Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

epstein conference cubsThe Chicago Cubs haven’t brought in many big-time, veteran free agents in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era. While we can debate the reasons for the approach, and a great deal of this was discussed a couple days ago when I wrote about the necessary flexibility of “The Plan,” I think most would agree that it boils down to a combination of rebuilding, financial restrictions, CBA changes, market shifts, and optimizing the timing of big spending.

Setting aside that debate for today, I’d like to focus on a very narrow piece of the spend-money-to-bring-in-talented-vets conversation: having veteran players on the team to assist with the transition and development of top prospects.

Framing that discussion, Epstein offered some thoughts in a recent article by Gordon Wittenmyer that touch squarely on that issues, and that are important to fold into our understanding of “The Plan.” I know not everyone is on board with Wittenmyer’s financial pieces right now, but this one is worth a read, if for no other reason than the bounty of quotes from Epstein.

In the piece, in addition to saying flatly that he would “never even think about leaving until we win the World Series” (school girl butterflies activate), Epstein addresses a roster concern that many of us have had: if there are financial constraints that limit the team’s ability to add quality veteran players right now, how do you protect against the crushing weight of expectation that the prospects are going to feel when they come up to a team with no other players on which to focus? Further, isn’t it a pipe dream to try and win at the big league level by relying solely on home-grown players?

Epstein dismissed the latter question with a variation of “duh,” confirming that you can’t reasonably expect to be competitive through in-house development, alone. I’ve never been concerned that Epstein actually felt that way, but I know there are some of you who believe otherwise. So, at least now you’ve got him on the record.

As for the importance of having quality veterans in place to help support the big league emergence/development of the top prospects, Epstein says it is definitely something the front office thinks about.

“We need to make sure that when the next wave of prospects comes up, they don’t take too much of a burden,” Epstein told Wittenmyer. “We hope to have strong players around them, hopefully an impact player or two around them on the club so that they can break in the right way. You don’t want your prospects breaking in carrying too much responsibility. You don’t want them hitting in the middle of the order. You don’t want them having to carry a club or playing an instrumental role on the club.”

Once again, I didn’t think otherwise, but it’s comforting to hear Epstein saying these things. He knows you can’t just expect to call up a bunch of prospects – even elite ones – and pin everything on them. Young players – even elite ones – struggle. And when they struggle on a team for which they’re supposed to be the be-all, end-all, it can harm development (and obviously can cost the team production and positive results in the W/L column). The Cubs need to remain patient with their youngsters, both for the purposes of affording them maximum development in the minors, but also so that the big league team can be in the best possible position to receive them. That said, this scenario may require adding an impact player or two in free agency (or trade) as soon as next offseason.

You’ll note an “out” that is built into Epstein’s response: the important thing is having strong, impact players around the prospects already on the team, regardless of where those players come from. In other words, if Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo, and Starlin Castro break out this year (and maybe if Jeff Samardzija sticks around and Travis Wood is still outperforming expectations), then maybe you’ve got the necessary support system right there. Spending big money in free agency isn’t necessarily a requirement here – and might not help at this point with respect to Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, anyway, if they are called up at some point this year.

But, let’s assume that the Cubs’ big league core does not explode into a sufficient number of superstars that there’s plenty of cover for the youngsters to trickle into the fold starting in 2015. And let’s assume that Baez and Bryant, whether they get a taste of the bigs this year or not, aren’t expect to be important starting pieces until 2015. Then we’ve got yet another reason for the Cubs to be a little more aggressive next offseason than they’ve been in the last few years (as understandable as that passivity may have been).

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