Theo Epstein knows he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, at least not until the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. There’s no better job to leverage and too much unfinished business. If this team is as good as advertised, why let someone else ride in the parade down Michigan Avenue?
Chairman Tom Ricketts understands he can’t afford to let his president of baseball operations walk out of the team’s Clark Street headquarters in a gorilla suit. It would be a PR nightmare for an image-conscious franchise still trying to finish the Wrigley Field renovations and potentially launch a new TV network.
Now in the fifth and final year of his contract, Epstein realizes his history with the Boston Red Sox will create suspicions. But despite the ugly ending in Boston – and the financial handcuffs in place at the start of the Wrigleyville teardown – don’t expect him to go on sabbatical and follow Pearl Jam to South America.
Ricketts is a long-term, big-picture thinker who lets people do their jobs and believes in building through the farm system. Epstein wants to take care of his department – general manager Jed Hoyer is also in the last year of his deal – and he should get paid after last year’s 97-win surge.
If the Los Angeles Dodgers set a baseline with Andrew Friedman – roughly five years and $35 million – what’s Epstein’s price with two World Series titles already on his resume?
Cubs pitchers and catchers formally report to Arizona on Friday and the boardroom intrigue will be one behind-the-scenes storyline during a camp where the focus will be on the field and a clubhouse that expects to pop champagne bottles again in October.
Jake the Snake
Jake Arrieta will channel his inner Texas cowboy and brush aside any concerns about the year-after effects from throwing almost 250 innings. But remember what he said on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America conference call after winning the National League Cy Young Award.
“You can train and you can prepare and you can be in top physical condition,” Arrieta said. “But without having a workload like that under your belt, it’s natural for your body at some point to wear down and let yourself know that: ‘Hey, we’re getting into an area where we haven’t necessarily been before.'
“The fatigue did set it in. I’ll be the first to tell you. But physically my body was in better shape than it’s ever been. There was nothing alarming to me. It was just something that is very comparable to 'dead arm.'"
Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) had one of the greatest individual seasons ever for a pitcher, and he did it in a way that included his teammates, with a sense of swagger that captivated fans, turning his starts into must-see TV.
But that’s still Arrieta’s only wire-to-wire season in The Show.
War of Attrition
The Cubs stayed remarkably healthy last season, with Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks all making at least 31 starts. But they probably won’t be so lucky this year and will need swingmen Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood to survive the marathon, especially since the farm system doesn’t have anyone close to stepping into a playoff-caliber rotation.
The Cubs are giving Hammel the benefit of the doubt, believing he’s over the leg issues that contributed to his second-half fade (5.10 ERA) last year. The expectation is a new-season outlook and a different strength-and-conditioning program will help him get back to what he was before the All-Star break (2.86 ERA).
Hendricks has a Dartmouth College degree and gets typecast as the thinker. But he’s tougher and more athletic than he gets credit for, putting up 180 innings, a 3.95 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP during a year where even he admitted he struggled to get a feel for his pitches and find a rhythm.
The Cubs also think Warren in particular could be sneaky good outside of the American League East after getting traded from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro deal.
“We know going into the year, however you dream up those 1,400 innings,” Epstein said, “it’s not going to come out exactly how you anticipate. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have underperformance. You’re going to have some guys pleasantly surprise you.
“You know you’re going to make a trade at some point. You’re going to sign a couple guys off the scrap heap. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and impress. You’re going to have someone come up from Triple-A and disappoint.
“You just hope that you’re strong enough and healthy enough as an organization – and open-minded enough and talented enough – that through the course of the year you put a pretty good product out there and you answer the bell more often than not.
“I think we will.”
Joe Maddon isn’t the first guy to show up at the ballpark or the last one to leave at night. He won’t lock himself in the film room to break down swings and pitching mechanics. He won’t apologize for his outside interests or pretend he thinks about baseball 24/7.
Maddon’s job is managing people and he makes it look easy.
But beyond the mix-and-match pitching staff – Hammel will still probably be looking over his shoulder the third time through the lineup – Maddon will also have to juggle a versatile group of position players and massage all the egos.
Will there be enough at-bats to keep Miguel Montero and Chris Coghlan and everyone else happy? Is Kyle Schwarber an outfielder or a catcher or a designated hitter? Can Jorge Soler finally stay healthy? Will Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense translate in center field? Is Javier Baez really built for a super-utility role and ready to become the next Ben Zobrist?
Setting aside the $276 million spending spree during the offseason, this team has been years in the making. If everyone stays healthy, the Cubs might only be focusing on one or two roster spots during March Madness.
You will hear a lot about the Cubs playing with a target on their back now and getting everyone’s best shot and all the other clichés. Some of it will be talk-show formula and spring-training filler.
But these are real issues, making sure the veterans accept their roles and the young guys don’t get too comfortable or start to feel untouchable while everyone keeps telling them how great they are.
Players aren’t robots or PECOTA projections. The Cubs had unbelievable dance-party chemistry in 2015. But last year is over, and this group will have to create a new identity.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Schwarber said.