The emphasis in the first three seasons under Theo Epstein has been to restock the Minor League system and build a foundation of impact players. In 2015, Epstein feels the Cubs will take a major step and not just develop players, but be competitive.
“I think we’ve proved we can be very competitive in this division and when you have a chance to compete, you should set your sights high and that means our goal is the [National League] Central title next year,” Epstein said Tuesday.
Here are some highlights from a 40-minute media session at Wrigley Field:
* The Cubs will be looking for impact talent via free agency but Epstein cautioned that any deal has to make sense and they will not “sell out just for 2015.” Among the needs are another starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever, and outfield help. The next 15 months will be key in terms of player acquisitions, he said. That time frame includes this coming offseason, the next Trade Deadline, and next offseason.
* They are aware that some of the young talent still needs time, such as Javier Baez, who batted .169 with 95 strikeouts in 52 games after he was called up Aug. 5. Baez is expected to be the Cubs’ Opening Day second baseman, Epstein said. He’s a perfect example of the theme Epstein projected for 2015.
“We’re being open about the fact that we’re here to compete and our goal is to win the [division] title, but at the same time we’re not going to bail on our young players, we’re not going to abandon our vision,” he said. “We just have to make the tough decisions and strike that balance the right way.”
* Epstein admitted Renteria had some limitations with the roster, such as relievers who were restricted because of past injuries and youngsters without much experience. But the manager did fulfill many of the criteria laid out for him, such as developing a positive attitude, setting a good tone for the players and getting them to play hard.
“He established an environment where our young players could continue to grow and feel support, and where they could learn how to be big leaguers, and where they could learn how to win,” Epstein said.
* Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm will stay in the bullpen for 2015, and not be considered for the rotation.
* The Cubs have not made as much improvement in terms of on-base percentage as Epstein would like.
“Frankly, it’s one of the areas where we haven’t had a lot of success,” he said.
* Epstein’s feelings on the Cardinals? He says: “How do you balance admiration and contempt? I’m a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals, but I also admire the way they run their baseball shop. They’re really consistent, they make good decisions, all the way back to George Kissell. They teach the game the right way, they stay true to the vision of how to play Cardinal baseball. In some respects, and I hate to say this on the record, but we have to do a lot of things that they do to be successful. On the other hand, I think we’re building something that has a chance to go toe to toe with them and surpass them. I think we have a chance to win this division and win it on a consistent basis, and we’re going to need to beat them to win the World Series.”
He feels the NL Central is becoming a powerhouse. When Epstein first joined the Cubs in October 2011, he thought the NL Central would be a little easier than the AL East.
“I was dead wrong,” Epstein said. “If you look forward over the next five years, or so, I think this has a chance to be the most competitive and best division in baseball. When you have the talent to compete you should set your sights high.”
— Carrie Muskat
The Cubs coaching staff will remain intact for 2015 with the exception of assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley, who will likely be re-assigned in the organization, possibly as a scout. Theo Epstein made the announcement Tuesday at Wrigley Field. That means manager Rick Renteria’s staff will include bench coach Brandon Hyde, pitching coach Chris Bosio, hitting coach Bill Mueller, first base coach Eric Hinske, third base coach Gary Jones, bullpen coach Lester Strode, catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, quality assurance coach Jose Castro and assistant Franklin Font. This was Brumley’s first season on the Cubs coaching staff.
CSNChicago.com’s Patrick Mooney compiled a “Year in Cubs Quotes,” which summed up some of the highs and lows of the 2014 season. Here are excerpts:
* “It’s as peaceful as I’ve ever been as a person.” — Rick Renteria, the 53rd manager in franchise history, at the opening of spring training, Feb. 13.
* “You guys are going to crown them the next Babe Ruth.” — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, responding to reporters asking about all the prospects, Feb. 18.
* “Just be myself. Be me. My mind’s clean and ready to play hard.” — shortstop Starlin Castro, promising to return to an All-Star level, Feb. 19.
* “It sucks for the person who parked there. They’re parking too close to the field.” — mega-prospect Javier Baez, after shattering a car window with a batting-practice bomb at Cubs Park, Feb. 21.
* “(Baez) doesn’t care. He’s like: ‘Oh, cool.’ Not cool for whoever’s car it was, I guess.” — eyewitness Logan Watkins, Feb. 21.
* “Losing sucks.” — Theo Epstein, after a reporter asked if winning is “overemphasized” in professional sports, April 22.
* “I was pretty hungry for that one.” — Jeff Samardzija, after allowing one unearned run in nine innings and throwing 126 pitches during a 12-inning loss to the White Sox, May 5.
* “I do believe in second chances. I do believe in redemption. I do believe that Manny has turned his life around for the better in the last couple of years.” — Epstein, stunning the baseball world by signing Manny Ramirez to a minor-league deal as a player/coach for Triple-A Iowa, May 25.
* “I got some goose bumps there. That’s kind of why you play this game, for moments like that.” — Jake Arrieta, after being four outs away from a no-hitter against the Red Sox and getting a standing ovation at Fenway Park, June 30.
* “We shared a beer and a cigarette and sent him on his way. It’s just tough to see your boys leave.” — James Russell’s farewell to Samardzija, July 5.
* “We certainly hope that this is the last year that we’ll be obvious sellers at the trade deadline.” — Epstein, July 5.
* “I got beer. I got chocolate milk. I got hair gel. I got shampoo. I got body wash. And then I got some more beer. It was great. Best shower I’ve ever taken.” — catcher John Baker, after pitching the 16th inning and scoring the game-winning run to beat the Rockies in the longest game in franchise history, July 29-30.
* “I was like: ‘Are you serious?’ And then I realized I was really going to the big leagues. I got really excited. I called my mom, told my brother and everybody started jumping around and crying.” — Javier Baez, before debuting at Coors Field and hitting the game-winning homer against the Rockies, Aug. 5.
* “The best thing to happen to the whole city of Chicago this summer — certainly from a baseball standpoint — was put together by 13-, 12-year-old kids from the South Side. At industry meetings, in lots of front offices around the game, people talk about (it). People ask the question: How can we get young kids playing baseball again, especially in cities, especially in the inner-city? There’s nothing that a bunch of suits in a boardroom can do that would be as powerful as what those 12-year-old kids did to demonstrate how compelling the game of baseball can be, make baseball cool again for young kids.” — Epstein, on the Jackie Robinson West team that won a national title at the Little League World Series, Aug. 27.
* “We’re just waiting for Bryant now.” — Baez, after Jorge Soler hit two homers to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis, Aug. 29.
* “To be the NL Central champs … that’s the message we’re going to send.” — Rizzo’s expectations for next year’s team, Sept. 28.
As the playoffs get underway, two Major League scouts offered their take on the National League Central contenders. The Pirates play host to the Giants on Wednesday in the Wild Card game at PNC Park. Here’s their take on the Bucs:
“In my opinion, what makes him such a good hitter is he has very minimal movement at the plate and a very quick bat,” said one scout. “It allows him to get a good long look at the ball, and therefore swing at more pitches in the zone. You can’t pitch him any one way — you have to mix up speeds and locations. His preference is to pull but he can/will use the opposite field and has some power that way as well. He’s a good all-around hitter with a great feel for the strike zone. The best way to get him out is to move the ball around the zone on him and if he doesn’t bite, make the next guy beat you and don’t let McCutchen beat you.”
“He’s a great story, and I’m rooting for him,” a scout said. “He has got a chance to play and has run with it. He can hit the ball the other way, not with authority, not like McCutchen, but his preference is to pull. He starts with an open stance and closes up with a soft dive in toward the plate. Harrison has some hook to his swing. With two strikes, he will gear down a touch and take more of a right center look to help him try to cover all pitches. You have to show him something in hard during the at-bat or he will go out and hook you to left field. He has filled in nicely at third base, making some nice plays.
“Pittsburgh’s secret weapon is no longer a secret — Josh Harrison has burst on the scene and is making a name for himself with his play. Manager Clint Hurdle knows how to get his guys motivated to play and is a good motivational manager.”
“He’s one of the most exciting players in the game today,” said a second scout. “He’s an elite athlete who can beat you in so many ways. ‘Cutch’ can beat you with his offense, his defense and also his legs. He is the one guy that you can’t let beat you with the game on the line. He forces the defense to hurry on any routine ground ball and hustles down the line each time.
“Defensively, he has great baseball instincts and gets tremendous reads off the bat. He has a slightly above avg arm and is usually pretty accurate with his throws. He is a special player and will be in the MVP conversations again this year.”
“Harrison is a guy who grinded it out over the last few years and blossomed with the opportunity he has been given,” the scout said. “Josh is a special player in the fact he offers so much versatility giving the Pirates much flexibility when it comes to using him in so many different positions. Josh, a former college shortstop, can play all over the infield as well as the outfield. Guys like Josh are irreplaceable for a National League team like the Pirates. Josh has been a spark in the leadoff spot and was battling for the batting title. He’s settled in at third and is very athletic. He makes all the routine plays and most of the exciting ones. He plays with emotion and hustles each and every time out of the box and forces the defense to hustle and get the ball in as he will turn a single into a double very quickly. He has a good arm with power. Paired with McCutchen, they offer a dynamic 1-2 punch.”
— Carrie Muskat
Baseball historian Bill Chuck provided these nuggest from the 2014 season:
1. In 2014, 15 MLB teams finished above .500, 15 teams below, and no team finished at .500.
2. No team had more home wins than the Angels (52), road wins than the Dodgers (49), Interleague wins than the Royals (15), and extra-inning wins than the Orioles (14).
3. Dodgers starters had the most wins this season with 76. The Diamondbacks the fewest with 41. Angels starters had the fewest losses with 42, the Twins and the Padres had the most with 70. The Indians bullpen had the most wins with 34, the Reds the fewest with 11. The Giants relief staff had the fewest losses with 14, the White Sox had the most with 32.
4. Freddie Freeman was the only player to play every game and every inning. He finished with 1448.2 inning played.
5. The players who played in the most wins this season are Mike Trout and Albert Pujols who appeared in 96 of the Angels 98 victories.
6. Ben Revere played in 86 of the Phillies 89 losses. No player played in more losses, including his teammate Chase Utley who appeared in 85 defeats.
7. In the 67 Astros victories in which Jose Altuve played, he hit .391. In the 64 White Sox victories in which Jose Abreu played, he hit .385.
8. You have to go back to 2006 to find a season in which an AL East did not have a postseason representative as a Wild Card team. The last time before that was 2002.
Games played: Luis Valbuena, 149
RBI: Anthony Rizzo, 78
Hits: Starlin Castro, 154
Home runs: Rizzo, 32
Doubles: Valbuena and Castro, 33 each
Batting average: Castro .292
Wins: Jake Arrieta, 10
Losses: Edwin Jackson, 15
ERA (starter): Kyle Hendricks 2.46 (13 games), Jake Arrieta 2.53 (25 games)
Innings pitched (starter): Travis Wood, 173 2/3 innings
Strikeouts (starter): Arrieta, 167
Quality starts: Arrieta, 18
Innings pitched (reliever): Justin Grimm, 69
ERA (reliever): Neil Ramirez, 1.44
Games (reliever): Grimm, 73
Strikeouts (reliever): Pedro Strop, 71
Saves: Hector Rondon, 29
* Cubs starting pitchers recorded 79 quality starts, yet had only 40 individual wins in those games.
* Ten players made their Major League debut: Rafael Lopez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, Matt Szczur, Javier Baez, Dallas Beeler, Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Eric Jokisch, and Tsuyoshi Wada.
* Starlin Castro led the Cubs with 386 assists, made 15 errors for .973 fielding percentage.
* The Cubs and White Sox finished 73-89 this season, the first time in the city’s history that the two teams posted identical records.
* If you’re looking ahead, the Cubs will pick ninth in the June 2015 First-Year Player Draft, according to MLBTradeRumors. Here’s the order based on how teams finished 2014:
2. Astros (for failure to sign 2014 No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken)
7. Red Sox
8. White Sox
The first 11 picks are protected, meaning that teams cannot lose those picks for signing free agents who have been extended qualifying offers.
— Carrie Muskat