Cubs keeping Winter plans close to the vest
New boss Epstein likes being 'unpredictable' entering Meetings
CHICAGO -- The Cubs' new front office tandem of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer heads into the Winter Meetings next week in Dallas with a plan on how to build its "foundation for sustained success."
They just aren't leaking any details.
Epstein, who took over as president of baseball operations in late October, likes being "unpredictable, [because] being unpredictable is a competitive advantage."
What is known is Epstein and Hoyer, named general manager on Nov. 2, have a lot of work to do following the Cubs' 91-loss season.
Most of the moves by the Cubs so far this offseason involve the front office, which has become a Red Sox reunion tour. Jason McLeod, who worked in Boston with Epstein and Hoyer, then joined Hoyer in San Diego, was added as the head of scouting and player development. Shiraz Rehman, who interned for the Red Sox in 2005, left the D-backs to become assistant to the general manager, while Joe Bohringer was named director of pro scouting.
Those transactions most likely don't excite Cubs fans, who are more interested in who will be starting in right field than how they will pick the guy.
The Cubs did name Dale Sveum as their manager, and he was expected to finalize his coaching staff this week.
While the front-office additions squeeze into Wrigley Field's limited office space, it's time to get to work on the roster. Epstein and Hoyer have reports on two Cuban outfielders, 26-year-old Yoenis Cespedes and 19-year-old Jorge Soler, to sort through. The two defectors, who have been holding workouts in the Dominican Republic for teams, are drawing lots of interest.
"I'm going to look for moves that make us better in the long run, but don't negatively impact us in 2012," Epstein said.
Which sounds as if getting into a bidding war for Cespedes is unlikely, as is pursuing free agents such as Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. But the Cubs have talked to representatives of free-agent pitchers Mark Buerhle and C.J. Wilson. Buehrle is 24-6 in 40 games in his career against National League teams, and 13-4 with a 3.28 ERA against NL Central teams.
Epstein and Hoyer got started at the General Managers Meetings earlier this month in Milwaukee with introductory talks with agents and teams regarding the Cubs' roster. But they've apparently gotten a few agents to take a secrecy pledge with them. When one was asked about whether Epstein had talked to him about his client, a free-agent pitcher, the response was: "You'd better ask Theo."
The Cubs do need to improve their starting pitching depth, which was lacking this past season when they lost Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells in the first week and struggled to fill their spots. Cashner's role has yet to be determined. Sidelined most of the season because of a strained right rotator cuff, he pitched in relief in the Arizona Fall League.
"I think he's a rare guy who could do both," Hoyer said about where the right-hander fits.
The other wild card for the rotation is Carlos Zambrano, who has made three starts for Caribes in the Venezuelan Winter League. Epstein met with Zambrano at a Wrigleyville restaurant to tell him that he had to earn his way back. The right-hander, currently sidelined after being hit in the face by a line drive, is owed $18 million next year with a full no-trade clause. Could the Cubs find a taker for Zambrano next week?
The other holes in the Cubs' lineup are third base and first base. Right field was filled when Chicago signed David DeJesus to a two-year deal on Wednesday.
The Cubs did offer arbitration to Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, and if both re-sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive supplemental picks in next June's First-Year Player Draft. Ramirez is looking for at least a three-year deal. Pena, who signed a one-year contract with the Cubs at last year's Winter Meetings, also was expected to look for a multi-year deal.
Pena's agent, Scott Boras, did talk to Epstein and Hoyer at the GM Meetings in Milwaukee.
"You have a whole new regime there, so as to what they think or how they think, I haven't had the opportunity to know," Boras said before his meeting. "Knowing Theo and how his regimes work, they'll have a very decisive resume for what they want to do, and they'll let me know."
Epstein and Hoyer have spent the first month on the job in "research mode," getting to know the front office and going over the roster. For example, in the Arizona Fall League, shortstop Junior Lake batted .296 with five homers, eight doubles and 18 stolen bases, while third baseman Josh Vitters batted .360 in 24 games. Where do they fit?
"Lake is just a little bit behind as far as his development," Lake's agent Paul Kinzer said. "But [vice president/player personnel] Oneri Fleita has been telling me since I signed him that Lake's upside is better than [Starlin] Castro's."
That's a positive sign for the future. But part of the present includes Alfonso Soriano, who batted .244, turns 36 in January, and is owed $54 million over three years. Closer Carlos Marmol is coming off a campaign in which he was 34-for-44 in save opportunities with a 4.01 ERA. And which Geovany Soto will show up? The one who hit .285 in 2008, or the one who hit .228 last season?
There are two other deals that need to be finalized at the Winter Meetings, and those involve Epstein and Hoyer. Both of their previous teams are owed compensation after the executives left, and the Cubs, Red Sox and Padres were expected to complete those transactions after the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 8.
The Cubs ranked 14th in team ERA in 2011, and had the worst defense in the Major Leagues. Can Epstein and Hoyer find the right players to correct that in '12?
"Those are things we'll try to solve," Hoyer said. "As for the actual plan, we'll keep that to ourselves."
We should get a better idea next week.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.