Let's be honest about this from the get-go.
The sessions with Cubs Presidents Theo Epstein and Crane Kenney, four of them Friday and Saturday at the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago, are pep rallies sponsored by the team to encourage season-ticket renewals. The reason these are being held now -- last year, they were in November -- is that the team has moved up the deadline for season-ticket deposits to next Monday.
It was a well-produced and choreographed pep rally, I'll give them that. Several slickly-produced videos were shown, going over things from the restoration project at Wrigley Field, to the construction of the new spring-training complex and the academy in the Dominican Republic, to progress that was made on the field in 2014 and a summary of the prospects in the system that you all know about. Great focus was placed on Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro as young team leaders, and Theo specifically spoke of Rizzo developing into a leader "on and off the field."
There wasn't much news made here. The two men spoke individually before joining on stage for the Q&A session. About the only newsworthy thing that was said came from Kenney, who said that the team "hopes" to have a new TV contract in place by the end of the calendar year. Using baseball terminology, he said negotiations are in "extra innings." He wasn't specific about who the team is negotiating with, but he praised WGN-TV as a longtime partner even while saying "other partners have emerged," and again mentioned the fact that after 2019, the team could sell all of its games in a single package. He also said that the new radio deal, with WBBM/CBS, is "the third most lucrative radio deal in the league." Presumably, that is one of the things that could bring more revenue to the team.
Kenney spoke at length about the new signage that's going up with the bleacher expansion, and when questioned about the dispute between the team and the rooftop owners and why the Cubs simply didn't buy them out, he said that the rooftops make $25 million a year, and that the prices asked for buyout by the rooftops were so high that they decided that putting up signs was the only alternative. He did reiterate the team's stated position that the new video boards won't be doing "Kiss Cam" or other silliness that we see in other team's parks, but instead would have relevant statistical information and provide replay review video. Presumably, these video boards would also carry advertising of some type -- otherwise, why put them there? Kenney did speak about the "partnerships" they have made with various advertisers that have brought much-needed revenue to the team.
Kenney said they had listened to season-ticket holders on the preservation of Wrigley Field and claimed that the park will look "the same" except for the new signage, adding, "We have a responsibility to preserve the past while upgrading the facilities. We promise to do it responsibly." He noted they're on a tight time frame, given that they have to work in winter weather, as well as have people from the landmarks commission there "every other day." In addition to the bleacher reconstruction and "two" outfield signs, they are going to be doing concrete and steel work from Gate K to the home-plate area this winter (the left-field side) and excavating for the new clubhouse, which will be ready for 2016. He said they'd built in some weather days this winter and are hoping for better weather this year than last (it could hardly be worse!).
Epstein was almost conciliatory in his tone, saying multiple times that he appreciated the "patience" of season-ticket holders while they rebuild from the ground up. You have heard, no doubt, from reports by various writers over the last couple of weeks that many players say they want to compete for the division title in 2015. Epstein said that in the exit interviews they had with players in the season's final weekend in Milwaukee, players told him that and also laid out the offseason workout plans they had, something Epstein said they usually have to remind players. He seemed quite pleased that the players had done this on their own.
He spoke at length about the various trade acquisitions and draft picks that the Cubs have made under his tenure, from Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber, to Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Billy McKinney and Addison Russell. He said the Cubs are now at a "transition point" at which they can now spend some money, making a specific point that they have "payroll flexibility" even before any additional revenue comes in. However, he also mentioned the 15-month timeframe we've heard before, which would include both this offseason and the one of 2015-16. But he made a point several times of saying, "We are ready to compete." At the same time, he reminded everyone that "progress is not linear" and that they wouldn't "sell out" the future just to make 2015 "the year," but again mentioned that they do intend to try to contend for the N.L. Central title next season.
For those of you who aren't Jim Hendry fans, you should know that Theo twice praised Hendry, first for finding and signing Starlin Castro and then for drafting Javier Baez. He mentioned that Baez is "fully aware" he needs to make adjustments and said Baez is already at work doing that. He compared Baez' struggles to the struggles that Rizzo had when he first came to the major leagues at a similar age with the Padres.
Theo thinks the team has done "five or six seasons' worth of work in three years" and gave kudos to everyone in the organization for their hard work, whether it's the players in the system or the scouts who have helped find the players he's traded for. He noted that they'll need to add players this offseason, not only "impactful" starting pitchers (and he said they have room for one, "or two"), but veterans who have on-base skills and contact ability. He said he was very happy with the young bullpen core: Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm, as well as good performances from Chris Coghlan, Luis Valbuena and Welington Castillo.
He admitted that signing Edwin Jackson was a "mistake" that he certainly wouldn't do again if he had to do it over, but did say Jackson "worked hard" and hopes he can do better next year. (No talk of whether they're trying to trade him, but I suspect that doesn't really need to be said.)
The Q&A session, moderated by CSN Chicago's David Kaplan (who you can see in the photo above). ranged from the logistical (talk of the 40-man roster) to requests to stop "festival seating" in the Terrace Reserved section. Apparently, there's a lot of people sitting just about anywhere in that area; Kenney said they'll have new concession points of sale when renovations are complete, but my guess is that this kind of thing will stop when the team is better and more seats get sold. There were also silly questions (someone wanted the team to enforce a "dress code" for uniforms; the man doesn't like pants down to the ankles) and one from a kid who wanted to know if there would be a companion mascot for Clark ("Addison," he called it, and I think one mascot is enough!).
Both Erik Peterson and I were next in line to ask questions when they closed the mics. Were they afraid of us? We both had questions relating to the TV deal, nothing too scary.
Speaking of which, Erik is going to write something up on his perspective of this session, which will be posted sometime over the weekend. I thought it would be interesting for you to see two different viewpoints on what we both saw and heard.
Everyone in attendance got a couple of free concession items at the theater's concession stand as well as an official MLB baseball with the 100th anniversary logo. The lower level of the theater was about two-thirds full; I'm guessing the later sessions, late afternoon Friday and two on Saturday, might be better-attended.
As I said, this was designed to get people excited about the future of Cubs baseball and to re-up their season tickets. You all know already what I'm going to do with mine; whether the rest of the people in the audience, some of whom (via questions they asked) have been STH longer than I have, are going to do so is up to them. If you look at it that way, as a sales pitch, it was certainly a success. Now the team simply has to put results on the field that match the optimism shown Friday afternoon in downtown Chicago.