Bowden buzz: Non-World Series teams 

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
10:30
AM CT
Bowden By Jim Bowden
ESPN Insider
Archive
Theo Epstein, Anthony RizzoDavid Banks/Getty ImagesThings are looking up for Theo Epstein and the Cubs, whp boast MLB's top farm system.
While the 2014 World Series featuring the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals is off to an auspicious start and looking like it's going to become a classic, the other 28 teams are busy preparing for the offseason by laying the groundwork for future trades, free-agent signings and, in some cases, stadium renovations.

Here is a quick look at buzz from around the league not involving the two World Series clubs:

• The Milwaukee Brewers have made it known that improving first base is an offseason priority. While their No. 1 target appears to be impending free agent Adam LaRoche of the Washington Nationals, they're also looking at all options who could be available, including Adam Lind of the Toronto Blue Jays, Ike Davis of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles and even Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, who proved in August he can be at least an average defender at first base. If the Nationals move Ryan Zimmerman to first base as expected and let LaRoche go, the Brewers could be the front-runners for his services.

• The Chicago Cubs are thrilled with the rapid development of two of their top picks in this year's draft, as Kyle Schwarber (first round) and Mark Zagunis (third round) were putting on a show offensively at the Instructional League.

Echoes of the '85 K.C. Royals

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
5:48
AM CT

Ned YostED ZURGA/GETTY IMAGESThe 2014 Royals respect manager Ned Yost as much as the 1985 Royals respected Dick Howser.

I was lookin up when it was a cool night in October

Darryl Motley caught

a lazy fly off Andy Van Slyke's bat

Kansas City delirious as champs

we poured champagne on sweat-soaked heads

it burned our eyes

we didn't care

we screamed we sang we laughed

drunk with victory


--"A Career," from On Days Like This, poems by Dan Quisenberry

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Long time, 29 years. The airport, a hub for TWA, is still there, but TWA isn't. The Huffington Post, which wasn't around in 1985, just declared Kansas City "the coolest city in America," which might have seemed laughable back then. The ballpark is the same but different -- the beautiful grass hill in center field fell to the scourge of revenue-producing seats.

The home clubhouse has been rearranged, with the pitchers now on the side of the room closest to the field. Dan Quisenberry, the Royals' submarining closer, has passed away, a victim of brain cancer at age 45 in 1998. So has the skipper, Dick Howser, who died of the same thing less than two years after he won the World Series. Ewing Kauffman, the owner who brought the Royals to Kansas City, is also gone.


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Cubs aim for right mix with coaching staff

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
9:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- After hiring his fourth hitting coach since he took charge of the Chicago Cubs, team president Theo Epstein joked last week that the job was like the “Spinal Tap drumming situation,” but said he was hopeful to finally find consistency with former Houston Astros coach John Mallee.

Mallee comes to Chicago with a very good reputation around the league, and while the turnover with the Cubs hasn’t been a good thing, the coaching staff makes a little more sense now than it did a couple of weeks ago.

Former first-base coach Eric Hinske will serve as Mallee’s assistant, while former Cub Doug Dascenzo takes over as baserunning and outfield coach.

[+] EnlargeMalee
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsChicago native John Mallee takes over as Cubs hitting coach after Bill Mueller's resignation.
“As long as you end up with some consistency entering the next phase, the competitive phase, guys benefit from a few different perspectives and find their way,” Epstein said. “I like where it ended up.”

It makes sense for a true outfielder to teach outfield, and the fact that Dascenzo played at Wrigley Field can’t hurt matters. There will be some nuances he can pass along to the young crop of players coming up. Hinske was learning that job on the fly -- and his best attribute as a player was his offense, anyway.

“He’s in a more appropriate role and he’s thrilled about it,” Epstein said of Hinske.

Having just retired after 2013, Hinske connected with the players more easily than former assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. Hitting coaches need to make that connection, and with Mallee being the newcomer, having a familiar face for the players can’t be a bad thing. But it will be Mallee’s job to help take Chicago's offense to another level. He did some good things both in Miami and Houston, but neither of those offenses was complete. Now he’ll be asked to finish the job with the Cubs.

“John has a great reputation,” Epstein said. “He’s done the job and done it well.”

Bill Mueller, who resigned last week as hitting coach, was a positive force for the players, and Mallee will need to have the same effect as the team tries to be better at getting on base. It’s a tall task, but at least Mallee is coming on board at the same time the Cubs are promoting their top prospects. He’ll have fresh eyes on all of them -- and if all goes well, he’ll be around them for a long time.

“It’s a little different mindset than it has been the last three years,” Epstein said of the urgency to compete.

As for Dascenzo, the Cubs want to get more out of their running game, and he's expected to address those areas better than Hinske could have.

“He’s very knowledgeable when it comes to teaching outfield defense and baserunning,” Epstein said.

Hitting coaches tend to be a dime a dozen, so the consistency the Cubs have lacked can be as important as who they have in the position. Remember, Mueller quit. The Cubs weren’t looking to replace him, but maybe it was the best thing to happen to the staff. That’s how the Cubs are spinning it.

“I was little worried about how things would fit together," Epstein said. "But I couldn’t be happier how it worked out."
Theofanis Gekas, Tom Ricketts, Jed HoyerJerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsBig TV money on the horizon "puts you in an aggressive posture," Theo Epstein, right, said.

CHICAGO — On Friday afternoon at the Ford Oriental Theatre, the curtain lifted on a timeless play, "The Baseball Man."

Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations/savior Theo Epstein took the stage to speak to Cubs season-ticket holders about the bright future that awaited the team. Yup, right here in (Chicago) River City.

But it wasn’t exactly a ringing rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” More like “One or Two Really Good Pitchers.”

Epstein doesn’t have much Harold Hill in him, and he’s adamant about being adamant about not selling Cubs fans a bill of goods.

He stressed patience -- for which he profusely thanked fans -- even as he projected hope and change in his jeans and sport coat in the Loop theater, one of two shows Friday and two Saturday for season-ticket holders, many of whom had already paid their expensive deposits. And some of whom saw ticket prices go up after a last-place finish that was far better than the two years that preceded it.

“Thanks for the warm welcome,” Epstein said as the applause wound down. “I can’t imagine the welcome when we actually don’t finish in last place.”

Epstein, an honest, funny guy who occasionally protests too much, insisted that he “detests” salesmen in a room full of people who want desperately to be sold on a Cubs team that for the past three years could brag only about minor league system rankings. (Plenty of that at this affair. You’d think Baseball America was a “legacy partner.”)

Like it or not, Epstein is a salesman. In fact, the fate of the franchise basically rests on his shoulders. It’s his vision fans are buying into, his decision-making they trust.

In "The Music Man," Hill said he’d make the kids of River City, Iowa, into a marching band. In "The Baseball Man," Epstein said he’d make the Cubs into a World Series winner.

Same difference, right?

Skeptical or not, it’s tough to listen to Epstein and not feel convinced the tide is turning after three mostly dreary seasons of rebuilding an organization via “full-on talent acquisition mode.” His intelligence gets oversold a bit, but he is very convincing, because you can tell he believes in his vision for the Cubs. Epstein and his staff had a plan (some of which was altered) and they’ve had to talk about the plan ad nauseam. It’s resulted in some impressive drafts and downright fleecing trades.

“I’m really excited I don’t have to talk about that plan anymore,” Epstein said.

But he's not shy about saying that the Cubs are ready to compete. As in 2015. Kind of.

The Cubs were certainly better after the metaphorical smoke cleared from the July 4 trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Jorge Soler showed why he could be the best Cubs prospect of them all. Javier Baez showed flashes of 40-home run power, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks looked like rotation mainstays (or better, in Arrieta’s case). Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro had All-Star bounce-back seasons. Kris Bryant will be up soon, and the Cubs have money to spend on free agents this winter. Epstein described this year's top draft pick, Kyle Schwarber, as a "classic 3-hole hitter."

[+] EnlargeJavier Baez, Jorge Soler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastFun times look to be ahead for Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, but is an NL Central crown in the cards in 2015?
Just as he said after the season ended, Epstein reiterated that the team’s goal was to win the National League Central in 2015 after another last-place finish. He added an important caveat: The Cubs won’t win it by trading prospects and spending big bucks.

So is it Harold Hill-ing fans on the playoffs when internal projections are more like .500?

“This is the first time we’ve had enough talent to compete,” he said. “I believe when you are competing, you have to set your sights high. There’s no point coming out saying, well, maybe, we could try to finish .500. What good does that do?”

Basically, the Cubs are moving, statuswise, from small-market team to talented midmarket team. It’s a step-by-step process.

“I don’t like to tell fans how to feel,” Epstein said. “We’re just being honest about the fact that I think if you watched the team play, and you follow the organization, I think it’s clear we have enough talent to compete. Do we have enough talent to win? That’s the beauty of baseball: You don’t know, you don’t find out, until you try.”

I’m guessing “This Year We Try” won’t be the team’s motto.

While the official groundbreaking of the long-awaited $375 million Wrigley Field renovations is Saturday morning, the money from a “new” Wrigley won’t be flowing into the baseball-operations coffers just yet. There will be more in the pot once the new outfield signs and video board go up, but not enough to affect the 2015 budget.

“We haven’t reached that next level yet where the payroll is going to significantly increase,” Epstein said. “The TV deal is really the magic bullet there, the paradigm-shifter that’s going to put us in a whole new level.”

Yes, the money from a new TV deal. You've heard this before.

The WGN portion of the Cubs deal is up, but six months before the next season begins, the Cubs don’t have a partner for those 70-or-so games. Someone will air those games next season, but the real money, those billion-dollar deals you hear about in other cities, likely won’t start until the 2020 season, after the Comcast SportsNet Chicago deal expires.

Now, excessive money isn’t the key to winning a World Series. Not anymore, as national-TV money, not to mention digital- and local-media rights, have made the small-market teams capable of keeping their free agents and adding veterans. But money does allow the Epsteins of the world to take chances and add talent without giving up prospects, who balance the books with cheaper contracts. While the Cubs love talking about their young players, you don't win in the playoffs without some veterans. And free-agent veterans cost money, often more than they're worth.

So is Epstein, who hates being a salesman, wrong for continually mentioning the TV money, when it could be five years away? I had to ask him. The answer’s pretty long, so maybe you should sit down or charge your phone.

“Yeah, I only talk about it when asked -- first of all, I try to talk more about players and things like that,” he said. “You know, first of all, there’s always a chance it comes earlier. You can strike a deal tomorrow if things align that way, and you can get a signing deal up front and that can change the game for us.

“Even if you don’t, even if we wait until the end, we can plan for it. You can sign longer-term deals knowing where that money is going to come from. I’m not necessarily saying that we necessarily should backload contracts, because that’s not obviously the best policy, but it’s just knowing the money is going to be there. It changes the lens through which you view every transaction. So if you know there’s a significant, elite payroll coming, even if it’s not here today, that just puts you in an aggressive posture. You can start taking on high-salary players and trades from other organizations that maybe can’t afford them. Every free agent is all of a sudden on the board. You can look at multiples in a given offseason. You can look at your young players and realize you can sign them all.”

He added that it's “reasonable” to “expect a really nice windfall” from that final TV deal.

Now, that's a great answer that provides a little clarity to the situation. I guess Epstein's not shorting the so-called cable TV bubble. Given the intransigence of the Cubs' business side in most matters of money, I’m betting on a Dodgers-type situation, in which the Cubs get their network and get their money but half the city can’t get the games until a deal is struck. But I’m a cynic.

When it comes to televised games next season, I asked, will the Cubs consider putting in a picture-in-picture feature for phenom Bryant, who is almost guaranteed to be in Triple-A for a few weeks due to the wonky business of baseball rules? That will be the main "Cubby" storyline from Cubs Convention through the beginning of the season, particularly if the Cubs struggle out of the gate.

“I’m not as concerned about the start date as I am about the impact that he can make,” Epstein said. “He’s in the position, and I told him this, where he can impact our 2015 season. Whether it happens from Opening Day or not, that remains to be seen. There are a lot of factors involved, from team-building to roster flexibility and things of that nature. I think he’s in position to impact our season next year, in the big picture.”

The big picture is coming into focus. Soon, Epstein won’t be the biggest star in the organization. He’ll never fade into the background, but I’m guessing he’ll gladly cede the spotlight to players such as Rizzo, Bryant, Arrieta and Soler.

Until that happens, he’s still the Baseball Man, selling hope to a big small town.

Epstein: We're good enough to compete

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
4:57
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO – This may have been Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at his best. Addressing a room full of season-ticket holders at the Oriental Theatre on Friday afternoon, he once again expressed his optimism for 2015, but he did it in the right tone -- guaranteeing nothing.

“I think we have enough talent to compete,” he said to reporters after the presentation. “Now, do we have enough talent to win? That’s the beauty of baseball. You don’t find out until you try. This is the first time we’ve had enough talent to compete.”

The message he was sending was more nuanced than his year-end press conference the week before. Most of the headlines after that consisted of the Cubs potentially winning the National League Central next season -- a long shot at best. But Friday, Epstein continued to explain how his organization will compete while still developing its young talent. And he admitted the proposition of doing both is “tricky.”

Most of the presentation focused on what the Cubs have in their system and on their major league team, but afterward Epstein discussed what they need: impact players from outside the organization. Free agency is around the corner, and the Cubs boss was quick to remind everyone the uncertain nature of that venture.

“We’re going to have pursuits of players that will become public and we’re not going to sign them and we’ll have columns how we failed and we have egg on our face and once again the Cubs can’t land their guy,” Epstein said with a half-smile. “Write it now. I look forward to reading them.

“You make that free-agent pursuit knowing you can miss by not signing the player and you can miss by signing the player, but that there’s also payoff.”

The Cubs say they won’t back themselves into a corner -- at least not this winter -- to get a big-name free agent. In fact, Epstein never wants to be in that position, though there are years where the Cubs may end up there. But with a young, developing team, this isn’t the time to get desperate.

“I know we’ll get a bunch of columns saying we missed our guy,” Epstein said. “I’m not ashamed of that. To be a world-class organization you can’t be afraid of perception. You have to put yourself out there and look stupid at times.”

Is Epstein preparing fans for a letdown when free agency begins? Perhaps. But he’s also being realistic. A team whose window is closing -- say the Yankees or even the Red Sox -- will be more willing to overpay for a free agent. The Cubs’ window is just opening, so that impact player might not arrive as soon as everyone wants. And the bottom line is the Cubs want to be in a position to “swing and miss” in free agency and still survive. That’s when their organization will be at its healthiest. Plus, the payroll isn’t exactly going to be at its peak right now, though they’re in the best position in years.

“For right now, we have all the payroll flexibility we need at this moment for 2015,” Epstein said. “We have [Starlin] Castro and [Anthony] Rizzo on favorable deals, we only have one onerous contract. We have a number of players that will be contributing at the league minimum or close to it. Payroll flexibility really isn’t an issue for us in 2015.”

Epstein can say all that because the Cubs don’t plan on going on a crazy spending spree anyway. There will always be a segment of the fan base that will want their team to “sell out” every year to win a championship. It’s what the Yankees do every year, they’ll say. But this far into the Cubs rebuilding plan there would be only way to do that for 2015: trade their young talent for older, experienced players. And then sign a few more. Who knows, maybe they could catch lightning in a bottle for a season or two, but they would be right back where they started soon enough -- with no guarantees of breaking the championship drought.

“I believe when you are competing you have to set your sights high,” Epstein stated. “There’s no point in coming out saying ‘well, maybe we can finish .500.’ What good does that do?”

It’s the right tone to take while also admitting they won’t do everything in their power to win next year. For better or worse, the Cubs are sticking with their plan. Odds are, it’s for the better.

Cubs hire Astros' Mallee as hitting coach

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
3:40
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs hired former Houston Astros hitting coach John Mallee to fill the same role for them after Bill Mueller quit earlier this week, the team announced on Thursday.

First base coach Eric Hinske will take over as the new assistant hitting coach and former Cub Doug Dascenzo takes Hinske's place as first base/outfield coach. Dascenzo was most recently a coach with the Atlanta Braves.

"It's a dream come true," Chicago native Mallee told reporters in Houston. "I grew up a Cubs fan and always dreamed of standing on the field and representing this amazing franchise.

"I have been in professional baseball as a player or coach for more than 20 years and have never had an opportunity to see my family during the season until now. Leaving the Houston Astros is the toughest decision I've ever had to make. Amazing owner, general manager, front office and beyond talented players. I wish my Houston family the best of luck and their future successes and hope they can understand and respect that I had to make the best decision for my family."

Mallee, 45, has been a big-league hitting coach since 2010, working for the Miami Marlins and then the Astros up until the end of this past season. He played two years in the majors for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1991-1992.

The Astros finished last in the American League with a .242 batting average but were third in home runs with 163. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve won the AL batting title with a .341 average along with 225 hits, tops in baseball. The Cubs ranked first in the majors in strikeouts and the Astros were second.

Dascenzo was drafted by the Cubs in 1985 and played for them from 1988-1992.

The Cubs announced all other coaches will return in their former roles. The team dismissed assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley the day after the season ended while Mueller quit a week later, opening the door for Mallee and Dascenzo.

Cubs in '15: Where does young talent fit?

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
9:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes a look at the biggest storylines facing the Chicago Cubs during the offseason.

Figuring out where all the pieces fit on defense for a young Cubs team is another storyline to keep an eye on moving forward. Where does prospect Addison Russell end up? Who’s on third? Is Arismendy Alcantara the man for center in the long term?

[+] EnlargeKris Bryant
AP Images/Dennis Hubbard/Four Seam Images Cubs third-base prospect Kris Bryant will get some work in the outfield during spring training.
Those are just some of the questions facing the Cubs as the Arizona Fall League begins and the organization starts to make plans for next spring. The philosophy the Cubs seem to be taking is to allow players to play play their natural positions until forced to move before being called up. See Alcantara, Junior Lake and Javier Baez for evidence. In between, such as at spring training, they’ll get some reps around the diamond.

This does present one lingering question: Should a player move positions as soon as possible to get comfortable or stay at his natural spot until the last minute? You can make an argument for either.

For example, top prospect Kris Bryant is sticking at third base right now, even though the Cubs have a logjam in the infield. Considering his lanky frame, Bryant might be better suited to the outfield anyway. Should that switch happen now or later?

Along those lines, Russell is playing shortstop in the Arizona Fall League, and all indications suggest he will open at short at Triple-A Iowa next season. Cubs president Theo Epstein already indicated Russell would play some second and third base during spring training. But why not make a move to third with Russell now and put Bryant in the outfield?

Again, arguments can be made either way. The Cubs aren’t wrong in wanting players to be adept at multiple positions. After all, it is their bats that will determine whether they get to play in the majors. If two or more can hit and play the same position, then someone can be easily moved if he has already been exposed to the new position. Then again, it’s hard to become proficient at a new spot on defense as players graduate to the big leagues. This is called a fluid situation.

There are mitigating circumstances at work, as well. It’s easier to move from infield to a corner outfield spot, and it takes a similar adjustment moving from shortstop to second or third base. That points to leaving Russell and Bryant where they are.

What if the Cubs do trade Starlin Castro? Maybe Bryant ends up being the lone man standing among regular third baseman in the organization.

In short, the Cubs are preparing for all scenarios simply because any of them could occur.

Cubs to open Cactus League March 5

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
2:35
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs will play 29 Cactus League games beginning with a pair of split-squad affairs against the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants on March 5.

Spring schedules were released on Wednesday as the Cubs will host 15 games at Cubs Park while playing 14 road contests. They’ll play in Glendale, Ariz., against the White Sox on March 20 and host the Sox at Cubs Park on March 27. Their Cactus League finale will take place on April 1 against the Milwaukee Brewers. The regular season starts on Monday, April 6.

According to the team, additional games are expected to be added at a later date. The Cubs have played exhibition contests in Las Vegas during spring training in recent years and usually play another couple of games after the Cactus League season is over and before the regular season begins.


Next hitting coach should be a keeper

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
9:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes a look at the biggest storylines facing the Chicago Cubs during the offseason.

A new offseason storyline emerged Tuesday when Chicago Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller resigned from the team. This leaves the Cubs with two openings -- Mueller’s position and an assistant.

There’s no doubt these are important hires, but within reason. It’s more important that the Cubs avoid hiring the wrong guy than to believe there’s a magician out there who can transform their offense.

Remember, the Cubs offered Mueller his job back. Maybe they made it uncomfortable for him by dismissing assistant – and his good friend -- Mike Brumley, but they could have fired Mueller as well. As a player, Mueller had one of the highest career on-base percentages of any third baseman to play the game. He connected with players even if Brumley did not. But connecting, and doing things as a player, are a far cry from getting others to change who they are.

So where does that leave the Cubs? In search of their fourth hitting coach in the Theo Epstein regime. Getting an experienced one with a track record is probably the best way to go, given that they need to check this off their list for the next few years. If the coach can help reduce the strikeout totals while – more importantly – increasing the Cubs on-base percentage, all the better. Most important is setting the right atmosphere and tone for a fostering environment. And, of course, being a good listener is a key for any coach.

According to more than one veteran hitting coach, the job has gotten tougher over the years. Players aren’t learning the fundamentals of hitting as they move up the ranks, while strikeout totals have skyrocketed. It’s tough for some of the older coaches and ex-players to accept those mammoth strikeout numbers, and many believe organizations are making it easier on players by not demanding better approaches. Teams will tell you they would love to see more contact, but you can only work with what you have.

Manny Ramirez would seem a perfect candidate for the No. 2 job. He has to want it and commit to it, both of which he did at Triple-A Iowa. Ramirez might be a cross between a coach who can help fix mechanical issues and a coach who is “one of the guys.” Don’t give him the spotlight of being the lead man, let him work under the radar – if that’s possible with Ramirez. But first, he has to retire as a player.

The wrong hire for the No. 1 role is a guy who can’t be the right combination of task master and encouraging nurturer. Although it’s not the worst thing that a new coach has to learn tendencies all over again, having some consistency can only help.

The Cubs are starting to get serious about winning. Their next hire should reflect that.

Source: Manny won't replace Mueller

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
11:58
AM CT

CHICAGO -- Bill Mueller has resigned as hitting coach of the Chicago Cubs, but don't expect Manny Ramirez to be the one filling his shoes, a source told ESPNChicago.com.

A source close to the situation said the Cubs are already close to hiring a replacement for Mueller, whose resignation, a source said, came just more than a week after assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley was dismissed. 

Ramirez received positive reviews from his stint with Triple-A Iowa this season, but a source said Ramirez isn't under consideration for Mueller's job. However, the source said Ramirez could be in the mix for the assistant hitting coach position.

Cubs president Theo Epstein has said he's waiting on Ramirez to officially retire before commenting on any future he has as a coach. Ramirez, through his agent, turned down a request for an interview.

The Cubs, who led the majors in strikeouts and ranked 28th in on-base percentage this season, will be hiring their fourth hitting coach since 2012.

Mueller and Brumley were hired last winter after the Cubs fired most of their coaching staff.

Mueller won a batting title with the Boston Red Sox and had a career .373 on-base percentage before moving on to the Los Angeles Dodgers' front office. He was entrusted with overseeing the debuts of several top Cubs prospects this season.

The Cubs said Sept. 30 that all coaches, except for Brumley, would be invited back next season. Mueller, however, decided to move on, according to the source, as he liked the comfort zone he had developed with Brumley.


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Chat alert: Jesse Rogers at 12:15 CT

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
11:48
AM CT
By Staff
ESPNChicago.com
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes your Cubs questions during a live chat at 12:15 p.m. CT Tuesday. Click here to submit your questions.

Wrigley renovation, TV deal on tap this offseason for Cubs

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
10:00
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes a look at the biggest storylines facing the Chicago Cubs during the offseason.

These aren't on-the-field storylines, but the renovation of historic Wrigley Field and where 70 Cubs games will air on television next season are things to track this winter.

The biggest news will happen when the club's first video scoreboard is erected. The plan is for it to be ready for the start of the 2015 season. Watching slow-motion replays at Wrigley Field will be a new fan experience and, with video-replay challenges now available to managers, paying customers will get to see the same angles the umpires are looking at in real time.

That's some consolation for Wrigley traditionalists, even the old-school stalwarts who don't want to see a video scoreboard. The only question is how much the board will actually block the views from the surrounding rooftops. We'll finally get the answer on an issue that has caused acrimony between the Cubs and rooftop owners.

The other major changes to Wrigley, including a new clubhouse and moving the bullpens under the bleachers, will take place in coming offseasons, but as of now, Wrigley Field's 100-year makeover has started.

Meanwhile, a new -- albeit probably temporary -- television home for games that were formerly on WGN-TV is still a work in progress. The Cubs say they are in "extra innings" in figuring out where they will air those 70 games after opting out of their deal with the station that has carried them for 66 years. Comcast SportsNet, home to the other 92 games, can't accommodate the additional coverage, and the Cubs simply haven't negotiated a deal to their -- or a station's -- liking just yet. Ratings have gone down during the on-field rebuilding, and that has affected TV revenues. The Cubs are currently not the hot product they once were.

The team could still return to WGN-TV, but one way or another, it's a short-term proposition. They plan on cashing in on their television rights by the time their deal with Comcast is up after the 2019 season. Until then, they might just have to get by wherever they can.

How will the Cubs fare in free agency?

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
11:24
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers takes a look at the biggest storylines facing the Cubs during the offseason.

Will it be Jon Lester or Russell Martin? Will James Shields end up a Cub? What about those veteran-leader types the club wants to bring in, such as Jonny Gomes?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsThe Cubs' front office has ties to former Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester.
As with almost any baseball offseason, free agency, which begins after the World Series, tends to be the No. 1 storyline. The Chicago Cubs were fairly quiet on that front last winter, with pitchers Jason Hammel and Jose Veras ending up as the only significant acquisitions. The Cubs flipped Hammel as part of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland Athletics in July, and an ineffective Veras was designated for assignment in June.

This winter the Cubs say they will be eyeing some potential impact names, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Will they spend the $100 million-plus they had ready for Masahiro Tanaka last year? It's the same money they chose not to spend on Samardzija during this season before trading him.

Three top-level free agent pitchers will be on the market, unless they surprisingly sign with their old teams before free agency begins.

Lester of the Athletics, the Detroit Tigers' Max Scherzer and the Royals' Shields are the best of the class. If 2015 team options on Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds or Yovani Gallardo of the Milwaukee Brewers are declined, then the starting pitching class gets much deeper. But don't hold your breath on either happening.

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It actually might be a deeper class if the solid second-half performances of Jake Peavy, Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano, all of whom are set to become free agents, are factored in. Justin Masterson might check a few boxes for the Cubs coming from the American League to the National League, although he struggled with St. Louis after being acquired from Cleveland.

It's not clear how far the Cubs will go in a bidding war for one of the top arms. They've already stated they won't "sell out" for 2015. Whoever they bring in at this point should be counted on to be a playoff pitcher someday soon. The Cubs are on record as saying their intended strategy is no longer to sign and flip players in trades as they have the past three seasons.

As for position players: Martin, the veteran Pittsburgh Pirates catcher who will be 32 this winter, makes sense since he combines an offensive and defensive game. Even if the Cubs have to overpay for a player on the wrong side of 30, Martin could be a nice tutor for Cubs pitchers and a stopgap until 2014 top pick Kyle Schwarber, or another, is ready. More than likely, the Cubs will also bring in a veteran position player with playoff experience, even as a platoon or a backup.

Free-agent focus: Veteran OF Jonny Gomes would fit with Cubs

October, 3, 2014
Oct 3
10:17
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Jonny GomesThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJonny Gomes is used to sharing time in the field and is the type of clubhouse presence the Cubs want.
CHICAGO – While the free-agent frenzy is close to beginning for big-name pitchers such as Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, the Chicago Cubs are on record saying they want to bring in some veteran position-player leadership along with a top-of-the-line hurler.

More than likely that will come in the form of an outfielder, as Cubs president Theo Epstein indicated Tuesday in his end-of-the-year news conference.

"In an ideal world, we'd like to add to the outfield mix," Epstein said. "Just because we have three guys that go out there and form an Opening Day outfield as it is, that doesn't mean we're content. We're certainly going to add talent and shape the way the parts fit together once we can acquire some more talent."

The Cubs want a guy who has been there before. Someone who has playoff experience and can help lead a young team. He probably won't be an everyday starter, because the Cubs want to give their prospects a chance to grow and, frankly, there aren't many good outfielders hitting the market at the right age anyway. The proper target would also need to be good with the media, as that would help players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro if someone else was around to answer the tough questions.

League sources indicate that the Cubs could be interested in Oakland Athletics outfielder Jonny Gomes for this role. He checks the boxes for leadership and playoff experience, having been to the postseason four of the past five years playing for three teams, including the A's in 2012 and 2014. He's exactly the type of player the Cubs' front office is undoubtedly looking for. He won a championship with Boston last season before winding up back to Oakland this year, hitting a combined .234 with six home runs and 37 RBIs between the two teams.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesIt's unclear if Torii Hunter would accept a platoon role in the outfield, but the 39-year-old has postseason experience aplenty.
"The outfield is always an opportunity where you can add talent and the parts can fit well together," Epstein said.

Translation: the outfield is where a platoon works best, and it's the leadership, not the numbers, that the Cubs are looking for. The right-handed-hitting Gomes will turn 34 in November and isn't an everyday player, but he might fit nicely in left field along with incumbent Chris Coghlan. Gomes might find an American League team more to his liking because he could find at-bats as a designated hitter as well as in the outfield, but the Cubs could probably lure him to Chicago with the right two-year deal.

The Cubs are going to be careful with whatever veteran they bring in, and while Gomes and Epstein weren't in Boston at the same time, they were in the same division for plenty of years, Gomes having broken in with the Tampa Bay Rays while Epstein was running the Red Sox. Plus, everyone saw what Gomes brought to the Red Sox last season, and Epstein has plenty of people he can turn to in Boston to inform him. The Cubs shouldn't be surprised by any character issues.

There are other players who might fit the bill as a veteran leader, including longtime standout Torii Hunter. He might want more than platoon at-bats, though he turned 39 this season. But he's still going strong, helping the Detroit Tigers to another division title while hitting .286 with 17 home runs and 83 RBIs in 142 games and 549 at-bats. And he's been to the postseason eight times, including this season. So is Hunter ready for a part-time role? If so, he's another ideal fit.

Emilio Bonifacio is available and did a credible job with the Cubs in the first half this season helping some of the younger players, but he doesn't have postseason experience and didn't take the pressure off Rizzo or Castro when it came to facing the media. Gomes and Hunter could do that.

The Cubs are going to let Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara get as much experience in right and center fields as possible, so that leaves a right-handed bat to share left field with Coghlan.

While the top-of-the-rotation pitcher the Cubs pursue will undoubtedly garner more headlines, the veteran leader they bring in might be -- relatively speaking -- as important. Someone has to show the youngest team in baseball what it takes to win over 162 games. Think Gomes, or someone like Hunter. One could be a Cub.

Will Theo's plan for Cubs in 2015 work?

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
2:36
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein's year-end press conference Tuesday went about as you would think. The Cubs are in a "compete and development" mode. It means they have a very outside chance at the postseason in 2015, but it's better than the past few seasons, which had no chance of ending well.

They are only in the second part of a three-part plan. Developing their talent is still the priority.

Here are a few statements by Epstein worth analyzing:

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein, Anthony Rizzo
David Banks/Getty ImagesTheo Epstein says the Cubs will balance player development with competing for a playoff spot next season.
    Theo: "We're going to be competing while we continue to develop young players."

Analysis: This was the crux of the entire message by Epstein, and it speaks for itself. He can make that statement because he knows he has a group of talented young players. If they come together quickly -- with the help of some additions -- they can make some noise in the standings. But as documented in this blog earlier in the week, the Cubs are the youngest team in baseball, and growing pains are likely. The emphasis should still be on development, and the Cubs know this. Epstein claims they won't "sell out" for 2015, and that's the right call. You can't wave a wand and get experience. It takes time.

    Theo: "We are in a position, perhaps as soon as this offseason and certainly over the next 15 months, we're going to be adding some talent from outside the organization. We hope it will be impact talent."

Analysis: The Cubs will add, but remember the wording: "perhaps this offseason." Next winter features a deeper free-agent class, and the Cubs will be one year closer to their "apex." The bidding for this year's three top free-agent pitchers -- James Shields, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer -- should be fierce, although we know only a handful of teams can afford them. The problem with the nondesperate approach to them is someone else will be desperate (think the Yankees). If 99 percent sign based on the best deal, as Epstein indicated, then the Cubs will have to outbid someone else who is desperate. What does that make them at that point? Smart or just as desperate?

    Theo: "The coaching staff by and large did a nice job. As a result, everyone will be invited back with the one exception of assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley."

Analysis: The Cubs have been changing hitting coaches about as often as they strike out. As good as lead hitting coach Bill Mueller was at getting on base as a player (.373 career on-base percentage), teaching it is a whole other story. Epstein admitted the Cubs have come up woefully short in that department and may have to look outside the organization as that ability is more "innate" than "learned" in the Cubs' opinion. If Mueller can develop some young guys into better on-base threats, the Cubs' offense could finally take off. The subtraction of Brumley could make way for Manny Ramirez. Epstein says he'll remain mum on the subject until Ramirez decides if he's officially retiring as a player. It means there's a chance he's a Cubs coach next season.

[+] EnlargeCastro
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThree-time All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro rebounded in 2014 after a down season in 2013.
    Theo: "Javy [Baez] is going to be given the opportunity to make the adjustments at the major league level, and we believe he will. He has some of the best raw ingredients to work with in all of Major League Baseball. I think he's someone for the long term you're going to want to bet on."

Analysis: Obviously Epstein isn't going to say negative things publicly about any player, let alone someone as young as Baez, but his statements make sense on one level: Baez is a unique player with unique skills. Remember, the problem with Baez is mostly about pitch selection (although Epstein has mentioned mechanical adjustments, as well). His problem isn't on pitches in the zone -- that's where he does incredible damage. Mike Olt, for example, missed a lot of pitches in the zone, the most in baseball percentage-wise. That seems less fixable. Baez should be given plenty of leash to figure things out.

    Theo: "We're making our plans for 2015 with [Starlin Castro] at the shortstop position."

Analysis: The Cubs could do a lot worse than Castro at shortstop. It's not to say he won't or can't be moved, it just has to be the right deal. That sounds obvious, but the point is, the Cubs should not be in a desperate mode to trade a three-time All-Star for young pitching unless they are overwhelmed by the trade. As for moving him to another position, it should only happen if it is completely obvious to all there's a better option at shortstop. Right now, we don't know that. Based on 2014, Castro answered the criticism, and his status should only change if it completely and obviously helps the team.

    Theo: "Like most teams, we'll always miss out on more free agents than we'll sign. That's just the nature of it. Free agency is not for the faint of heart. You have to go in knowing that you might look silly by pursuing the player and not landing him, and that's OK. We're prepared for that. The key to thriving in free agency is acknowledging all the risks, acknowledging all the variables, staying true to some attachment to value ... and most importantly building up your organization, the rest of your roster with impactful young players so you can afford those free agents in the first place, and you can afford to miss on those free agents, too. Missing on some free agents is inevitable."

Analysis: This might be one of the smartest things Epstein said. He's been burned too many times -- see Edwin Jackson -- to rely on going outside the organization. You know you have to do it, but only where it makes complete sense -- not out of desperation. Free-agent contracts can look really bad really quickly, as most players signed come at that age where things can go south fast. The elimination of performance-enhancing drugs from the game has brought peak ages down. The Cubs might be desperate someday to get that one guy, but they aren't there yet. It's also why they should be slow to trade their assets. Fortifying themselves in many positions won't leave them thin if/when there is a bust or major injury.

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Summation: As Epstein intimated in the press conference, if you haven't been following their plan, then you might be confused by it. But as rebuilding projects go, this all makes sense. The Cubs are getting closer to really competing, so they are getting closer to adding from outside the organization.

They aren't quite there yet, so dedicating every resource to 2015 would be foolish. As Epstein said recently about young players, you can't just tell them to "get comfortable" and it happens. They still need to go through some growing pains, but while they're at it, they can start to win.

One step back should always be followed by two steps forward. One thing you can say about the Cubs is they have always been transparent. They aren't pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. When Epstein says the goal is the playoffs next season, he means it. So do 29 other teams. He's not guaranteeing it, nor should he.

The Cubs won't sell out for 2015, but they'll be a year closer to reaching their peak, that is if they stay the course and their young players become as good as advertised.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.292 14 65 58
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167