The Cubs kicked off spring training with a press conference in Mesa on Tuesday, February 12 and even though it hasn’t been the busiest offseason from a signing perspective, there were a lot of subjects for Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to cover in a wide-ranging 45 minutes. Here are some of the highlights:
The theme is “Own It Now”
Leave it to Joe to start things off light. As usual the Cubs skipper has come to camp prepared with a team theme. He’s playing around with the idea of “Own it Now” and had a bit of a Yoda moment with this:
Now is Own rearranged and spelled backwards it also spells “Won.”
But really the point is that owning each moment and eventually the entire season is a big part of the Cubs success.
On falling short
Cubs fans have had a lot of time this offseason to ponder the abrupt end to 2018 and the team has been doing the same. Joe was quick to comment that no one liked the way the season ended and everyone is determined to get back and make a statement. I love this sentiment from him:
The goal every year is to play the last game of the season and win it, and that’s the same this year.
Theo agreed that the players really took last season to heart and want to channel it into something productive. He’s excited to approach 2019 with a highly motivated, talented group of players.
About a fifth of the press conference dealt with the Addison Russell suspension and the Cubs decision to tender him a non-guaranteed contract. Theo explained that he’s stayed in good contact with Russell, who he believes has made progress. However, as he did at Cubs Convention, Epstein stressed that it’s still early. In fact, his exact quote was “We’re in like the bottom of the second inning.” Theo said that he believes Addison is aware he’s been given a conditional second chance by this organization and laid out the teams expectations of Russell as follows:
He needs to put the work in to be a better person, a better teammate, a better father...he understands he needs to put in the work. He’s enthusiastically embraced therapy. He’ll speak to the media before player camp starts and will be happy to share with you the work he has put in.
I’ll be honest, we’ve heard a lot of this from Theo before, and I’ve never doubted his sincerity. It will be good to hear from Russell for a change.
The more interesting aspects of Theo’s remarks on the Cubs organizational approach to domestic violence were their outreach to Melisa Reidy and community organizations. He stressed that “every MLB player, coach, staff member... every Minor League player, staff member, coach, and front office member” are going through a pretty rigorous training to address and identify domestic violence. The team has added an elective healthy relationship training program for players’ families. There is also more intensive training for front office members who work directly with families so they can better identify problems and warning signs. He stressed that the team is taking every step they can to minimize risk while recognizing that it’s probably impossible to eliminate that risk completely.
The Cubs have re-engaged Family Rescue in Chicago after 20 years and they are continuing to engage with The House of the Good Shepherd, just blocks from Wrigley Field, in the hopes of being a small part of the solution.
When he was asked if it would have been easier to “cut ties” with Russell Theo said, “I don’t want to say anything with domestic violence is easy” and described a process of talking the issue through with trusted friends who he believes have “excellent moral compasses.” It’s worth noting that Epstein said those trusted advisers were split half and half between people who think the Cubs are on the right path and those who would have preferred cutting Russell because it sends a simpler, stronger message. He pledged to continue to be transparent and made a pretty unequivocal statement on what the team expects from Russell:
“We’ll continue to hold Addison to an incredibly high standard or he won’t play a regular season game as a Chicago Cub ever again.”
The ice cold stove
Epstein noted that the Cubs are still in touch with a lot of free agents and their representatives, but the only specific acquisition he mentioned were relievers for bullpen depth. Sorry, Bryce Harper fans.
The more interesting part of this conversation included Theo and Jed’s thoughts on the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Theo noted that he thought the 2021 CBA will be reordered for a more rapidly moving system. He also empathized with players who don’t know where they will play. He recognized how hard it was to get to free agency and the frustration players must feel when it doesn’t pan out the way they thought it would.
Hoyer was asked specifically about how tensions could rise in the next three years and if that would result in a strike. He noted that the process of moving the winter later has been happening gradually over the last ten years and admitted it’s reached a point where it’s gone too far. He also emphasized that work stoppages, labor strife and strikes are not not in anyone’s best interest.
Theo added that there has been zero animosity between the Cubs front office and players. He stressed transparency and mentioned that he’s had a number of conversations with Cubs players about market sharing and the team’s perspectives on it.
Joe Ricketts’ emails
Another fifth of the press conference focused on Joe Ricketts’ emails. When asked about front office outreach to the players in the wake of a number of troubling emails sent by Joe Ricketts that were published by Splinter News last month. Theo indicated that Tom Ricketts will address the team on the first day of camp as he always does, and this would be part of that discussion.
Theo echoed Tom’s earlier statement: “The views in those emails have no place in our organization, in the sport of baseball or in society” and condemned racism and Islamaphobia in all forms. Theo also recognized the impossibly hard position those emails put fans in relative to their favorite team and stressed the importance of diversity in baseball.
He later continued that diversity was important on the field, for fans and in the front office:
It’s not just the right thing to do it, it helps you win. Without diversity you don’t have the best ideas and backgrounds to see everything...It applies to our fan base as well. Every one of our fans should feel as welcome as the rest.
Finally, he recognized that actions were important here and noted that Tom immediately reached out to Muslim-American organizations to start a conversation with them to move forward on this issue. He stressed that that meeting was “reported” as opposed to leaked from the Cubs and that it wasn’t meant to be a PR operation.
Joe Maddon on “hands on” management
Joe got a few questions about how his managing style might change this year and said it might be hard to see from the outside, but noted he’d be doing more hands on coaching behind the scenes. He described himself as having a “graduate degree” in hitting and an “undergraduate degree” in catching and maybe base running. He seemed excited to get back to work and be more “in the moment.”
Joe was careful to distinguish his approach from small ball saying “I don’t like station to station, I like first to third, second to home, etc.” and emphasized that he likes home runs as much as every other part of the game. He did note that batters are at the greatest disadvantage because of analytics. So it’s important to be able to do it all.
On banning the shift
While I’m not entirely sure what Joe meant when he answered this question with “I’m an organic guy,” I think it will surprise no one that Joe isn’t part of the crew that wants to ban the shift. He does want to try to beat the shift and noted that the Cubs players are still young and still learning.
There was a humorous moment as Joe described using the shift against the Red Sox with Theo piping up in the background with “Papi used to curse you out.” Joe got a kick out of that and discussed how much David Ortiz hated it when the Rays used four outfielders against him.
Honestly, it was nice to see a bit of levity in a press conference that needed to cover so many heavy issues. There have been a number of non-baseball developments that have stolen the spotlight at times this offseason. While I’m happy to have a front office and management team who is willing to address these important issues, I’ll be a lot more excited if they can put some of these issues behind them so I can truly enjoy some Cubs baseball again later this month.