzo. Epstein called Castro one of the best shortstops in the game and he feels Castro is taken for granted. Epstein said people focus too much on what Castro can’t do instead of how good he actually is. Epstein pointed out NL shortstops hit for a .245 average with a .306 OBP and a .363 SLG. Castro hit .292 with a .339 OBP and .438 SLG … 108 points of OPS over the average NL shortstop. After Epstein read off the stats he said, “That’s how you win.”
Epstein called Rizzo and Castro “staples” and it is nice for the Cubs to have those two players to build a lineup around.
Epstein complemented Luis Valbuena, who was the eighth most productive third baseman in the game, and Chris Coghlan, who had a nice bounce back season, put up over an .800 OPS as well as his hard play setting a tone in the Cubs clubhouse, as two players in their late-20s that had good seasons.
Welington Castillo did not have a good year at the plate, but took steps forward with his defense and is becoming the type of catcher that pitchers really want to throw to. Castillo has learned how to execute a good game plan. Epstein credited Castillo for one of the reasons the pitching staff had such a good year.
After Jorge Soler’s second hamstring injury last season, the Cubs took a step back to try to figure out what was causing his leg injuries. The Cubs did a full-body work-up and diagnostics on Jorge Soler, corrected his posture and an issue he was having with his foot. Soler bought in to everything the Cubs recommended during his rehab. The Cubs are very excited about Soler and his future.
Javier Baez blasted his way through the minors. Epstein pointed out how talented, but raw Baez is. Baez had to take his lumps after the league found his weaknesses and the Cubs thought he would perform the way he did. Epstein said to not give up on Baez because what happened to him in two months is very common. Baez is aware of what he needs to do and the adjustments he needs to make. Baez has bought into the adjustments he has to make and is already working on them in Florida. Epstein pointed out how well he played defensively.
Arismendy Alcantara is working on his adjustments as well. Epstein called him an extreme athlete that is a switch hitter and can play second, short and centerfield. And he made one of the smoothest transitions to center that Epstein has ever seen. Alcantara put together a 20-20 (home runs, stolen bases) season if you add his Triple-A and Major League numbers with 69 extra basehits.
The Cubs are really excited about Kris Bryant’s future and he has “played himself into a position where if he continues to progress he’s going to have a major impact on our 2015 Major League club.” Kris Bryant has “positioned himself to spend a majority of the 2015 season up here.” Epstein is not sure when he will make his big league debut next season.
Behind Bryant is a whole other wave, Epstein pointed out that includes Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Billy McKinney. The Cubs feel really good about the position player group.
Epstein pointed out the Cubs strikeout too much. The front office needs to add OBP and players that make contact to the roster. The Cubs need “more predicable performances” if they are going to contend and that will come from adding the right veterans “who have been through it before.”
Long-term Epstein thinks the Cubs have the look of an “explosive offense” and in an era in baseball that is starved for offense, the Cubs have more bats and impact talent on the way than any other team.
Any pitching conversation about the Cubs has to start with Jake Arrieta. Epstein called him a legitimate top of the rotation type talent. The front office liked him for a long time and knew he had a lot of upside but did not think he would necessarily pitch the way he has.
Epstein thought Kyle Hendricks took a big step forward and said the improved scouting reports have given him the tools to succeed in the majors.
As for Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, those two did not step forward, they went backwards. It is important for Wood to regain the form he had in 2013. Epstein took full responsibility for Jackson and said, “I deserved to be criticized for that signing. It hasn’t worked out at all. You can’t just get up here and talk about the things that have worked without acknowledging the things that haven’t. No one is going to be perfect. We’ve hit on way more than we’ve missed on. Just look at the performance. You guys have witnessed it. It hasn’t been pretty. It was a mistake to this point and he’s going to have to have a dramatic turnaround to contribute, to be part of the club next year. He knows that.”
Tsuyoshi Wada pitched well and the Cubs have “interesting potential options” for the rotation in Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner. Plus pitchers with minor league options in Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch.
The Cubs have room in the rotation for a starting pitcher “or two” and that is a priority for the front office to find those guys.
Hoping the bullpen has a good April for the first time. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm nailed down the backend of the pen. And Armando Rivero and Arodys Vizcaino, two more hard throwers, are behind the front four with more power arms in the system behind them.
Epstein reiterated the Cubs are going to compete at the big league level while developing young players. Player development is not linear and the Cubs will be patient with their players.
During the exit interviews for the season with the players, every single player talked about how excited that they are for next season because they feel the Cubs can win next year. The players were telling them, enthusiastically, what they needed to work on during the off-season in order to be prepared for Spring Training.