Chicago Cubs: Theo Epstein

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein and manager Rick Renteria view top prospect Javier Baez getting kicked out of a Triple-A game over the weekend -- and then having words with teammates -- as a learning experience. Most important is they liked how he responded afterward.

“You want everyone to go through adversity in the minor leagues because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure and come back even stronger,” Epstein said before the Cubs played the Pirates on Tuesday night.

Baez had been struggling at the plate through the first week of the season, and after striking out on a checked swing in a game Saturday he threw up his arms, leading to the ejection.

“He started out not feeling really comfortable at the plate,” Epstein said. “He let that get him frustrated, and he showed it on the field.”

And when he got to the dugout, his teammates let him know it wasn’t acceptable behavior. An argument ensued with catcher Eli Whiteside.

"I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad," Baez told the Des Moines Register. "We argued a little. Nothing personal.”

Epstein added: “It was a great development experience for him. His teammates called him out on it and he responded the right way and then took it to heart. He came back and pinch hit the next day and hit a home run.”

Renteria said he keeps tabs on everything going on and viewed the Baez incident in a similar way as Epstein.

“He had a nice conversation with a teammate,” Renteria said. “That was a good thing ... It’s a tremendously great learning experience.”

Baez is 1-for-14 with six strikeouts at Triple-A Iowa.

Jackson starts over in Year 2 with Cubs

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
PITTSBURGH -- Former Pittsburgh Pirate and San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds has begun a redemption tour. He showed up in Giants spring training camp for the first time when the Cubs played his old team in the Cactus League last month, and he was also in Pittsburgh on Monday for Opening Day, also against the Cubs.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Jackson
AP Photo/Matt YorkEdwin Jackson's chance to put a disappointing 2013 season behind him begins Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
On Wednesday night Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson begins a redemption tour of his own when he starts for the first time in 2014 against the Pirates in Game 2 of the season. No, he doesn't need to get back into the good graces of the baseball world, just a group perhaps more fickle: Cubs fans.

Jackson, 30, was the poster player for the Cubs' woes last season when he went 8-18 with a 4.98 ERA. He gave up 197 hits in 175 innings pitched. Those numbers speak for themselves. But more than just representative of the team's problems, he gave critics of the current front office ample ammunition.

The reasoning was simple. The Cubs could talk all they want about prospects and how well their scouting department has done, but none of it matters until they perform in the majors. Here was a major league player, scouted and then signed by the Cubs to a huge contract before last season (four years, $52 million) and in his first year he was a failure. And it's not like the Cubs have been signing guys to big deals all over the place. Since Theo Epstein took over, Jackson is the lone free agent to get a big-money contract.

In a moment of honesty, while being "self-critical" this past winter, Epstein admitted his possible mistake.

"Anytime you make an investment that doesn't immediately pay off, especially when you don't have tremendous freedom to make a variety of significant investments, you should be hard on yourself," Epstein said to season-ticket holders.

Just the idea of spending that kind of money at a time when the Cubs were still early in rebuilding was confusing.

"Given the situation I think we could have been more patient," Epstein said. "We could have been more in line with the plan. That said, when there is no pitching you have to find pitching."

Epstein was also quick to point out there is "a lot better ahead for Edwin Jackson." If you're so inclined to look deeper into his numbers of a season ago you can find some things that could point to a better year this time around. For example, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Jackson's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .327 while the league average was .297. But his line drive percentage was exactly at league average (19.8 percent).

It's possible he didn't give up that many more hard-hit balls than other pitchers but was unlucky as they found the holes in the defense more often. That coincides with the fact he gave up the 11th most ground balls among starting pitchers but induced only 12 double plays. The league average was 16. Of course, this doesn't tell you how hard those ground balls were hit.

But there are plenty of stats that back up his overall bad season. Jackson's called strike rate (called strike/pitches taken) was the worst in the majors at just 27 percent. So just 27 percent of the time when a hitter took a pitch from Jackson last season it was called a strike. And of course the eye test also tells the story of Jackson in 2013, as well. If you watched him you never came away with the feeling his stuff was great. It was simply a bad season.

This spring he said all the right things about a rebound season and saved his best outing for his last when he went four scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks while giving up just one hit.

That was Friday. Wednesday starts a whole new season and a chance at redemption -- for Jackson and the front office that signed him.

Epstein: 'We can turn the narrative'

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
PITTSBURGH -- Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein feels the pain of the fan base and he understands he's under the microscope now more than ever.

"Our fans have been incredibly supportive," Epstein said on Monday. "Even the ones not on board. They're still coming out supporting us, holding us to a high standard, which is a form of support."

But they aren't coming to the ballpark as much with attendance dropping for five straight years. The Cubs are hopeful celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field will help change that as will winning a few more games along the way.

"Our goal is to go out and surprise some people," Epstein said. "I don't think expectations are that high, externally. We have a tough schedule early so we can certainly turn the narrative on its head by going and having a good first month of the season."

The narrative can also change if young players excel, both in the majors and in the minors. Epstein reiterated the notion that if prospects dominate they'll move up. It means several good ones could see the majors before year's end. Right now, Epstein is focused on what's in front of him, and he understands that fans are as well.

"Baseball is best enjoyed that day and watching that team right in front of you trying to win a game," he said. "We haven't been good enough judging by that standard. The only standard that matters is wins and losses. We just haven't been good enough. I'm right there with them. I understand it.

"We look forward to doing some things this season that make them proud. In the long haul we want to reward them with pennant races and October baseball."

There it is in a nutshell. If the Cubs can simply make fans feel better about the team this year than the previous two while their prospects take steps forward, that's going to be a victory for the organization.

It's possible the Cubs win more games than a season ago. This is a better, more flexible lineup. And it's younger. Any one of them can emerge as a core player -- as a starter or reserve player.

"There are plenty of players with upside on this roster," Epstein said. "We have some increased flexibility."

C.J. Edwards debuts, nerves and all

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
PEORIA, Ariz. -- If Chicago Cubs prospect C.J. Edwards’ pitching ability catches up to his personality, the team might have a star on its hands.

Edwards sailed through an easy first inning -- despite some serious nerves -- before giving up three runs on four hits and three walks in the final 1.2 innings of his major league spring debut on Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres.

"I can't even explain the nerves that I had,” Edwards said afterward. “My right knee started going by itself. I was like looking around, trying to hold it down, but it didn’t work, so I let it bounce.”

Edwards threw 49 pitches, with the last 44 coming in the second and third innings as he struggled with his command. Cubs brass, including president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, looked on from behind home plate as one of their prized trade pieces of last season made his debut.

"I'm one of the top players in the organization that has tunnel vision,” Edwards said of ignoring his bosses. “I can't really see anyone. But I can hear everybody.”

What he heard on his big night was encouragement from his teammates as things started to go south. Twice there were meetings on the mound, with pitching coach Chris Bosio and the entire infield trying to calm Edwards down and loosen the moment.

“[Anthony Rizzo] comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, you want to play first base?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s switch,’” Edwards said.

But what Edwards wanted to hear most came from his catcher for the night, John Baker.

“His exact words were, ‘You did a hell of a job. Your stuff will play. You have a bright future ahead,’” Edwards said.

His first inning showed what that future might hold. Edwards threw five pitches -- all of them strikes and one of which went for an easy double play.

Radar guns showed him in the low 90s. His pitches showed the movement that won him minor league pitcher of the year accolades last season. But he didn’t make as many hitters miss as he did a few days ago in a minor league game. It’s a work in progress.

Right now, Edwards is the best hope within the organization of becoming a No.1 pitcher. And his demeanor should help him get there. He prepared for his first start with long talks on the phone with his dad.

“My dad said keep praying, keep meditating,” Edwards said. “My dad helped me get ready for this game.”

And his teammates helped him get through it. There were some ups and downs, but the talent was evident.

The next step is to dominate Double-A this season and put some more weight on his slight frame; he weighed 165 after the game on Tuesday. Next spring Edwards could be ready for more than just one start with the big league team.

“The outcome wasn’t good but, overall, being around those guys, it was fantastic,” Edwards said.

Sutcliffe: Not 'if' for Cubs but 'when'

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
MESA, Ariz. -- Soon, former Chicago Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe will turn in his Cubs uniform for a suit to wear on ESPN as the major league regular season commences. Sutcliffe has been a spring instructor for the team he won a Cy Young award with in 1984 and his passion for the Cubs runs deep.

He's been on the backfields with minor league players and in the locker room with the major leaguers, and his eyes have been on everyone from the injured Jake Arrieta to the powerful Javier Baez. This has been no spring break for the "Red Baron."

"I'm not here to walk down memory lane or just sign autographs or take pictures," Sutcliffe said Thursday, one of his final days as a coach. "I've been a big believer in [Cubs president] Theo Epstein for a long time. And when he called me he said, 'I would like for you to be a part of it, whatever you can do.' I'm just an extra set of eyes here."

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein and Rick Sutcliffe
Rick Scuteri/AP Photo/WGN AmericaRick Sutcliffe, right, believes it's inevitable that Theo Epstein, left, will turn around the Cubs.
Sutcliffe is a believer because he saw what Epstein did in Boston and believes he'll do it in Chicago as well.

"When he's able to pull this off -- and notice I didn't say 'if' -- when he's able to pull this off and when you look at the history of baseball, all the big names like Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski couldn't do it, all the Hall of Famers that have worn this [Cubs] uniform and couldn't get it done. When you think of the one thing that the Red Sox and Cubs have in common, it's Theo Epstein. It was the challenge to begin with that excited him about that. Now, when he saw what he inherited here, he may have thought, 'Oh my goodness, what happened here,' but he's never varied from his plan.

"It was an absolute mess when Theo took it over. When you look at the history of draft choices, particularly the No. 1 picks, it's embarrassing that there has not been more production there. That's the reason for the last two years. I don't think Theo would admit it, but I think it was even worse than he would have thought. When you look at the Red Sox every year since Theo took over, there are one to three players that come through that system that helped them win."

And Sutcliffe claims that two years ago, the Cubs had no chance of building a winner with what was in the system, especially in his area of expertise, pitching.

"[Kerry] Wood and I have talked about it; our role is to help get these young pitchers to catch up with the everyday prospects," Sutcliffe said. "Then all of a sudden it becomes special and then it becomes what the Red Sox are when every year when you need help, all you have to do is call downstairs.

"Two years ago, Theo sent me down to minor league camp to take a look at all the arms, and when I came back I said, You're going to be pissed off at me. He said, 'Tell me the truth, that's why you're here.' I said I saw three guys that I think have a chance out of 65 guys. That's sad. When I go down there now, I see eight out of 10 that have a chance. You see the late movement or the velocity or the deception in the delivery. All it takes is to have one of those things to have a big league fastball. Watching C.J. Edwards, he has a chance to have all three of them."

Sutcliffe was on hand Wednesday as Edwards, the top pitcher in all of minor league baseball last season, started in a minor league game. Mike Bryant, a former player and the father of Kris Bryant, the Cubs' top pick last season, said Edwards' slight frame reminded him of his former roommate in the minors, Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd.

"This guy has a chance to be much better," Sutcliffe said. "He doesn't have half the man muscles that he's going to have at some point. But he won't be rushed. He can have some of the easiest innings you'll ever see because of the cut fastball. This guy can be special."

Sutcliffe started to invoke Mariano Rivera's cutter but stopped short because Edwards isn't that good, but he's got something special about him.

And speaking of special, no one is higher on right-handed pitching prospect Kyle Hendricks than Sutcliffe.

"The guy that gets me is Kyle Hendricks," Sutcliffe said. "Whatever 'it' is when you talk about pitchers, he has it. That's what I see. The tougher the situation, the better the location."

[+] EnlargeC.J. Edwards
Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesSutcliffe likes the potential of C.J. Edwards, the minor league pitcher of the year in 2013.
Then there's Jake Arrieta, somewhat of a project for pitching coach Chris Bosio since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles. He's been slowed by a stiff shoulder this spring, but Bosio and Sutcliffe hope they can unleash the pitcher with the "best stuff" on the staff.

"We form a trust in each other," Sutcliffe said of getting to know Arrieta. "There are a couple things we've addressed to stay healthy. He has to learn how to have easier innings. He has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, and when you see what Chris Bosio has done [with other pitchers], it could happen."

The player who brings the biggest smile to Sutcliffe is Baez. Even as an expert in pitching, Sutcliffe sees the great potential in the Cubs' top pick of 2011.

"The guy that keeps coming to mind for me is [Gary] Sheffield," Sutcliffe said. "The bat speed just overpowers the arm speed. I haven't seen him take one swing at a fastball and miss yet. I don't care if it's 100 mph or 88 mph with movement. His hand-eye coordination, it's just one of those special things. This guy is going to be a star. Yeah, if you're trying to win Opening Day, he's in your lineup and hits third. But six years from now, you have a chance at losing him. ... If he's down till June, he's not a Super 2. He'll be that good. They know that.

"[Former player] Larry Walker was over at Talking Stick against the Rockies when Baez hit that ball [on Wednesday night]. He looked at me like, Really? I said, I see it every day."

Sutcliffe has empathy for both sides of the Jeff Samardzija situation. He was a player in a similar position, but he never saw the kind of money the pitchers make today. How much is enough? Samardzija will be a free agent after the 2015 season, and every day he's not signed to a long-term deal makes him a day closer to free agency. And likely to be traded.

"Back in 1984, before the trade to the Cubs, [GM] Dallas Green said we have to sign you to an extension," Sutcliffe said. "When you get that close to free agency, you're crazy if you don't take a look at what's out there. The salaries have never gone down.

"In 1979 I won Rookie of the Year and Don Sutton told me, almost bitterly, 'You are so lucky, you're coming along right when the big money is going to hit.' In 1984, I thought he was right. He wasn't close to being right. They make more now in a year than I made in my whole career."

Not that Sutcliffe believes all pitchers deserve the big money.

"This quality stat thing [six innings, three runs or less], I asked Nolan Ryan about that," Sutcliffe said. "He said, 'Rick, in my day we would have called that a poor performance.' Now they get multiyear deals for a 4.05 ERA. Back in the day, we'd get released."

Sutcliffe is happy with helping out and giving his opinion to the Cubs front office, then giving it to baseball fans on ESPN once the regular season starts. He does miss the uniform and has turned down offers to manage or be a pitching coach in order to spend time with his family.

"There's nothing like having an impact on a win," Sutcliffe said. "There is no better feeling in the world."

Better off signing, not trading Samardzija

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
MESA, Ariz. -- You might think the time to trade Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija has come.

Contending teams with previous interest in the right-hander are losing pitchers on a near-daily basis. The Atlanta Braves are scrambling, as are the Arizona Diamondbacks because of injuries to top starters. Both have talked with the Cubs in the past about Samardzija.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith injuries to pitchers mounting across baseball, Jeff Samardzija could be in much higher demand.
Then on the same day the Oakland Athletics scratched starter Scott Kazmir from his start against the Cubs, they announced Jarrod Parker would undergo surgery. And A.J. Griffin is hurt for them as well.

Pitchers are dropping like flies.

It means the Cubs could get a king's ransom for Samardzija right? Maybe.

But it also underscores how fragile starting pitching can be. Samardzija is a horse who just reached the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career and hasn't spent any time on the disabled list. The urgency should be to sign him, not trade him.

The sides haven't had formative discussions on a long-term deal -- not even during talks to avoid arbitration -- in quite awhile because neither side will budge. But the Cubs can't afford to play hardball, not with their position player talent getting closer and closer to the big leagues. They need pitching. What they have on the mound in their system is looking better, but there's still a huge leap to be made.

Trading Samardzija still means replacing him in the coming years, and that will be expensive. The Cubs should dance with the devil they know because the one they know isn't all that bad. And he has proved to be healthy.

There are no guarantees in the health game when it comes to pitchers, but there are better bets than others, and Samardzija is probably as good a bet as you'll find. And if you think Samardzija is being unreasonable in his demands, remember, he isn't asking for Clayton Kershaw-type money.

Nor will he accept deals like Edwin Jackson's (four year, $52 million) or Matt Garza's (four years, $50 million with a fifth-year vesting option). Of those pitchers and Samardzija, who would you rather have on the mound for a contender? There's someone in between those examples -- Homer Bailey.

The Cincinnati Reds' 27-year-old righty just signed a six-year, $105 million deal. He's one year ahead of Samardzija as he would have been a free agent after 2014, but that's a small detail. The point is Homer Bailey is making $105 million.

Bailey is a fine pitcher with two no-hitters on his resume. His injury problems might be behind him (though he was scratched from a spring start last weekend) as he started 65 games over the past two seasons. But the Reds still rolled the dice. The Cubs need to do the same. Samardzija at 29 is only a couple years older than Bailey and that's easily offset by the fact that Bailey has thrown 853 career innings in the big leagues compared to Samardzija's 558.

Bailey's ERA last season (3.49 to 4.34) was better, but a lot of the other statistics over the past two years since Samardzija became a starter are comparable. And if you're a wins person, Bailey has never won more than 13, and he's playing for a playoff-caliber team right now. Even their salary structure is similar. Bailey made $5.35 million last season before signing his longer deal. Samardzija is making $5.34 million this season.

The point isn't to nitpick who's better -- Samardzija's career ERA is 4.19, Bailey's is 4.25. The point is there are enough similarities to use as a starting point for a contract. If Bailey got $105 million, can't Samardzija get $80 million or $90 million? It sounds crazy, but those are the going rates. Garza got $50 million and if he completes his contract without a disabled list stint all parties will be surprised. It's the opposite thought when it comes to Samardzija.

And this is worth repeating: If the Cubs don't spend now they will have to soon enough. There's no way they'll have enough within the system even if they do get a couple of good prospects back for Samardzija. And they all become injury risks. Samardzija checks so many boxes for the Cubs right now even if they overspend it will probably worth it.

He still hasn't had that dominant season from start to finish but neither has Bailey. In fact, it took him several years of starting and overcoming injuries to put together a solid year or two. Samardzija is in a similar position and hasn't been all that bad for a bad team.

"Sometimes there is going to be a natural gap where a player values himself for what he can do and the team has to factor in a little bit more what he has done," Cubs president Theo Epstein said this spring.

That might be true, but there are exceptions to the rule. And what Samardzija can do on a contending team has yet to be seen. Nothing has changed in the last 6-12 months even with the progression of Cubs hurlers on the farm. Roll the dice and sign Samardzija. He's going to get paid by someone.

Jackson on fastballs only: Just one game

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson shook off “fastball-gate” on Wednesday, saying he was just trying to work on that particular pitch in his last spring start against the Cleveland Indians.

Jackson, who threw 74 pitches over five innings against Cubs’ minor leaguers on Wednesday morning, was miffed that such a big deal was made about him throwing only fastballs that day.

“I got tired being asked about it,” Jackson said Wednesday afternoon. “[Eric] Gagne would go through a whole spring training throwing changeups. He would throw like two fastballs.”

Jackson insists he conveyed his plan to pitching coach Chris Bosio.

“I told him before the game,” Jackson explained. “I don’t know if they thought I was for real.”

The situation was exasperated by Cubs manager Rick Renteria’s insistence that he would talk to Jackson about the strategy, acknowledging he didn’t know that was his plan. Renteria backed off any concerns over the matter on Wednesday.

“He threw three [different] pitches today,” Renteria said. “He was doing what he wanted to do: work on his fastball command. He had a purpose and reason for doing what he was doing.”

Maybe the focus on such a small item in spring gets magnified for a pitcher who went 8-18 last season and is the only major free-agent acquisition in Theo Epstein’s reign as team president. Jackson has three years left on a four-year, $52 million deal he signed two winters ago.

Either way, Jackson says it was a non-issue.

“It was just a fastball day,” he said. “Get back to trusting the fastball. I still threw four-seamers, two-seamers, cutters, so it wasn’t all just one pitch.”

Jackson confirmed he threw off-speed pitches in his start against Cubs minor leaguers on Wednesday. With an off day on Thursday, the Cubs wanted Jackson to stay on schedule.

“It was just for one game,” Jackson said of his fastball-filled outing.

Sveum wants to manage again

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2
MESA, Ariz. -- Former Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum wants to manage again after reiterating his “shock” at being fired last October.

“I walked away with my head up with the understanding I knew what I wanted to do and did it (that) way, to get guys to play hard and prepare every day,” he said before coaching third base against the Cubs for the Kansas City Royals on Sunday. “People ask me, ‘would you do things differently?’ I say ‘no,’ if I could come up with something -- I don’t have that big of an ego -- but there’s nothing I would do differently.”

Sveum said it felt a little weird being in new Cubs Park -- he had input in the design of the practice facilities next door -- and he’s sorry he won’t be able to see the Cubs' rebuilding plan all the way to its conclusion.

“That was your vision at one time,” Sveum stated. “To see all those guys develop and be here through all that.”

Sveum says he got over the firing pretty quickly as the Royals called while “I was headed back to my apartment” after leaving Wrigley Field the day after the season. He went 127-197 as Cubs manager.

(Read full post)

Sveum thinks Castro can rebound

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2
Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesFormer Cubs manager Dale Sveum thinks shortstop Starlin Castro can return to All-Star form.

MESA, Ariz. -- Former Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum thinks shortstop Starlin Castro can return to All-Star form and admits the Cubs may have tried to change Castro’s hitting style too much.

“He was asked to take a lot of pitches and do all those kinds of things,” Sveum said before the Kansas City Royals played the Cubs on Sunday in a Cactus League game. “What if you had asked (free swinger) Vladimir Guerrero to walk and take pitches. If he’s just Starlin Castro and that’s all, is he going to get 200 hits all the time? Who knows that but I think he’s a .280 to .310 hitter on a consistent basis.”

Sveum is the third base coach of the Royals now and many link his firing last October to the regression in Castro’s game. Castro had 207 hits while batting .307 the year before Sveum became his manager, then dipped to .283 and .245 in two years under Sveum. But Sveum’s arrival coincided with the new front office, which takes as much blame as anyone for Castro’s problems.

“I think we made efforts to introduce him to the concept of getting pitches he can really drive because in the long run that will benefit him,” Team President Theo Epstein said last September. “But if that can't be accomplished without him being himself as a hitter, than you just have to let time play its course and he'll naturally evolve that way.

"With Starlin, if you try to throw too much at him -- which maybe at times we've been guilty of -- who knows, I think we've always been conscious of letting him be himself. In his case he's at his best if he's single-mindedly himself.”

(Read full post)

Optimism for future -- not this year

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
MESA, Ariz. -- Owner Tom Ricketts was obviously overly optimistic about his Chicago Cubs' chances this year when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday, but his take on his club might not be far off.

“The whole organization has a great vibe from top to bottom,” he said on the team's first full day of spring training. “Everyone knows we have a lot of talent coming up. It’s a great energy across the whole organization.”

That made perfect sense, but prior to those comments Ricketts indicated he felt like the Cubs “had a team that could go to the playoffs” this year. Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that’s a long shot at best. But we can excuse him since owners are supposed to be optimistic.

As for that “talent coming up,” the Cubs have one of the best farm systems in the game after years of ranking near the bottom in that area. That’s thanks to picking high in the draft and making the most of their veteran assets over the past couple years in the form of trades. It’s been the key to rebuilding the talent base, but also has sunk the Cubs in the standings.

“You can’t serve two masters,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said on Tuesday.

In other words, rebuilding from top to bottom isn’t realistically possible if you’re trying to contend. And vice versa.

“The nice part about the last couple of years, you see all the pieces start to fall into place,” Ricketts said.

Those pieces were under the same roof for the first time on Wednesday as position players joined pitchers and catchers in the clubhouse of the new spring facility.

Top picks such as Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant joined veterans Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija for a spring training that should highlight more young talent than this organization has seen in years. It’s part of the plan Ricketts entrusted Epstein with when he hired him away from the Boston Red Sox. But those prospects haven't seen a pitch at the major league level.

“I think our organization is in a great spot,” Ricketts reiterated. “I think those guys [the front office] are doing a brilliant job.”

Sure, there’s some irony in that excitement considering Ricketts had no answers Wednesday for the long delayed renovation of Wrigley Field, and players like Castro had to answer questions about a regression in his game -- but the Cubs feel their struggles will make the successes taste that much better.

“I think they’ve been reminded enough,” manager Rick Renteria said of the Cubs' history of failure. “What I do is try to think about today. That’s the focus. We’re moving past what’s already occurred.”

Ricketts deflected financial issues and/or restrictions regarding the sale of the team to his family in 2009 and says whatever issues they face, they will overcome. And they won’t stand in the way of payroll.

“We’ve looked at spots where a free agent would fit,” Ricketts said. “Ultimately that’s the budget on the baseball side. Those guys decide where those dollars go.”

And other than the pursuit of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the front office decided money was better kept in house than spent on middling free agents or those over 30 years old. It keeps with the plan.

“Like I’ve always said, you have to build a championship team and we’re doing that,” Ricketts said.

It simply won’t be built by this October -- no matter his optimism.

Theo still hopeful for Samardzija deal

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
MESA, Ariz. -- There hasn't been a breakthrough in long-term contract talks between the Chicago Cubs and pitcher Jeff Samardzija's camp, but team president Theo Epstein remains hopeful for a deal.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Matt YorkJeff Samardzija's Cubs fate should be decided by the July 31 trade deadline.
"Sometimes there is going to be a natural gap where a player values himself for what he can do and the team has to factor in a little bit more what he has done," Epstein said Tuesday. "It doesn't mean we're tremendously far apart, but if you are apart you kind of table it for another day and we'll see what happens."

Samardzija narrowly avoided salary arbitration this year when he signed for one season at $5.345 million. He would rather the Cubs rip that contract up and sign him to free agent-type money. There are two things that can change the dynamic of the negotiation: how Samardzija pitches and how the team is doing in the standings. The pitcher's performance is more likely to make a difference in the near future.

"All I can do is increase my value as much as possible," Samardzija said last week. "That helps the organization no matter what."

The Cubs have until the July 31 trade deadline to decide what to do with Samardzija. There's little chance they could sign him after this season, just one year away from free agency. At that point it's believed he would wait to test the open market after 2015.

"He's extremely competitive, that plays a role in negotiations," Epstein said.

The Cubs are basing their thoughts on what they've seen of Samardzija not what they might see in the future. What they saw last year was a pitcher who blew up as the Cubs fell out of the race. Samardzija's ERA was over 5.00 for each of the final three months after flashing greatness in April and May.

When asked what he would like Samardzija to improve on, Epstein said: "Maintaining his calm and composure when things start to escalate during the course of the game so he can relax and execute a pitch."

If Samardzija takes the next step, the Cubs might ante up. If Samardzija simply believes he can take the next step but doesn't prove it -- even for a losing team -- then he's as good as gone. The gap simply remains until Samardzija proves differently, if he can.

"If there wasn't a gap there I would have already signed," Samardzija said Friday.

Podcast: Theo talks prospects, Samardzija

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers talks with Cubs president Theo Epstein about the team's top prospects, his ongoing message to fans and contract negotiations with Jeff Samardzija.

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Vitters, Jackson still fighting to make it

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
Brett JacksonAP Photo/Morry GashCubs' prospect Brett Jackson struggled in his first major league experience.

MESA, Ariz. -- Vitters and Jackson. Jackson and Vitters.

The two former first-round picks of the Chicago Cubs are back for another spring training, but no longer are they the heir apparents at third base and center field.

If you’ve forgotten about them (it’s Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters by the way), it’s probably because they’ve been passed by more recent top draft picks. On the same day they arrived early to spring training so did 2012's first-rounder, Albert Almora, and 2013's top pick, Kris Bryant. They play center field and third base as well.

“I don’t know if I'll be able to fill the void in everyone's head of me because it's obviously pretty big,” Vitters said on Sunday morning. “But I think I can rejuvenate my career.”

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Cubs open camp; optimism still for future

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs front office knows what the world thinks of their team -- and they’re just fine with it. After back-to-back last place finishes they aren’t interested in convincing anyone that they’re on the verge of breaking the 105-year championship drought. But they believe year 106 will get them a lot closer.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
AP Photo/Matt YorkTheo Epstein and the Cubs front office are hoping their patient approach will pay off.
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” President Theo Epstein said on the opening day of spring training on Thursday. “There’s a real dichotomy on how the organization is perceived from the outside and how we look at it, internally. And the morale that we have, internally. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this organization.”

There’s little disputing that notion as every prospect ranking has the Cubs organization among the best in baseball. But until those prospects start producing more wins at the major league level, none of those rankings matter.

“The people that we have in place in this organization, I believe are impact," Epstein continued. “It takes time to turn an organization around but it’s happening. The people in this organization really believe that we’re on the verge of something special and we understand we’re perceived otherwise. And that’s our fault because we’ve been a last-place club the last couple years. We’re not protesting; we need to earn our way into a position where we’re championship contenders on an annual basis. We feel that is certainly moving in the right direction.”

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As spring home opens, Wrigley fixes wait

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12

MESA, Ariz. -- It's hard to marvel at the Chicago Cubs' new spring training facility without thinking about the stall in the long-awaited renovation of Wrigley Field.

Almost 2,000 miles away from where the Cubs play during the season -- under bright and warm sunny skies -- the team and community cut the ribbon on their state-of-the-art new spring home on Tuesday. The huge complex lives up to its hype.

"We have something special," Cubs president Theo Epstein said in a morning ceremony attended by the governor of Arizona, the mayor of Mesa and Cubs ownership. "No more excuses. If we can't get better here we can't get better anywhere."

[+] EnlargeRicketts
AP Photo/Matt YorkCubs owner Tom Ricketts discusses the team's new spring training complex Wednesday in Mesa.
Getting better in February and March is important, but not as important as where the players perform from April through September. By Epstein's thinking, the Cubs still have "excuses," considering the renovation of Wrigley Field has yet to begin. Part of that project includes better facilities for the players.

"We're talking," owner Tom Ricketts said Tuesday after the ceremony. "We're looking at different ideas. Everyone has incentive to get this done and hopefully at some point here we'll have a solution that works."

It's the same statement he's been making all along, except he expressed more optimism at the Cubs Convention last month. A meeting with rooftop owners days later killed that optimism but talks are ongoing. The deal comes down to one thing: the placement of the video board in left field.

"Look at this place here," Ricketts said, pointing to his new stadium in Mesa. "When people work together and they really focus on what they can accomplish together, you see great results."

That was said with an obvious nod to the problems in Chicago. Ricketts, with the help of Mesa mayor Scott Smith, deflected any other conversation away from Wrigley Field. He has good reason because the new spring home in Mesa is a complex unlike any other in the Cactus or Grapefruit league. The Cubs should be proud of it.

"Our facilities are the best in the game," Ricketts said.

He's probably right. The irony is, it only magnifies the Wrigley Field issues even more.



Emilio Bonifacio
.392 0 2 9
HRA. Rizzo 2
RBIA. Rizzo 8
RA. Rizzo 9
OPSE. Bonifacio .887
WJ. Hammel 2
ERAJ. Samardzija 1.29
SOT. Wood 17