This evening, ending about ten minutes ago, the Cubs’ front office held their annual conference call with season ticket holders to share some thoughts and address some questions. I had the opportunity to sit in on the call – thanks, BB – and jotted down the best version of a transcript that I could. Len Kasper moderated, with President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer fielding questions.
This isn’t a “transcript” transcript, mind you. There’s a whole lot of paraphrasing below, but it’ll give you a very thorough version of the gist. Because it is crazy long, I’ve bolded the most interesting parts for you tl;dr’ers.
Away we go …
Theo: Appreciate all the great support the season ticket holders gave. Difficult year at the big league level, but there were some nice wins at home for you guys. First year was terrific, got to know a lot about the personnel and the system, and feel like, while it was a tough year at the big league level, we made some progress behind the scenes. We’ve made changes that will pay off down the road. I really do like the direction we’re headed, one year in.
Jed: Once you get into offseason, it feels like a sprint until middle-end of January, when players stop signing. Right now we’re talking to a lot of agents and a lot of teams about trades. That’s the most exciting part of the job, and it’ll go on for the next couple months. It’s not tough to sell the Cubs in the Winter, because players want to come play in front of a packed house of loyal fans.
Question: On the Dominican Republic and the new Academy, how do you incorporate the DR into the foundation?
Jed: Important that all of our facilities are top notch. Obviously Latin America is a great avenue to get talent, and having a top notch facility to sell to players is huge. We’re excited for facility to come online, and will be a great sales pitch. Add in the great new facility coming in Mesa, and hopefully renovations at Wrigley, and we could be set.
Question: Frustrating to watch division rivals win with homegrown players, but with CBA changes (two more Wild Cards), feels like a good time to dive in and buy up good players. Hard to see Cubs competing short of several years from now unless you buy up free agents.
Theo: Don’t want to put a time line on things, and, again, the focus is scouting and player development to get a team competing consistently. Always going to be temptation to sacrifice a little of the future – best prospects or future dollars that you want to allocate somewhere else. There’s a time when you’re one player away, but we’re not there yet. We’re building something that will provide great results year-in, year-out. We want it to be with a nucleus of players who all enter their prime at the same time, and we’ll supplement with free agents. We’ll sign free agents along the way, of course.
Question: Was excited about the emphasis on fundamentals in Spring, but disappointed in fundamentals we saw during the season. Thoughts?
Jed: We really worked hard at it in Spring. The last few years have been weak fundamentally. It was good earlier in the year, and the losses were more about talent than fundamentals, but later in the year, the weak fundamentals came back. Some of that is maturity, some of it is getting better players. The coaches and player development personnel really emphasize that stuff.
Theo: We caught the ball extremely well in the outfield. We had great defensive positioning. But the base running really needs improvement. Emphasizing it isn’t enough. It has to be a part of the culture, and needs the right kind of players.
Len: That’s why developing through your system is so important, right? The guys know the program.
Theo: Absolutely. When you have a player who is new to the organization and he makes the third out at third base, you can ask him what’s up. But it’s hard to change it. But if you have them at rookie ball, that stuff can be corrected so that it doesn’t happen in the bigs. Darwin Barney is an example of great fundamentals coming up through the system.
Question: Ideal mix between stars and role players on offensive side?
Jed: No team is going to be made up of eight number three hitters. You want to have at least a couple guys in the middle of the order who make the pitcher think like Fielder and Cabrera or Ramirez and Ortiz. It changes the way the pitcher operates through the rest of the lineup. The most important thing is grinding at bats, and the Cubs struggled with it last year. We need even the guys at the bottom of the order to be tough outs. You win games by getting to the soft underbelly of the other team’s bullpen. But the Cubs haven’t done that, so the starters stay in the game longer, and then you just see starters and elite setup men and closers.
Theo: There are two ways to improve your team in a hurry: (1) Sign a bunch of talent, or (2) Have a wave of young talent coming at the same time. The latter group, young players, tend to make teams get better in a hurry because they’re all developing and improving together. We supplement that with impact signings, and suddenly the team is better in an hurry.
Len: Sounds like Jed is talking about more David DeJesus types.
Jed: Absolutely. The opposing pitcher has to work hard in every at bat.
Question: On amateur spending, can a player sign with an independent league for a year, and then sign?
Theo: Well, then he’d be subject to the Draft, because he would have established residency. MLB disallows circumventions like that anyway.
Question: The infield looks good, aside from third base, and there doesn’t look like a serviceable option at third in the system in the next couple years. Is there a third baseman out there you might go after?
Jed: Third base is actually a position we feel pretty good about in the system. Josh Vitters is still talented, Junior Lake has a lot of talent, Christian Villanueva is a fantastic defender and a breakout candidate, and Javier Baez, who can stick at short for a while, but who can move to third if necessary. Also Jeimer Candelario, who has the stick, and can probably be a good defensive third baseman too. We’re still looking at Ian Stewart, and evaluating what led to his poor performance the last couple years. We’ll find out how his wrist surgery addressed those issues. We’re spending a ton of time talking about the best way to fill third base, because it’s not an easy fill on the market right now. Long-term, though, we feel good.
Question: Who is playing in the Rising Stars Game in the AFL on Saturday?
Theo: Javier Baez, but he’s injured. Also Tony Zych, who is throwing the ball extremely well. Mid-90s fastball, good slider and splitter. Hope he’ll be a part of the bullpen for years to come.
Question: It’s a little easier to get into the playoffs – can you add pieces at midseason if you’re around .500?
Theo: Any opportunity to make the playoffs, you have to take it seriously. If we’re fortunate enough to be in contention, we’ll definitely look to add. It’s our duty to save a little money to have some to add at mid-season, but you also get some more to spend by way of increased revenues, when the team is better. If we have a shot at the Wild Card, we aren’t going to be picky about how we get in. We’ll go for it.
Question: Pitching depth in the system? Any prospects that could help the big team in the next couple years?
Jed: The question that occupies most of our time. We inherited subpar pitching depth. We have to improve it. Playoff teams are often built with homegrown pitchers, and we need to draft and develop those kind of arms. We can supplement through free agency, but the best teams draft and develop. We took Almora first last year, and then eight straight pitchers. We’ll always look to acquire pitching until we get to that critical mass where we feel good – which might never happen.
Theo: [Asked follow-up about Vizcaino] We’re going to do our best to develop Arodys Vizcaino as a starter. Mid-90s fastball, really good breaking ball, and a solid changeup. Because he’s got that changeup, we’d like to try and make him a starter. Our starting pitching prospects, generally, are three, four years away, so we can’t pass up an opportunity on Vizcaino.
Len: How about the young arms in the bullpen? Pleased?
Theo: Overall I wasn’t happy with the bullpen. There were some bright spots – James Russell continued his progress facing a wider variety of better hitters. Marmol turned his season around, threw his fastball more, and the velocity came back. The last three or four months, he was a good relief pitcher. Alberto Cabrera showed big league stuff, and we think there might be a starting pitcher in there thanks to a changeup and his ability to repeat his delivery.
Question: All things equal, if you did not have a team with a number of day games, would you rather have more night games? Is the day game thing, honestly, somewhat of an obstacle? Also, what about the climate?
Jed: You better be well to play well in cold weather, because that’s going to happen in the playoffs regardless. So that can’t really be a focus. Just need mentally tough guys. As far as day games go, I don’t view it as an obstacle. We have such a good thing with Wrigley Field, and that comes with playing a lot of day games. Would I rather have an amazing ballpark with more day games or a crappy ballpark with more night games? I’d choose the former. We need to get players thinking about it as a competitive advantage. We were above .500 at home for much of the year. [Grumble from Brett: But that ignores the possibility that it’s the constant changing of times that causes the problems of wearing down, not the day games by themselves – try adjusting your body clock constantly for six months. It has an impact. But I understand why Jed can’t really say that. I digress.]
Question: With the payroll reduction we’ve seen, what are the plans for filling center field, third base, and starting pitching in the free agent market, since there’s money that’s been saved.
Theo: We will make plenty of moves. The payroll, we’ll have to look at where it is at the end of the year. In previous years, it was sort of artificially high thanks to deferrals like Carlos Pena ($5 million in 2012, even though he was playing for the Rays). We don’t want to continue that practice. There won’t be a shortage of investments in the team.
Question: Dale Sveum’s season?
Jed: We made clear to Dale that he would be evaluated on things like team preparedness, how he handles the clubhouse, how he handles fans and media. The 101 losses don’t reflect on Dale at all. It was a good clubhouse, with good discipline and good spirits. Dale did a good job. And Dale doesn’t want the quick fix, either. He is eager to give young players a chance and to teach them. It takes a lot of discipline and energy to manage and develop a young team. Dale has that.
Question: Do you feel like the “Cubs Way” has been fully established?
Theo: It remains a goal, and it’s something we want to be carried out by the big league team and the minor league teams. It doesn’t happen overnight. We made a lot of changes in the team culture and in player development, but we haven’t made all of our changes yet. We’ve defined what we want the organization to stand for, and that exists on paper. But it takes a while to really take hold. Dale and his staff set a high standard for preparation and hustle. Just look at the change in Alfonso Soriano. He had a bad reputation for not running things out, not getting to the ball. Dave McKay did a fantastic job with Soriano, and we saw a totally different defensive player.
Len: The defensive positioning was a big change, and it looked good. Agree?
Jed: Sure. Got the most out of our defensive ability that way. Which says a lot about Dale and his staff, looking at spray chart after spray chart. The players bought in, and the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.
Question: What do you look for in the Rule 5 Draft?
Theo: Depends on where your team is, in terms of competitiveness. If you’re early in the process, you’re looking for upside. You don’t take that risk lightly, because it puts a burden on the team, as we saw with Lendy Castillo, and we hope that’s worth it.
Question: Matt Garza has been in trade rumors ever since coming to the team, do you see him in the long-term plans?
Jed: The focus right now is getting him healthy, so it’s hard to answer until we get him healthy. The medical staff is optimistic, so we’re looking to get him to Spring Training, and have him be a part of the 2013 team. Focusing on more than that is misguided.
Question: What are you hoping to see in the renovations at Wrigley in the next few years?
Theo: We’d like to make the experience for fans even better, while still preserving the history, like we did with Fenway. Also would love to create room for modern amenities for players to prepare. And, from a revenue standpoint, if we do it right, there could be more dollars coming in for the team to use.
Question: What is the analytics program like?
Jed: Intention is to build up a quality database and a quality system, better than what we had in Boston (that was referenced in the question). Unfortunately it doesn’t happen overnight, because building out the database takes time.
Question: Does “clutchness” exist?
Theo: The general rule is that good hitters, with a big enough sample size, will perform well in the clutch because they’re good. There is a psychological element to it. Some players have the ability to calm themselves better, and will be better able to perform to their normal level in those pressure situations. Younger players, sometimes play worse because they can’t yet calm themselves. Thing is, you’re likely to face a pitcher who has been hand-picked to take on your weaknesses in those situations, so hitters who don’t have obvious holes tend to do better.
Question: Runners in scoring position problems and situational hitting issues. Can they be fixed?
Jed: Sure. The first focus is to not make outs. Situational outs are a part of the game, and we can improve there. Runner at third, less than two outs, those should be free runs. We need to be doing better there.
And Len wraps it up.