Cubs

Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

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Theo sees changes coming to Wrigley (or bust)

The Cubs lost 101 games last season and it has been 104 years and counting since their last World Series title. But if you are willing to overlook that and suspend your disbelief, you can actually see the pieces forming for a mega-team.

This is the time to do it, with temperatures around the freezing point, pitchers and catchers less than a month away from reporting to Arizona and the fanfest downtown this weekend. Get ready to hear all about the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland As and the Cubs wondering: Why not us?

The Cubs will point to the outliers, how the Orioles flipped their record from the year before and went 93-69, how the As won 20 more games and the American League West. But the Cubs are really gearing up for 2015, when they think they can emerge as no-doubt-about-it contenders and stay at that level.

The forces are lining up that way, from the monster television deals on the horizon, to the prime years with guys like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro to the ETA for some prospects in Chicago this week, getting a taste of life in the big city as part of the rookie development program.

And the juice that will come with a renovated Wrigley Field. Team president Theo Epstein was coy on Wednesday when asked for an update on those plans.

Um, I think there will be some sharing of information on that later this week, so I dont want to be a spoiler, Epstein said. Well see what happens this weekend.

The Cubs had stopped at a Marine Corps base on the Northwest Side to serve lunch as part of their winter caravan, which leads up to their convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. Its unclear how this idea would be financed, but an official press release highlighted a Renew Wrigley Field session on Saturday with the teams business executives, who like to make news during that space.

There will be a lot of talk about the future, where Javier Baez might fit, whether or not Brett Jackson can become a core player and how much longer fans will have to wait to see Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.

But Epstein believes this is a team that can compete right away.

Absolutely, otherwise theres no reason to show up or build a team, Epstein said. Its postseason or bust every year. Thats what our goal is. Now that said, were obviously building for something greater, which is a time when we can expect to be in the postseason every year.

So behind the scenes, regardless of the results, theres progress being made. But as far as 2013, you can define it as a success or failure by whether we make the postseason and, ultimately, whether we win the World Series.

There are stories every year about teams that dont necessarily look like the favorites on paper that find their way playing meaningful games in September and playing into October and playing deep into October.

What else is he supposed to say?

Well, Epstein thinks Matt Garza and Scott Baker should be ready for an Opening Day rotation that will include Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

Dale Sveum sees Rizzo and Castro taking huge leaps forward, and a deeper bullpen with Carlos Marmol as closer and Kyuji Fujikawa setting up in the eighth inning. The manager welcomes greater expectations in Year 2.

The one thing you hate doing is saying: You know, .500 will be good. Because its not good, Sveum said. Its not 101 losses, but .500 isnt getting you to the playoffs.

Nothings acceptable except playing in the playoffs. The thing that you cant fall victim to is (saying): Yeah, we are obviously in a transition in the organization. We are trying to get it healthy. Dont fall into the category that we cant win right now. Baseballs a funny thing.

But this front office isnt hoping for a one-year fluke. Epstein insisted that signing Jackson to a four-year, 52 million deal was consistent with his philosophy. It made sense given Jacksons age (29) and durability (180-plus innings the past five seasons) combined with the organizations financial flexibility and lack of impact pitchers.

As Epstein said: I dont think we ever wanted to get into a situation where we had to wake up one day and say: Oh, now were going to be competitive. We have to go sign Players X, Y and Z. Thats not a good position to be in, so adding the right piece as you go along that fits the present and the future is something that well certainly be open to.

But the Cubs are still in a place where theyre willing to see if Ian Stewart and Nate Schierholtz can become everyday players. They arent quite ready to sacrifice a draft pick and part of their signing-bonus pool to sign a free agent.

And if it doesnt work out in 2013, well, Cubs fans are already used to hearing this message: Wait until next year.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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