Theo Epstein doesn't give a lot of interviews. Thus, his meeting with reporters Tuesday night in Milwaukee was of particular interest as he gave some thoughts on where the team stands going into the offseason. From Mark Gonzales' Tribune article, here are the areas Theo addressed, and my thoughts. You are, of course, welcome to add yours in the comments.
Cubs President Theo Epstein praised Dale Sveum for providing a "calming effect" during two dismal seasons but stopped short of announcing the manager will return in 2014. This shouldn't raise red flags yet, as Epstein is in the midst of evaluations with the entire baseball operations department that will include Sveum, who is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015. "That's something that gets addressed after the season," Epstein said Tuesday night. "No alarm bells to ring. That's a subject that gets addressed as a matter of process and is routine after the season, after a period of evaluation that we're in the midst of right now."
COMMENT: That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of Dale, is it? Theo stopped short of the dreaded "vote of confidence", which usually means a firing in a couple of weeks, but it doesn't seem as if he's 100 percent committed to retaining Sveum through the third year of his contract in 2014. It should be noted that the team always has these sorts of evaluations of the entire organization at meetings that usually happen after the season ends. The fact that they appear to be having such evaluations now, to me, doesn't really mean anything other than they want to get a head start on offseason plans.
Epstein said he had a 'long talk" with Sveum and the coaching staff about ways to improve the Cubs. The biggest priority for the Cubs is to improve an offense that ranks 14th in on-base percentage, although Epstein said he doesn't want to short-change other areas. He also will take a "multi-dimensional" approach to upgrading rather than exploit free agency. "We want to lead the league on getting on base," Epstein said. "You can still hit for power while doing it. We want to play good defense at every position on the field. We want to have pitchers who throw strikes and still get swings and misses. "It's hard to do all those things. That's the standard. Right now we're clearly nowhere close to where we want to be offensively. And getting on base is going to be a hallmark of this organization. And we're not good at it yet."
COMMENT: There's nothing wrong with being the team that "leads the league in getting on base." To the contrary, that should absolutely be an organizational goal. Cubs teams in the past have been very poor at drawing walks. Acquiring and developing players like this is something the team has been working on, and should continue to work on. However, in regard to Starlin Castro:
"We made an effort to introduce (Castro) to the concept of getting a pitch he can really drive, because in the long run, that can benefit him," Epstein said. "But if that can't be accomplished without him being himself as a hitter, you have to let time play its course, and he'll naturally evolve that way." Epstein admitted the Cubs, at times, might have thrown too much information at him in an effort to help him be a more patient hitter. "He hasn't been a more disciplined, patient hitter the way we would want this year," Epstein said. "That's fine. At a time this year, he lost his base, who he was as a hitter. He's in the process of re-establishing that. Over the next 1,000 at-bats or so, you can see him swing at more pitches he can drive."
COMMENT: "Too much information"? Yeah, you could put it that way. Or, more correctly in my view, they took a hitter who had an approach that had succeeded for over 1,000 at-bats and messed him up, resulting in an awful season. Epstein says they want Castro to be "a more disciplined, patient hitter". Does he not understand that not every player is wired that way? You can't turn every hitter into that. In my view, Castro was a solid major-league hitter with the approach he came to the big leagues with and succeeded with for more than two full seasons. Why mess with him?
Epstein believed the bullpen was upgraded significantly since the start of the season and believes the Cubs have internal candidates to fill their closer role next season.
COMMENT: The bullpen is absolutely better than it was when the season began. That wasn't a high bar to hurdle, unfortunately. The "internal candidates" clearly include Pedro Strop; it's not clear whether that also meant the Cubs intend to retain Kevin Gregg, or whether there are internal candidates other than Strop. (It's not likely Kyuji Fujikawa will be ready to pitch until after the All-Star break in 2014.) This will again be an area the team will have to address in the offseason.
"A lot of the most talented young hitters we have coming tend to be aggressive, not naturally on the patient side," Epstein said. "They're going to hit for a lot of power, but we are challenging ourselves every day to change that over the course of the long haul. "How do we create patience? We don't have a real example of that at the big league level. We're going to get there. Can we make that an immediate priority for 2014? I hope so, but we're not going to sell out to do it."
COMMENT: This makes sense; of course you want more patient hitters. The more baserunners, the better. However, again, as noted above, if you have good hitters who are aggressive and not patient, who have had success being that way, why try to change them?There's one more thing mentioned by Theo that wasn't in the Tribune article, but was covered by Patrick Mooney at CSN Chicago:
Cubs fans already tired of hearing wait-until-next-year shouldn’t get too excited about shopping for free agents this winter. For all the noise about Dale Sveum and his decisions to bunt and how the manager uses his bullpen, the real issue with this team is talent. And that goes to the top – how the Ricketts family plans to fund the operation and make this a big-market team again. It’s Crane Kenney’s business side not whiffing on the TV deals and whether or not Theo Epstein’s front office can pick the right players. All the Chicago Way gridlock surrounding a $500 million neighborhood project means the Cubs can’t tap into the projected revenues from a renovated Wrigley Field yet. “Unfortunately, because of the delays, that’s not something we’re planning on this winter,” Epstein said Tuesday at Miller Park.
COMMENT: Please note, I am NOT necessarily advocating for a big free-agent signing, simply noting what Theo said about it.
I think, overall, Theo is learning that turning around the baseball fortunes of this franchise is not going to be as easy, nor be done as quickly, as he had hoped coming in. He's got three years left on his contract. Will the Cubs be back in contention by the end of that deal? Only time will tell.