With the Chicago Cubs’ impressive 2015 run at a close, team President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein held a press conference to discuss the year and what comes next. You can see parts of that press conference here at MLB.com, and here at CSN. You can also read about his remarks here, here, here, here, and here, among many other places.
Let’s discuss a number of things Epstein said …
- On the season just concluded, Epstein nailed the dissonance a lot of us are feeling, saying that “It’s difficult to reconcile the disappointment of the NLCS with the dream of the season that we had up to that point. That’s baseball and that’s life.” How true. I can’t tell you how many times in the past few days I’ve uttered, out loud, “I just don’t understand,” to no one in particular. It’s not as if we deserved to have the Cubs win it all or anything like that, because we all got to enjoy an incredible season as it was. But it didn’t have to end with such a shocking, thorough, four-game thud. It just doesn’t make sense when paired with what came before it. The best I can come up with after a few days of overthinking the cosmic implications: sometimes the punch in the gut is the entire point.
- He expressed thanks to the fans, to the staff, to the players, and to everyone involved in a “magical” season. Everyone is eager to get to Opening Day 2016. I could probably use a week or so to decompress, but, yeah, the pangs for baseball will come quickly this offseason.
- The overall plan for the offseason when you’ve got a team like this, clearly in the midst of a competitive window, is to add where you can improve the team, and also anticipate all the possible ways the season could be derailed, and make plans to counteract them. I’d say you can look for the Cubs to hold onto some of their redundancies – i.e., areas where they have multiple quality players whom you might otherwise think are “blocking” each other – and add even more. Epstein mentioned the desire to hang onto their position players because of the depth it creates, and the advantages in mixing and matching the lineups. We saw firsthand how valuable it was in the second half for the Cubs. That said, it might not be realistic to hang onto everyone while also adding impact pitching – it’s possible the Cubs might have to deal from their position of strength (young positional talent) to add arms.
- Speaking of which, Epstein was very clear that the Cubs need to add quality pitching this offseason, which should be a surprise to exactly no one. At the same time, he was also quick to point out that the Cubs’ pitching performance this year, overall, was statistically among the very best in baseball. Certainly having Jake Arrieta moved that needle quite a bit, but his point is definitely well-taken, and I’ll go a step further: this front office, the organization’s pitching infrastructure, has been freaking incredible year after year at getting good pitching performances at the big league level from a variety of sources, and without huge, impact prospects stepping forward. And it wasn’t even until this year that the Cubs spent big on a pitcher in free agency (a starter, by the way, who gave them exactly what they paid for – something you don’t always get when you spend big in free agency).
- On that point, Epstein was characteristically non-committal on what the Cubs would do to add pitching – they’ll explore free agency and they’ll explore the trade market, and the sun will rise and set – saying only that the Cubs want to add “at least one quality starting pitcher.” It’s fair to assume, though, that the Cubs will be adding at least two quality starting pitchers this offseason, though not necessarily two impact starting pitchers. They’ll also add some depth – perhaps a lot of depth – given how quickly their extreme starting pitching depth heading into 2015 was blown up by a rash of injuries, and the (excellent) move of Travis Wood to the bullpen.
- Epstein also wouldn’t commit to what payroll would look like next year, noting only that it won’t be as high in 2016 as it will be in 2020, which comes after the Cubs’ next TV deal will have kicked in. Still, he sounded hopeful that the Cubs’ strong season and playoff push will help open up some additional dollars to spend. Given the closed-circuit nature of the Cubs’ business and baseball operations, there’s no reason to believe that the team’s success this year will not have a positive impact on the money available to baseball operations for 2016 and beyond. As usual, the Cubs aren’t going to spend just to spend, and the payroll number is an after-effect of building a quality roster, not a goal in and of itself. But it would surprise me a great deal if the 2016 payroll does not top the $130ish million they’ve spent this season. For more on the payroll future and impact of revenue increases, I wrote at length on the topic last month.
- The Cubs would love to keep Dexter Fowler around, according to Epstein, who praised his impact on and off the field. As you know, though, Fowler is a free agent who is likely to receive really significant contract offers, and matching them might not be the best use of the Cubs’ resources, given their positional depth (and the remote possibility that spending some more money could get them a guy who is, perhaps, an even better fit in Jason Heyward). Fowler will receive a qualifying offer, will decline it, and then we’ll see what happens in free agency.
- A fun prospecting bit, as Epstein mentioned a group of six 20-year-old starting pitchers that could emerge as impact types next year, and he named them by name: Dylan Cease, Carson Sands, Justin Steele, Bryan Hudson, Adbert Alzolay, and Oscar De La Cruz. Five of those names should jump out at you – the first three were the Cubs’ million-dollar high school arms from the 2014 draft, Hudson was the Cubs’ third rounder this year, and De La Cruz was the breakout Eugene Emeralds starter this year who got a lot of attention at the end of the year. Alzolay, on the other hand, has not been discussed nearly as much, despite a 2015 season that saw him post a 2.04 ERA with solid peripherals. He worked out of the bullpen for much of the year, which probably kept him off the radar a bit, but that appears have been mostly about limiting his innings, rather than developing him as a reliever.
- Pierce Johnson and Duane Underwood also came in for positive mentions, as you might expect.
- Kyle Schwarber will continue working behind the plate and in the outfield until there comes a time when going both routes no longer makes sense. With both Miguel Montero and David Ross under contract for 2016, my early opinion is that utilizing all three behind the plate will keep both Montero and Ross fresh, will allow Schwarber to continue to develop behind the plate in a controlled way, and will allow the Cubs to maximize match-ups. Will the Cubs be able to actually do that when the roster numbers are crunched? We’ll see.
- Huge praise, once again, for Starlin Castro’s turnaround this year, and how he handled his change in role. I’m not sure anyone could say for certain what Castro’s role will be with the Cubs in 2016, if any, but he definitely helped put the Cubs (and himself) in a much, much better position going forward.