(Photo by Stephen Green)
For the January issue of Vine Line, we talked to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein about the state of the organization. In part one of the interview, Epstein talked about his first year with the team and instituting the Cubs Way throughout the system. In part two, we cover the need for veteran leadership and the Cubs’ desire to add pitching at all levels. We’ll post part three on the blog next week. To read the entire interview, pick up the January issue or subscribe to Vine Line today.
Vine Line: What’s your philosophy on the ideal mix of star players and role players on a team?
Theo Epstein: There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next. One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time. Those teams that have a bunch of players going from 23 and 24 years old, when they’re first breaking into the big leagues, to 26 and 27, 27 being the start of a player’s prime in baseball, those teams get better in a hurry.
At some point in the future, if we have a bunch of those players who are entering their prime and improving together and we supplement that with some impact signings from outside the organization, we could really see a lot of improvement in a hurry.
VL: After losing so many veterans at the trade deadline last season, who will fill the leadership void this year?
TE: We felt like we did get in a position where we traded some solid veteran leaders last year, but we also had some remaining. Alfonso Soriano doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but he sets a tremendous example with his work ethic and his preparation. David DeJesus, as an example, is another great leader. He took Anthony Rizzo under his wing and gave him his daily workout routine and pregame prep. The two of them started working out together and getting ready for games together. That gave Anthony the confidence that he was going to be ready every game. Now he relies on that routine as part of his own mental preparation to be able to play at a high level.
So I do think we have some veterans remaining, but that’s certainly something we take into consideration as we put the team together. We don’t want to have a team that’s young and without the proper kind of veteran guidance in the clubhouse to help them adjust and become true pros and good teammates.
VL: It seems like the system is in a much better position in the infield and outfield, but is still lacking the pitching to compete consistently.
TE: To be blunt, I think you’re right. We simply don’t have enough talent yet. We have some really interesting arms down low—we have some guys who are going to be big leaguers—but we really need to focus on acquiring impact young pitching. No matter what we do with our position player corps, we’re not going to go anywhere unless we have the arms to match. So we made it a priority in just about every deal we made to get at least one arm back. After we took Albert Almora in the draft with our first pick, I think we took eight consecutive pitchers. And we’re going to continue to hammer away at acquiring young pitching. You have to do a lot of it through volume because of the amount of attrition involved in young pitching.
VL: What about the bullpen? James Russell really grabbed that Sean Marshall spot, and Carlos Marmol not only got his old stuff back but seems to have found his fastball. Were you happy with what you saw?
TE: Overall, I wasn’t happy with the bullpen. It was disappointing as a whole, but there certainly were some bright spots. I think James Russell did a very admirable job continuing the progress he made toward the end of 2011, and really pitched even better when he was used deeper in the games, in more meaningful spots. He got left- and right-handed hitters out and showed a very consistent pitch mix, showed tremendous poise, and was a very reliable executor of pitches, even on the big stage. That was a big step forward for him. We see him as a guy who’s going to be in the ’pen for a long time.
And then Marmol did turn his season around. He got off to a really difficult start. I know it’s hard to look past that, but he worked really hard at following [pitching coach] Chris Bosio’s request to throw his fastball more, and all of a sudden his velocity crept up. He got some of that swing-and-miss quality back to his slider. And for the last three or four months of the season, he was a pretty good relief pitcher for us and closed games fairly consistently when we did give him that opportunity. So there were bright spots. … We just need to be more consistent from day one next year.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
It’s safe to say when President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was brought into the Cubs organization in the fall of 2011, expectations were running a little high. A lot of pressure comes with being labeled the “boy genius of baseball” and capturing two World Series titles in Boston before the age of 34. In fact, a certain Chicago paper may or may not have run a picture of him walking on water in the past year.
But when Epstein signed on with the Cubs, he knew he and his team had significant work to do. He had no illusions about hefting the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2012 or shocking the baseball world with a lightning-quick turnaround. That’s not how Epstein did things in Boston, and it was even more unlikely in Chicago. The organization he inherited was trapped under the weight of big-money, long-term contracts with aging veterans and had a minor league system that was short on top-tier talent.
In Boston, he succeeded by developing waves of good, young players in the system and acquiring veteran free agents when the team was poised for a breakthrough. Since taking the reins, Epstein and his front office mates have significantly improved the lower levels of the Cubs minor league system by acquiring high-ceiling prospects like Albert Almora, Arodys Vizcaino and Jorge Soler. There has also been an influx of young standouts at the major league level with the rise of Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.
Though the Cubs struggled last year, people throughout the game see them as an organization on the upswing. At the winter meetings in early December, Epstein commented on how players were talking about Chicago as a desirable destination because of the solid clubhouse culture and dedication to building the organization the right way. You don’t often hear about players clamoring to join 101-loss teams.
For the January issue of Vine Line, we listened in on a conference call Epstein held with Cubs season-ticket holders to talk about the past year and where the team is headed in the near future. We’ll post some of the quotes here on the blog in the next few weeks. To read the entire interview, pick up the January issue or subscribe to Vine Line today.
Vine Line: How do you feel about the direction of the team after your first calendar year with the Cubs?
Theo Epstein: My first year was terrific. I really got to know a lot about the organization, and all the players and all the systems and all the personnel we have. I feel like while it was a tough year at the big league level, we made a lot of progress behind the scenes in establishing exactly what it is we’re trying to accomplish—getting people to buy in and make some changes that are going to provide us a really solid foundation going forward. So I’m going to continue to work really hard day and night until we get there. But one year in, I actually really do like the direction we’re headed.
VL: When you were hired last fall, you talked about establishing a Cubs way of playing baseball. Do you feel the organization has made strides toward that?
TE: We did meet last winter and define what it is that we’re going to stand for, how we’re going to play the game, how we’re going to run the bases, what type of offensive approach we want. It exists on paper, but I think it takes a while to really take hold. You almost need a generation of players to come up through the minor league system, learning the game that way, before you can feel confident that it’s going to be represented day in and day out on the field. But I did see glimpses. I think Dale [Sveum] and his staff set a pretty high standard for how players were going to prepare, and how hard they were going to hustle.
VL: A lot of payroll came off the books last year. Will that help you put a more competitive squad on the field this season?
TE: One thing to keep in mind, in previous years, the payroll had been artificially high, where there was sort of a habit of signing players like Carlos Peña and deferring a lot of the money into future years’ payrolls. Last year, for example, we were paying a lot of Carlos Peña’s money, even though he was playing for the Rays. And when [the Cubs] signed draft picks a lot of times, a good portion of that money was pushed off into future years’ budgets. Next year, we’re going to be paying for drafts from a year or so ago. So we’re really trying not to continue that practice. We’re trying to be very transparent about where we are, addressing our issues in the current year and planning for a better future. But there’s certainly going to be no shortage of investment in this team as we continue to try to build toward a foundation that’ll provide playoff teams year in and year out.
VL: There was a strong emphasis on fundamentals starting in Spring Training, but there were an alarming number of mental mistakes this year. How do you address that going forward?
TE: I think there are certain elements of fundamentals that we did do well. I thought we caught the ball extremely well in the outfield. I think we had great defensive positioning from the first game of the season to the last. But especially with the baserunning—it’s some absent-minded baserunning. That’s something we really need to improve. I think it just goes to show that simply emphasizing it isn’t enough. We have to continue to hammer it year in and year out so it becomes part of our culture, and continue to focus on players who have the right kind of instincts and the right kind of game awareness so those mistakes are very much the exception, not the rule.
VL: Does that make developing through your system doubly important because it allows you to teach the same philosophy from rookie ball all the way up to the big leagues?
TE: Absolutely. I think it also eliminates excuses. When you have a player who’s new to the organization and, let’s say, he makes the third out of the inning at third base or tries to steal third base with two outs, you can ask him what he was thinking, and he’ll always have an explanation. There’s not much you can do about it except say, “Don’t let it happen again.” When a player comes through the Cubs system, if he hasn’t figured that out by the time he’s out of rookie ball, then we’re doing something wrong.
We did spend a lot of time this winter codifying the Cubs way of playing the game, which addresses everything, including all the fundamentals defensively and baserunning, and our players are immersed in that in the minor leagues. Really, they should know it backward and forward by the time they get to Double-A. [When] they’re starting to approach the big league radar screen, they have no excuses.
Say goodbye to Len and Bob and say hello to Len and JD. New Cubs television analyst Jim Deshaies will step into the Cubs broadcast booth for the first time this spring, filling the rather large shoes left behind by former analyst Bob Brenly. Deshaies pitched for six different teams during his 12-year major league career before moving into the Astros’ broadcast booth, where he spent 16 years behind the mic. Although his memories of Wrigley are not always fond (he had a career ERA of just under 7.00 at the Friendly Confines), he’s excited to move to a city he calls “baseball mad” and follow in the footsteps of greats like Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. For the January issue of Vine Line, we talked to the analyst about his memories of Wrigley Field, leaving Houston and his broadcast style.
QUIET TIME When I first started, I was terrible. It was brutal. They just said, “Here, go talk.” And I was like, “What do I do?” They said, “Well, you know the game, talk about it.” I had no idea when to come in, when to shut up. It was torturous. Richie Ashburn gave me great advice. He said, “Kid, if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything.” You’re better off not saying something than just spewing nonsense.
CALLING A MASTERPIECE Kerry’s [20-strikeout] game was my second year in the booth. I remember it was grey and misty here. It had kind of a surreal feel. It was the most dominant performance, maybe ever—a one-hitter that could have been a no-hitter. That slider was breaking about three feet at about 90 miles per hour. It was so much fun to talk to the Astros hitters after that game.
BEST OF THE BEST I spent 16 years in the booth with the Astros, and, to a certain extent, I feel like I’m breaking up the band. There were a lot of good people I worked with down there. You don’t leave that situation easily. You leave it when you’ve got the best opportunity there is in the game for guys who do what I do. I’ve received a lot of messages from colleagues all around the league who work for other clubs, people I’ve worked with in the past, and, frankly, they’re all really, really jealous.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU Here’s my self-assessment. I feel like I’m an honest guy. I’m fair. If players make mistakes, I’ll point them out, but I’m hesitant to just bury guys. It’s important to have a critical eye and not gloss things over, and I think that’s the reputation I’ve earned in Houston. But I do realize it’s a very difficult game to play. I think some guys who do my job forget how hard this game is sometimes.
To read the complete interview with Jim Deshaies, pick up the January issue of Vine Line, featuring an interview with Theo Epstein, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
The start of 2013 ushers in year two of what has been a fairly sizable overhaul of the Cubs’ philosophy. This will be the second season for Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, Dale Sveum, et al. When the new front office took hold last year, they talked about instituting a “Cubs Way” of playing the game. They codified it, put it in writing and started to implement it at all levels of the organization.
It’s about strong fundamentals, hustle, making good decisions on the field and building through the system with cost-controlled, homegrown, young talent. Of course, a complete philosophical overhaul doesn’t happen overnight.
“I think it takes a while to really take hold,” Epstein said. “You almost need a generation of players to come up through the minor league system, learning the game that way, before you can feel confident that it’s going to be represented day in and day out on the field. But I did see glimpses.”
In the January issue of Vine Line, we sat in on a conversation between Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and season ticket holders that touched on a range of topics, from the overall management philosophy to offseason acquisitions to the optimal way to build a winner. Epstein knows what he’s doing takes time. He also knows there were two teams that shocked the baseball world with fast turnarounds this season in Oakland and Baltimore. He wants to win as quickly as possible, but he’s going to be smart about it. The goal isn’t third place; it’s a World Series title.
The New Year has also brought a few new arms to the starting rotation: right-handers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. Both will put on Cubs pinstripes for the first time this season, and both have something to prove. Baker, a consistent starter who has spent his entire career in Minnesota, is coming off Tommy John surgery. Feldman, who pitched on two World Series teams in Texas, has spent the last few years shuttling back and forth between the Rangers’ rotation and bullpen. In Chicago, he’s firmly penciled in as a starter, a role in which he won 17 games as recently as 2009.
And while everyone else is looking forward this month, we take a look back into Cubs history at the short and fascinating life of the Chicago Whales, a Federal League team that was the first to call Wrigley (or, as they knew it, Weeghman Park) home. The Whales and Cubs have similar DNA—they shared an owner (Charles Weeghman), several players (Joe Tinker, Mordecai Brown, etc.) and one very famous stadium.
To read these stories and more, pick up the January issue of Vine Line, on sale soon at select Chicago-area retailer. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
(Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)
The Cubs officially agreed to terms with Korean pitcher Chang-Yong Lim on Monday. The 36-year-old signed a minor league deal after spending five seasons in Japan and 12 years in Korea.
Lim joined the Yakult Swallows of Japan in 2008 and quickly became one of the league’s more dominating closers. The right-hander recorded 28 or more saves in four straight seasons from 2008-11 and compiled a 2.09 ERA in the NPB. “Mister Zero,” as he is nicknamed, missed most of 2012 with Tommy John surgery—the second such procedure of his career—and is not expected to pitch for the Cubs until 2014.
The sidearmer helped Korea win a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics and a silver medal in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
(Photo by Scott Jontes, Daytona Cubs)
For hundreds of professional baseball players, the season doesn’t end when the Wrigley Field ivy turns red.
In the Sonoran desert, nearly 2,000 miles southwest of Chicago, Cubs third baseman Christian Villanueva is manning the infield for the Yaquis de Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League. Villanueva, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, was acquired from the Rangers in July as the main return for Ryan Dempster and finished the 2012 season at High-A Daytona. Baseball Prospectus recently named the 21-year-old the Cubs’ No. 9 prospect in a front-loaded system they believe now easily ranks in the top half of baseball.
“Villa’s a great kid,” said Jason Parks, who heads prospect coverage for BP. “The Rangers were absolutely heartbroken to see that kid go. This wasn’t, ‘Let’s look at a list because Texas is calling.’ The Cubs scouted Villa. They knew what they were getting.”
What they got was a player who commands the hot corner at a young age, and has the offensive potential and makeup of a future big leaguer—even though he’s not expected to be a prototypical power-hitting third baseman.
“The kid can really, really play third base. I think he has—some people are afraid to say it, but I’ll say it—a seven [out of eight], plus-plus glove,” said Parks, specifically noting Villanueva’s quick reactions and strong, accurate arm.
Villanueva, who was recently added to the Cubs 40-man roster, has struggled at the plate in Mexico. In 51 at-bats, he’s hit only .176 with two home runs and 25 strikeouts. But he posted solid numbers between Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League and Daytona in 2012, hitting .279/.353/.427 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 14 home runs.
The extra experience Villanueva is getting this winter may be particularly valuable as he prepares to make the large leap to Double-A. He’s already shown he can square up velocity inside, but in the high minors, he’ll be tested by advanced pitchers with quality offspeed stuff.
That’s what Cubs farm director Brandon Hyde says Villanueva is seeing right now in Mexico.
“It’s a real advantage, from a player development standpoint, to be playing more competitive games,” Hyde said. “A lot of those teams—like the one Jae-Hoon Ha is on [in Venezuela]—they’re looking to win.”
Villanueva’s Obregon team has been at the center of many of the league’s—and the Caribbean’s—best games in recent years. After a 26-year title drought, the Yaquis have won three league championships in five years and the 2011 Caribbean Series crown. The team’s stadium can hold up to 13,000 fans—more than almost any minor league venue—and tends to play to raucous crowds.
Parks said Villanueva has the mature demeanor to thrive in that kind of environment. He gets along socially with teammates across cultures and has proved a quiet leader whose work ethic rubs off on teammates.
It also seems to leave an impression on talent evaluators. Parks last saw Villanueva in October, when Obregon played several exhibitions in the Arizona instructional league. Because the jerseys bore no names, one MLB team scout approached Parks to ask who the third baseman was. Parks told the scout it was Villanueva.
“And he goes, ‘Oh, that makes sense. That kid’s good,’” Parks said. “[And I said] ‘Yeah, he’s good. He’s a major leaguer.’”
The Cubs organization today announced their minor league managers and coaches for the 2013 season. On the teams making up the top six minor league levels, there will be four new managers, two new pitching coaches and six new hitting coaches. Below is the 2013 roster of minor league managers and coaches:
Iowa: After serving as Chicago’s catching coordinator for the last three seasons, Marty Pevey will take the helm at Triple-A Iowa. He was also the manager of Single-A Peoria in 2009, where he was named Midwest League co-Manager of the Year. Mike Mason will return for his sixth season as Iowa’s pitching coach, while Brian Harper will make the jump to hitting coach after spending last season as the manager in Daytona.
Tennessee: Buddy Bailey returns as Tennessee’s manager after finishing four games above .500 in 2012. While managing the Daytona Cubs in 2011, he won the Florida State League Championship. Jeff Fassero also returns as Tennessee’s pitching coach, and hitting coach Desi Wilson will get a promotion after serving in the same position at Daytona last season.
Daytona: Dave Keller, in his 10th season with the organization, will be Daytona’s manager this year after acting as Iowa’s hitting coach in 2012. Keller was an assistant on the major league staff in 2011. Pitching coach Storm Davis comes over from the Rangers’ organization, where he served as a Single-A pitching coach the previous two years. Hitting coach Mariano Duncan moves over from Tennessee, where he served the same role the previous two seasons.
Kane County: Manager Mark Johnson gets a bump from Short-A Boise to Single-A after back-to-back playoff runs with the Hawks. Pitching coach Ron Villone is another holdover from last year’s Peoria side. Tom Beyers will take over as hitting coach after 13 seasons with the organization.
Boise: Gary Van Tol will step in as the Hawks manager after spending the previous five seasons as a volunteer with the squad. He also served as an associate scout for the organization. David Rosario returns for a third straight season as pitching coach, marking his ninth year in the Cubs organization. Former Cub Bill Buckner will continue his role as Boise’s hitting coach after joining the squad in 2012.
Mesa: Bobby Mitchell will be back for his second managerial stint with Rookie League Mesa after spending the previous nine years with the Angels. Anderson Tavarez earned a promotion to pitching coach after six seasons with the Dominican Cubs, and Rick Tronerud will resume his duties as rehab pitching coach. Ricardo Medina will share the team’s hitting coach role with former first-round draft pick Jimmy Gonzalez.
After undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, it can be difficult for a pitcher to regain confidence in the arm. That’s what Cubs prospect Hector Rondon is dealing with now. Except he’s returning from multiple surgeries to the same elbow.
The Venezuelan right-hander, whom the Cubs selected with the second overall pick of last week’s Rule 5 Draft, underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2010 and had another procedure in December 2011, wiping out much of the last three seasons. After throwing just seven innings in 2012, Rondon is trying to work his way back to his 2009 self, when he was named the Indians pitching prospect of the year.
To get some innings under his belt before reporting to Spring Training in mid-February, Rondon has been playing winter ball for the Leones del Caracas in his native Venezuela. The reliever has eased back into things, pitching 19 innings in 21 appearances. At first glance, his 4.26 ERA and 2-1 record are nothing to get excited about. But after struggling in three of his first four games—he surrendered four earned runs in his first appearance—he reeled off 14 straight outings from Oct. 23-Dec. 1 without giving up an earned run. Since Dec. 1, he’s given up one earned run in each of his last three appearances.
On the winter, the ground ball pitcher has not surrendered a home run and has struck out 11 batters.
Because he was selected in the Rule 5 Draft, Rondon will have to be on the team’s active roster for the duration of the season or be offered back to Cleveland.
There were no games played yesterday as Mexico and Puerto Rico were off, and the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues are on their All-Star breaks.
Cubs outfielder Dave Sappelt is used to having to prove himself. The 5-foot-9, Buffalo, N.Y., native, who came to the Cubs in the Sean Marshall deal, may not look like a prototypical major league player, but he definitely knows how to swing the bat. While in the Reds system, he was the Southern League MVP in 2010 and minor league hitter of the year in 2011. After spending most of 2012 at Triple-A Iowa, Sappelt was called up to the Cubs on Sept. 1 and hit .275/.351/.440 in 78 plate appearances. For the December issue of Vine Line, we talked to the 25-year-old Twitter junkie and Buffalo Bills die-hard about battling stereotypes, hitting his first home run and his prolific Twitter posting (by the way, he’s well worth a follow at @SappySappelt6).
SOUTHERN LEAGUE MVP It was like [being in] college playing in Double-A. That year, I really learned how to hit and split the plate in half. There are so many factors in hitting that a lot of people don’t understand—like the ball moving so much. They’ve got so many different pitches you’ve got to really do something to help yourself. That year, I feel like I really stuck with my plan of cutting the plate down, only hitting certain pitches and only trying to hit those pitches to a certain spot on the field. It all came together.
LITTLE BIG MAN It definitely made it harder [not being the prototypical size]. In college, I put up first-round numbers, but I got drafted in the ninth round. [My size has] always been against me, but every year I’ve proven I’m hitting just as good as or better than the big dogs. So it doesn’t really bother me at all. I’m out to prove something every game, every day. I sleep with a chip on my shoulder.
FIRST ROUND-TRIPPER I think it will be [something I remember for the rest of my life]. When I hit it, I knew it was my first home run, but I tried to pimp it really good. It’s engraved in my brain. I’ll always remember that.
TWITTER JUNKIE The way I was raised, the fans are just as important as the players. And I communicate with the fans and tell them how I feel and how I’m feeling. There are some things I obviously can’t say, but for the most part, I stretch the limit pretty good and I enjoy it. I’ve been told to watch my tweets, but I haven’t said anything that’s going to get me in trouble yet. If I say something wrong, it’s probably that I didn’t mean it.
AROUND THE CLOCK I’m pretty much baseball 24/7—plus video games. When I’m not playing Call of Duty, I’m usually watching SportsCenter.
To read the complete interview with Dave Sappelt, pick up the December issue of Vine Line, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble and other Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line today.
In the November issue of Vine Line, our Better Half feature looks at the work the Cubs wives do behind the scenes to improve their communities. Writer Jim Distasio also wanted to get a feel for what the life of a major league spouse is like. Given the travel—major league ballplayers are on the road for 81 games each year and spend a month and a half at Spring Training—and erratic daily schedule, it’s far from routine.
We didn’t have room for this piece in the November issue, so we wanted to share it here. It’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: family. Kim DeJesus, wife of Cubs right fielder David DeJesus, spoke with us about how she keeps her family together given the Cubs rigorous schedule.
The Cubs play 81 away games each season, and Kim DeJesus likes to be in the stands for every one—cheering for husband David and logging some impressive frequent flyer miles.
In fact, Kim has no hesitation proclaiming, “I travel more than every baseball wife.”
Four years ago, when David played for the Kansas City Royals, Kim was a fixture on nearly every road trip. And those early days were “fabulous.”
“We would stay up until 3 a.m. watching movies, order room service and wake up at 11 a.m.,” she said. “Dave would leave for the field around 1 p.m., and I would spend the day exploring a new city and then go to his games at night.”
The trend continued after the couple married and had their son. Three weeks after the baby was born in 2010, following approval by her doctor, Kim and little Kingston were on the road so the family could be together during its infancy. In 2011, when David played for Oakland, Kim went on every single road trip, save for one. David and Kim both wanted to have a strong family unit, and they didn’t want David to miss all the first in their child’s life.
Kim cut back on the travel during Dave’s inaugural season with the Cubs to start working again part time and spend more time with her family in suburban Wheaton. Yet, even though she was “taking a little break this year,” Kim still attended more than half of the Cubbies’ away games.
“For me, the coolest thing is getting to see my husband live out his dreams,” Kim says.