Day Two of the 2016 Cubs Convention continued Saturday morning with the Baseball Management session hosted by Len Kasper.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Randy Bush and Shiraz Rehman spent an hour discussing last year, the upcoming season, the organization and answering questions from a standing room only crowd in the enormous meeting hall.
Before introducing the front office, Len Kasper remarked it might have been the biggest room he ever worked.
Theo Epstein said the core of this Cubs team has a chance to stick together for six or seven years, hopefully longer. Epstein emphasized getting to know the players on the roster because the fans will be seeing them year in and year out for the better part of a decade.
As for the Cubs being done making moves this off-season, Jed Hoyer said, “Every day we talk to different teams. We talk to agents. I think we are very happy with our roster right now. If we had to go to Mesa tomorrow we’d be okay with that. If something makes sense over the next month that makes us better obviously we’ll do it. But we are not looking for big changes. Like I said, we like this roster a lot.”
“We have tons of guys we can move all over the field. We have a lot of versatile pitchers. The thing that is important is to give your manager a team that fits with his style and I think we’ve certainly done that.”
The Cubs are looking forward to the day it can’t use the World Series drought as a sales pitch.
Here are the highlights of what was an extremely informative hour with the Cubs’ front office.
Theo Epstein led off the session by giving an overview of the off-season to date. Staying with the theme of the day, Epstein thanked the crowd for Opening Ceremonies and said the players were blown away. Epstein said the enthusiasm about the team has really picked up where it left off last season. The Cubs are very appreciative of all the fans support.
The off-season has gone really well. Epstein admitted a team never knows if it will be able to execute its plan or not. The Cubs set out to add to the starting rotation, enhance the outfield and add a centerfielder and add professional at bats that strikeout less and control the zone. The front office also wanted to supplement the Cubs’ young core.
Jason Heyward was obviously the biggest move the Cubs made this off-season. Epstein explained landing Heyward did not feel like signing a free agent. Because Heyward is a day younger than Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs felt like they were adding to a huge piece to their core of young players. Heyward fits right in.
The Cubs have a group of young position players they really, really believe in both on and off the field.
Ben Zobrist is a winner and has great professional at bats, according to Epstein. Zobrist is versatile and fits right in with the Cubs. Signing a pitcher of John Lackey’s caliber in the current market place to a two-year contract made a lot of sense for the front office.
Epstein thinks Adam Warren is going to sneak up on some people and be a really important part of the pitching staff.
Teams rarely accomplish everything they set out to do in a single off-season. Epstein is pretty happy with where the Cubs are. Epstein feels the pieces are there for the Cubs to have a good team that can work and grind its way into October.
Winning 97 games last season was an amazing accomplishment. The Cubs outscored their opponents by 81 runs last year. Jed Hoyer explained a normal run differential for a 97-win team would be considerably higher. The front office is trying not to focus too much on 97 wins because there is a chance the Cubs could have a better, more complete team, and not reach that win total. Hoyer pointed out that what was even more amazing about winning 97 games was that it was only good enough for third place in the division.
Hoyer thinks because of the dynamics in the NL this season, it will take a lot of wins just to get in the playoffs. The Cubs are aware of that and are focused on becoming a more dominant team. Hoyer went onto say that wherever the win total ends up that is the most important thing.
The Cubs have a really deep farm system, from position players to underrated pitchers, there is a lot of talent up and down the organization. Epstein was asked at what point would the front office consider trading from the minor league talent pool to acquire players for the big league team, namely starting pitchers.
The focus has been on the minor league system and building up the talent to create a core at the big league level. The Cubs just spent a couple of days going through the minor league system with the player development staff. Epstein said more talent is on its way to the majors. And there is surplus is certain areas.
As the Cubs move through Spring Training and into the regular season, the front office realizes players could get hurt and needs are going to arise. The Cubs would like to have the ability to adjust midstream. Epstein said they will probably dip into their minor league system at times and make trades to help improve the 2016 team.
The minor league system is not being abandoned by any means. There are players that have been targeted, even if it is one or two or three years down the line, in positions of need the front office feels will make an impact on the big league team.
When asked if he thought Willson Contreras could make an impact on the 2016 team, Epstein pointed out that Miguel Montero is quickly discounted because of his batting average. Montero is one of the top five pitch framers and if offense is adjusted because of position, Montero is a top 10 offensive catcher, too. Montero provides leadership and handles the pitching staff. Epstein called Montero “an important part of our club last year.” Epstein added that Montero and David Ross are very valuable to the team.
Willson Contreras is only 23 and will play at Triple-A this season, which is the appropriate age for the level.
The Cubs are extremely high on Willson Contreras, very excited about his development and future. Epstein said he’s an incredibly talented, athletic catcher who can really throw and really block ball. And the Cubs saw improvement in his receiving this past season. Epstein thinks Contreras can be a frontline catcher in the big leagues for a long time.
Kyle Schwarber struggled against lefties last season. The Cubs think he will eventually hit lefties. Schwarber needs experience. Anthony Rizzo was allowed to struggle against left-handed pitching and figured it out. Schwarber needs time to make adjustments.
The Cubs are aware of Jorge Soler’s issues in cold weather. Hoyer pointed out that he certainly doesn’t look all that comfortable. Soler’s weather issues are something the Cubs talk about a lot. Jorge Soler did not play in cold weather until a couple of years ago and in time, the front office hopes he gets used to it.
Weather and Wrigley Field has a big impact on the way the Cubs construct the roster. The same balls that sail out of the park in the warmer months are outs in the colder months. The Cubs have worked on adding players that can perform in the cold or in baseball weather. It can be difficult for young players to adjust to playing half their games at Wrigley.
On the timing and conversations it took by the front office to trade Starlin Castro for Adam Warren and at the same time sign Ben Zobrist. It was tough for the Cubs to part with Castro for Warren. Free agent signings that are conditional on a player being traded comes back to relationships and trust according to Epstein.
In the case with Ben Zobrist, the Cubs had a conditional understanding at the very beginning of the off-season that if they could pull off a trade, one of a couple of different trades Epstein said, there would be room on the roster to sign Zobrist. Epstein explained it took almost two full months to make everything happen. Epstein said Zobrist waited on the Cubs right down to the last hour.
The Cubs talked about the Starlin Castro for Adam Warren trade at the deadline. Brian Cashman did not want to make the deal and the Cubs had kind of moved on. The Yankees called on the first day of the Winter Meetings.
Jed Hoyer thinks the International signing rules will change and there is a looming possibility of an International draft. With the CBA coming up, it could be the right time to adjust the rules. The way the Cuban market has opened up has really changed the way Major League Baseball looks at the International market. Hoyer thinks the rules will eventually be changed.
As for the National League adopting the designated hitter, Epstein said they are not afraid of operating out of self-interest for the Cubs. Epstein pointed out with the Cubs having so many hitters coming they would not mind a DH.
It’s a decision, Epstein said, that is above their pay grade and a move the Cubs cannot count on happening. The Cubs have not received any indications at DH is coming to the National League anytime soon. The Cubs will continue to build their roster to fit within National League rules for years to come with an emphasis on defense and versatility.
The front office was asked about the possibility of bringing back Dexter Fowler. Jed Hoyer would not comment on that. He did say the Cubs liked what Fowler brought to the table last year, in the field, at the plate and in the clubhouse. Hoyer acknowledged that Fowler was a big part of what the Cubs did last season. And they really liked having him around.
The front office was asked about the Cardinals, from the war of words from their players, fan base and the hacking scandal. Len Kasper rephrased the question in order for it to be answered as politically correct as possible.
Hoyer said it is important for the team to have a plan and be aggressive with their plan and not get overly concerned about what their rival is doing or not doing.
The Cubs no longer have the No. 1 farm system in baseball. Epstein thinks it is still ranked rather high, in the five to seven range. Players were graduated to the majors and helped the big league team win, exactly what they are supposed to do. Those players now play third base, shortstop, right field and left field for the Cubs. The drop in the rankings is not because the players did not develop.
“We will not abandon young players,” Epstein said, “That’s what we’re all about.”
A question about Jake Arrieta’s contract situation started with a jab at the former regime and specifically Jim Hendry. Before Epstein answered the Arrieta question, he set the record straight about Hendry’s front office.
Epstein pointed out there have been a lot of good players come through the system like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras that Jim Hendry is responsible for. Hendry was working under a different set of circumstances. Hendry had to “polish up” the big league club year after year and was not given the opportunity to do what’s been done since he left, build the organization from the ground up. Epstein pointed out that Hendry is a good man and baseball guy. And Hendry has really helped the Yankees during his time there. Epstein does not think the Cubs are where they are today without Hendry’s contributions to the organization.
When it comes to drafting a player, Epstein said one thing that would surprise the fan base by listening to the conversations is how much a player’s makeup is discussed. Epstein explained there are a lot of conversations about the person rather than the player. Obviously tools are important, performance and baseball skills, and a lot time can’t be spent breaking down a player. The Cubs are really focused on selecting the right player for the organization.
“You can really mess a pick up if you get the right player but the wrong person,” Epstein said.
The front office is looking to keep the young core group together. The Cubs get calls from other teams about Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and the other “untouchables” on the roster. Epstein was asked if he would consider trading Kyle Schwarber. Theo simply responded, “No.”
The Cubs have a group of talented players that produce on the field as well as players the fans can relate to. That is the strength of the organization and it’s why the front office is so excited about the Cubs moving forward.
2016 Cubs Convention
- A Grand Opening to the 2016 Cubs Convention
- Day Two of 2016 Cubs Convention: The Ricketts Family Forum
On Deck: Joe Maddon and the Cubs Coaching Staff