Results tagged ‘ Theo Epstein ’
(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.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Ready to get the 2013 baseball season started? The Cubs campaign kicks off next weekend, Jan. 18-20, at the 28th Annual Cubs Convention, held for the first time at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in downtown Chicago. The event will feature more than 75 current, past and future Cubs players and coaches, and will offer more than 100 photo and autograph opportunities.
The Opening Ceremony begins on Friday, Jan. 18, at 5 p.m., and will feature player and alumni introductions on a red carpet runway that will offer special VIP access to children 16 and under. Following the Opening Ceremony, guests will find some of their favorite Cubs throughout the hotel for an exciting Autograph Hunt Game. The evening will conclude with longtime Cubs Convention favorite Cubs Bingo, led by Wayne Messmer, as well as a live radio broadcast of WGN Sports Night.
Saturday’s program continues the gaming fun with the return of Cubs Jeopardy, which pits alumni pitchers Milt Pappas, Scott Sanderson, Lee Smith and Rick Sutcliffe against alumni position players Jose Cardenal, Jody Davis, Randy Hundley and Todd Walker. Cubs Family Feud makes its Cubs Convention debut Saturday afternoon, as Cubs alumni Bobby Dernier, Jon Lieber, Gary Matthews and Billy Williams take on current Cubs Michael Bowden, Shawn Camp, Brett Jackson and Ian Stewart.
Fans can meet many of the club’s offseason acquisitions—including pitchers Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Edwin Jackson; catcher Dioner Navarro; and outfielder Nate Schierholtz—at the Meet the New Cubs session hosted by new television analyst Jim Deshaies and play-by-play broadcaster Len Kasper.
Additional Saturday sessions include:
- Ricketts Family Forum—Tom, Laura, Pete and Todd Ricketts speak with Len Kasper and fans about their experience as team owners over the past three years.
- Meet Cubs Baseball Management—President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, Executive Vice President/General Manager Jed Hoyer, Assistant General Manager Randy Bush, Assistant General Manager Shiraz Rehman and manager Dale Sveum speak about the club’s recent moves and what lies ahead for the 2013 season.
- From Draft Day to the Big Leagues—Cubs minor league prospects Dallas Beeler, Matt Szczur, Robert Whitenack and Tony Zych discuss what it’s like to get drafted by the Chicago Cubs and advance through the minor leagues.
- Dale Sveum and the Coaching Staff—The Cubs manager, bench coach Jamie Quirk, hitting coach James Rowson, assistant hitting coach Rob Deer, bullpen boach Lester Strode, first base coach Dave McKay and third base coach David Bell speak with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies about what’s in store during the staff’s second year.
- For Kids Only Press Conference, presented by Advocate Health Care—A unique Q&A session where kids ask the questions to Darwin Barney, David DeJesus, Brooks Raley, Anthony Rizzo and Chris Rusin.
- Renew Wrigley Field—Cubs executives discuss ideas to preserve and renew iconic Wrigley Field based on input from Cubs fans, season ticket holders and the community.
- Not for Women Only—Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza, James Russell, and Travis Wood discuss their personal sides and lives off the field.
- WGN Radio’s Sports Central—This live broadcast with WGN Radio’s Jim Memolo and Glen Kozlowski will feature segments with David DeJesus and Matt Garza; Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija; Tony Campana and Starlin Castro; and Brett Jackson, Edwin Jackson and Anthony Rizzo.
Sunday’s program features two panel sessions to close out the Convention:
- Down on the Farm—Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod, Director of Pro Scouting Joe Bohringer and Director of Player Development Brandon Hyde will be joined by Cubs farmhands Chris Rusin and Josh Vitters to give a breakdown of the Cubs minor league teams from Iowa down to Mesa. Hosted by Vine Line editor Gary Cohen and broadcaster Dave Otto.
- Stat Sundays—Broadcasters Jim Deshaies, Len Kasper and WGN’s Bob Vorwald offer insight into the statistics they analyze and feature during Stat Sundays throughout the season.
In addition to the sessions highlighted above, the Convention includes many new and returning activities throughout the weekend for fans:
Rookie of the Year Movie Night, presented by the Cubs Kids Club, makes its Cubs Convention debut. Fans can eat popcorn and relax with family and friends Saturday evening while watching the popular film, Rookie of the Year.
Walgreens Field is a new miniature turf diamond that gives kids a fun place to take practice batting, play pick-up wiffle ball games or participate in professional instructional clinics as part of the Baseball Interactive Zone. Cubs players and coaches will pair up with Illinois Baseball Academy instructors to conduct a series of training opportunities for fans of all ages throughout the weekend.
Comcast SportsNet Chicago is giving fans the chance to test their play-by-play broadcasting skills in a custom-built fantasy broadcasting booth. Guests will call a pre-recorded play in the booth, then download a recorded copy of their work for keeps.
MLB Network’s Strike Zone allows fans to test their arm speed and win prizes at an inflatable speed pitch.
The Sony PlayStation Gaming Zone gives attendees a chance to take a break from the action to play MLB 12 The Show at one of several Sony PS3 kiosks.
The LEGOLAND® Discovery Center returns with an area dedicated for families to exercise their creativity with the small building blocks.
American Girl’s Activity Area features activities inspired by American Girl dolls and the chance to win a new doll and book.
The Chicago Sun-Times Photo Kiosk lets fans have their picture taken for the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times with customizable headlines that make for a memorable souvenir.
Fans can learn about or contribute to the history of the Cubs franchise in collaboration with team archivists. Historical pieces of memorabilia will be on hand for viewing, and guests can receive professional tips on how to preserve their own valuable keepsakes. Attendees are invited to share their personal stories with a video crew, and they may be used in future promotions or publications.
Limited individual weekend passes for the 2013 Cubs Convention are still available for $60 per pass plus convenience fees. Visit www.cubs.com/convention or call 1-800-THE-CUBS. A percentage of the proceeds from the Cubs Convention benefits Chicago Cubs Charities. To date, Cubs Convention has raised approximately $4 million for Chicago Cubs Charities.
After narrowly missing out on free agent starter Anibal Sanchez last month, the Cubs rang in the New Year by coming to terms with right-handed pitcher Edwin Jackson. The 29-year-old signed a reported four-year, $52 million deal—the largest given out by Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer during their brief tenure—and should be a key piece of the Cubs’ rotation in 2013 and beyond.
“He fits very well on the team in 2013, but we think he fits even better with the team going forward as a core member of what we’re trying to build here in Chicago,” Hoyer said. “His talent, his age, and everything we’ve learned about him as a teammate were all part of the reasons we decided to add him to the roster.”
Jackson has called more than a few places home since his 2003 debut with the Dodgers. The 6-foot-3 power arm, who has averaged 94.1 MPH on his fastball throughout his career, was selected out of high school in the sixth round of the 2001 draft by Los Angeles, and was the youngest player in the National League in 2003 and 2004. He was traded to the Rays in 2006 and got his first regular work in a major league rotation in 2007. After the Rays’ 2008 playoff run, Jackson’s travels really started.
Since 2009, the starter has had stints with the Tigers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Cardinals and Nationals. The Cubs will be the seventh team Jackson has played for since 2008 (excluding his trade from the White Sox to the Blue Jays, who sent him to the Cardinals later that day, on July 27, 2011).
“It definitely feels great [to have signed a long-term deal],” Jackson said. “I think the most assuring part is that you have a chance to relax and know that you’re going to be somewhere for a while. You don’t have to feel like you have to prove yourself every year. I think it’s definitely going to help for me to just go out and have fun and not have to worry about anything else.”
Jackson spent last season with the NL East champion Nationals, where he posted a 10-11 record and a 4.03 ERA. The Nationals did not tender Jackson a qualifying offer, so he will not cost the Cubs a draft pick.
In 10 major league seasons, Jackson owns a 70-71 record with a 4.40 ERA and 969 strikeouts in 1,268.2 innings (6.9 K/9). He has reached 31 or more starts in each of his last six seasons, has recorded double-digit wins in each of the last five seasons and has exceeded 180.0 innings pitched in each of the last five seasons. The 2009 All-Star with Detroit also pitched a no-hitter for the Diamondbacks in 2010 and won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011.
“Edwin is 29 years old, and he’s already had six consecutive seasons of making 30-plus starts,” Hoyer said. “He’s proven his durability, he’s proven his talents, but he’s also still at an age where we think he can get even better.”
The Cubs have been extremely aggressive in remaking their rotation this offseason. Prior to the Jackson signing, they had already signed starters Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva to complement Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood.
“As a pitching staff, when you get pitchers that are competitive and pitchers that want to go out and win, it definitely helps,” said Jackson, who pitched alongside Garza in Tampa Bay. “Everyone is pulling on each other’s coattails, and it’s a positive competitiveness.”
Jackson has a 1-2 career record at Wrigley Field with a 7.94 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 17 innings.
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.
The Chicago Cubs introduced Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa Friday morning after signing the righty to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million with vesting options for a third year.
“It’s always nice when a player really wants to be a Cub,” said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. “I think he made that very clear, and we’re very happy to have him. He had a wonderful career in Hanshin for the Tigers, and we hope he has a long and wonderful career here with the Cubs.”
Fujikawa, 32, joins the Cubs after pitching all or part of 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League. The right-hander went 42-25 with 220 saves and a 1.77 ERA (136 ER/692.1 IP) covering 562 appearances—all but 14 as a relief pitcher. Fujikawa twice led the league in holds (46 in 2005 and 30 in 2006), twice led the league in saves (46 in 2007 and 41 in 2011), and posted a 1.32 ERA or lower in four of the last five seasons. He won the Central League Most Valuable Set-up Pitcher Award in 2005.
“I know that the team is very young,” said Fujikawa through a translator. “I am a veteran. I will try to led the young players, as well, and try to compete to win for the Cubs. I know what they’ve done last year, and hopefully we can do better next year. I’d like to be part of the building process for the Cubs future.”
Fujikawa made his professional debut in 2000 and saw his first run of success in 2005, when he posted a 1.36 ERA in a league-leading 80 appearances. Two seasons later, the Tigers moved him to the full-time closer role. Last year, Fujikawa went 2-2 with a 1.32 ERA and 24 saves in 47.2 innings.
He was a member of Team Japan in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics and also pitched in the 2008 Olympics, but according to Hoyer, Fujikawa will not pitch in the WBC this year.
The Japanese star features a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and complements it with a forkball and a slow curve.
“He’s been known in Japan as a guy who can really pitch with his fastball, which is really important. He’s not a guy who tricks you. He actually comes right after guys,” Hoyer said. “Guys who rely too much on trickery can often be guys the league figures out quickly. And our hope certainly is that because he pitches with his fastball, he’ll be able to pitch to a game plan and be able to establish himself and have a nice run.”
Although Fujikawa ended his Japanese career as a closer, he said he’s happy to pitch in whatever role the team asks of him. Both Hoyer and baseball president Theo Epstein stressed that Carlos Marmol will likely start the season as closer after pitching well in the second half of 2012.
“Our goal is to have the best bullpen possible, and you don’t have a good bullpen by having one good pitcher throwing the ninth inning,” Hoyer said. “[Marmol] goes into the season as the closer. Our goal is to have a seven-man-deep bullpen of good arms, and Kyuji certainly adds to that.”
The end of 2012 marks the culmination of many ﬁrsts. It was baseball president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer’s ﬁrst year at the Cubs’ helm. It was Dale Sveum’s ﬁrst full season as a major league manager. It was Anthony Rizzo’s ﬁrst year in a Cubs uniform and Jeff Samardzija’s ﬁrst real experience in the rotation. It was also the ﬁrst time since 1966 the team lost 100 games in a single season.
In other words, I think everybody is looking forward to saying goodbye to 2012 and popping the proverbial cork on a new year of Cubs baseball.
Although a 61-101 record isn’t what anyone involved with the Cubs was hoping for, everybody knew there was work to be done at the outset of the season. As we look back at the year, there were certainly stretches of good play, breakout performances, walk-off wins and plenty to feel positive about. But no one—from fans to players to the front ofﬁce—is happy with where the team is right now.
“I don’t think a celebration is in order,” said Epstein on his one-year anniversary with the Cubs. “I have a lot more gray hair now than I had a year ago. My wife reminds me of that all the time. But I do feel really energized by a lot of the things that are going on here.”
In the December issue of Vine Line, the Daily Herald’s Bruce Miles examines how the Cubs fared this year and what they did to strengthen their future prospects. It’s impossible to judge the 2012 calendar year by looking solely at the major league level. When Epstein, Hoyer and company came to Chicago, they talked of the need to restock the minor league system to provide a steady stream of homegrown talent to the big league club. And that’s exactly what the Cubs are doing. Respected hardball website Baseball Prospectus recently released a list of the top 10 prospects in the Cubs organization, and six of the 10 players were acquired or drafted in 2012.
It all started with the 2012 ﬁrst-year player draft, where the Cubs picked up outﬁelder Albert Almora (No. 1 on Baseball Prospectus’ list) and right-handed pitchers Pierce Johnson (No. 7) and Duane Underwood (No. 8). But it also included free agent signings like outﬁelder Jorge Soler (No. 3) and making full use of the trade deadline to ﬁll organizational holes with players like right-hander Arodys Vizcaino (No. 4) and third baseman Christian Villanueva (No. 9).
To say goodbye to 2012, Vine Line and Chicago Cubs photographer Stephen Green also look back at the best photos from the past season. Green, in his 30th year with the team, was there for every moment, from Bill Murray’s Opening Day hijinks to Bryan LaHair’s walk-off single to cap off the year.
We also have a preview of the Cubs Convention, a Q&A with outfielder Dave Sappelt and much more. For these stories, subscribe to Vine Line or pick up an issue at select Chicago-area retailers. We’ve also launched a Vine Line Twitter account at @cubsvineline to keep you posted on Cubs happenings up to the minute.
The MVP awards were handed out Thursday night, signifying the official end of the the 2012 baseball season. But just because Spring Training is still months away doesn’t mean Cubs fans can’t get their baseball fix.
From Jan. 18-20, Cubs faithful will have an opportunity to meet more than 50 current and former players, coaches and front office associates at the 28th annual Cubs Convention. For the first time in the event’s history, it will be held at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers at 301 E. North Water St., and it promises to deliver all the fun and excitement of previous years.
Some of the headliners expected to attend this year include Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams; current stars Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Brett Jackson and Jeff Samardzija; and front office personnel like Dale Sveum, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
Individual weekend passes for the event went on sale earlier this month, and there are still some available. Each pass is $60 plus convenience fees. To purchase your pass, visit cubs.com or call 1-800-THE-CUBS.
Guests can also still book rooms at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers by calling the hotel at 800-233-4100. Ask for the Cubs Convention rate of $179/night plus tax. Guests who book a two-night stay will receive a limited edition, authenticated, autographed photo of Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson.
The convention will run from 1-9 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m-midnight Saturday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit cubs.com.
When the Red Sox traded right-handed pitcher Michael Bowden to the Cubs as part of the Marlon Byrd deal, it was a dream come true for the Winfield, Ill., native, who grew up rooting for the team. In 36.2 innings with the Cubs, Bowden posted an impressive 2.95 ERA, and he looks poised to land a bullpen spot heading out of Spring Training in 2013. For the November issue of Vine Line, we talked to the 26-year-old reliever about coming to the Cubs, his relationship with Theo Epstein and his offbeat delivery.
ONE-WAY TICKET After I got designated from the Red Sox [in April], they said they were going to try to trade me, so I drove back [to Chicago]. I received some texts and read some rumors that they might be trying to deal Marlon Byrd, and I’m like, ‘No way, that’s too good to be true if that actually happens.’ I finally got the call [confirming the trade], and it was one of the highlights of my career. It was special. I was so happy to hear that and glad to come here and play for my hometown team—a team I grew up rooting for.
COMFORT FROM ABOVE I’ve been with Theo [Epstein] all but a couple of months this past offseason, so he’s seen me every single year of my professional career. He knows the kind of person I am, the kind of player I am. He knows that I work hard, and I do everything I can to give it my all. It definitely gives me some confidence, him bringing me back over here, and I’m going to try to make the most of it.
QUIRKY APPROACH I think [the odd delivery] helps. It throws off the hitters’ timing, and that’s helped me out a lot. But I’m not trying to be funky. I’m not trying to be deceptive. That’s just how I throw naturally. You should have seen me in high school. I’ve come a long way. The way I throw now, when I’m out there, I feel like I have very complete mechanics compared to what I had. A little bit of deceptiveness—I’ll take it. I’m sure it helps.
PLAYING YEAR-ROUND I played in Venezuela two years ago. I love the opportunity and the excitement of going to new places and seeing what it’s like and learning a new culture. I think it’s a great experience, and I’m looking forward to it [this offseason]. And I get to play some ball.
To read the complete interview, pick up the November issue of Vine Line, available now at select Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Meijer, Barnes & Noble and other Chicago-area retailers.
Castro has proved himself as the Cubs’ top player and will be in Chicago through the end of the decade. (Photo by Stephen Green)
2012 Positions Played: SS (100%)
2012 Batting (AVG/OBP/SLG): .283/.323/.430 in 691 PA
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 3.3
2013 Contract Status: Signed (through 2019, plus club option)
When Theo Epstein joined the Cubs, he said the organization would focus on acquiring impact talent. He did, however, know he had one out of the box in shortstop Starlin Castro.
In August, the Cubs locked up Castro through the end of the decade, buying up three years of his free-agency eligibility (with the option to snag a fourth, in 2020). The idea behind an extension like this is simple: The player gains security from the risks of injury and underperformance, while the team in turn gets cost certainty and the chance to hold a true bargain contract.
Castro’s extension has an additional feature, however—a relatively flat salary structure. The reported annual salaries range from $5 million in the first year to $11 million in the last. The takeaway is that Castro’s contract shouldn’t ever become a burden to the team. It’s common for general managers to backload contracts so that they can maximize their payroll flexibility in the present while, presumably, planning for the future. Instead, Epstein and Jed Hoyer have sent a real signal here of their long-term thinking and intentions to build a consistent winner.
Since Castro’s hit tool already is so strong—somewhere around plus-plus, or a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale—his approach becomes the key to unlocking another level in his game. And there’s reason to believe there was real progress made in that area under manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson.
The 22-year-old’s walk rate by month tells a visible story of improvement. Entering 2012, Castro’s career standard was just over 5 percent, and he was trailing that below-average figure pretty well over the season’s first three months. But starting in July, he made tangible strides in his plate discipline that brought him closer to the NL non-pitcher average of 8 percent walks. His strikeout rate showed an opposite trend overall, peaking at 18 percent in June before dropping to 14, 16 and finally 9 in the last three months.
Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x location data, as presented by BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Prospectus (player card), to see if we can identify a difference in Castro’s first- and second-half approaches.
In the first half of the season, Castro was susceptible to swinging at any pitches middle-in to inside, including those off the plate or above/below the zone. In the second half, he cut his chase percentage in these areas significantly, to the tune of about 13 percentage points. He correspondingly let loose on more pitches in the zone, and he did more damage on pitches low and in.
(Note: The outside edges here are to scale—so they include pitches within about seven inches of the strike zone, not further.)
Another part of Castro’s game that appeared to improve this season was his defense, where he showed above-average range and more consistent throwing. He got to balls at a higher rate than before, especially relative to the league. A lot of that credit goes to Sveum, bench coach Jamie Quirk and the front-office analysts whose intel better positioned Cubs fielders than in the past. But their indirect effect on Castro’s improved throwing was also apparent. In 2012, Castro made a throwing error on 1.7 percent of his chances (assists plus throwing errors). That was half the rate from 2011.
Now, Castro didn’t universally show improvement this year, as his .283 batting average was the lowest of his career—and it brought his on-base percentage down with it. But there appears to be meaningful under-the-hood development. It’s a positive trend that the Cubs organization is betting continues over the next several seasons.
The Cubs’ 2012 season has been all about adjustments. Year One of the Theo Epstein regime is in the books, and despite the struggles at the major league level, the future is looking a little brighter. The Cubs took advantage of the draft and trade deadline to bolster their minor league system, but Epstein is far from complacent.
“I think we’ve made some pretty significant changes in direction as well as philosophy,” Epstein said. “It’s hard to talk about the year, though, without talking about the frustration that goes with it. We aren’t even close to where we want to be.”
One of the biggest changes late in the season has been the Cubs’ infusion of youth. Anthony Rizzo was called up on June 26 and made an immediate impact. On Aug. 5, top prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters joined him on the parent club. In the October issue of Vine Line, we talk to the two good friends about their paths through the Cubs system and what they hope to accomplish at Wrigley.
“I can remember countless times just over the past couple of years, where either one of us was struggling or both of us were struggling, and we’d talk about it,” Vitters said. “I think we both know each other as a player enough that we have a decent idea of what it is the other person’s doing if they’re struggling a little bit or going through a rough patch.”
For our end-of-season issue, we also went to our blog to ask readers to help us determine the best highlights from the Cubs’ 2012 season. Despite the down year record-wise, the Cubs had a surprising amount of incredible memories, from Kerry Wood’s retirement to Ron Santo’s Hall of Fame induction to Alfonso Soriano’s bounceback year. You’ll find the results in our cover story, 12 for ’12.
Finally, we went into the booth with Len Kasper and Bob Brenly to get an inside look at what it really takes to put on a major league broadcast. If you think talking about baseball for four hours every day seems easy, think again.
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