Cubs created target on their backs — and front office not done
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ANAHEIM, Calif. – The odds-makers and baseball pundits can gush, and the fans can bask in hot-stove heat and Arizona sunshine.
But when it starts to matter on Monday and that target the Cubs are embracing locks in on their backs, the guys in the front office can worry in earnest.
That’s what team president Theo Epstein said early in camp he was doing, even after all those wins last year and all those millions spent to bolster and backfill all those roster spots during the offseason.
“Worrying is a good way to put it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re worrying all the time: What can go wrong and what can you do to fix it.”
For instance, nine players on last year’s playoff roster weren’t on the Opening Day roster, including four who weren’t in the organization.
“Our job is thinking of things we can do to improve the roster,” Hoyer said, “and then think about what’s going to go wrong and fix it before it happens. The nature of our job is troubleshooting.”
And that means continuing to search, in particular, for pitching depth, and probably making another strong push at the trade deadline for needs that are certain to arise.
If there’s any more anxiety – maybe even thrill — in that process this time around it’s only because the expectations are higher than they’ve been for this front office since some of its years in Boston, as high as they’ve been on the north side in at least a dozen years, maybe three decades or more.
“You understand what it looks like on paper,” said $184 million right fielder Jason Heyward, the jewel of the Cubs’ winter. “But you’ve got to go out there and play. We all understand that in the clubhouse.”
The target is of Epstein’s and Hoyer’s own making.
They traded a sign-and-flip guy (Scott Feldman) to land their Cy Young ace, Jake Arrieta, when he was a reclamation project, with an eighth-inning setup man, Pedro Strop, included in the deal.
They found a closer, Hector Rondon, in the 2012 Rule 5 draft.
They manipulated schedules to help increase value in inherited veteran pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, then traded them in successive Julys for a No. 5 starter (Kyle Hendricks) and a pair of valuable bullpen arms (Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez).
They tanked seasons successfully enough to land the 2015 Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant, with the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, and – more impressively – identified under-valued Kyle Schwarber as the 2014 draft’s top hitter (No. 4 overall).
They squirreled away $20 million in payroll budget they didn’t spend in the 2013-14 offseason, then the next winter took advantage of Boston’s botched, low-ball efforts to retain World Series veteran Jon Lester, and wooed him away from his Red Sox comfort zone.
They pounced so fast on the opportunity to hire Joe Maddon as exactly the right manager at exactly the right time that they faced tampering allegations from the Rays and invited industry scorn for the way they kicked Rick Renteria to the curb.
Then they won. So fast and magnificently last year, at least a year ahead of schedule, that they created unforeseen revenue increases they were able to tap for a bigger 2015-16 winter than anticipated.
Hello Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey. And hello again, Dexter Fowler.
Fowler is a perfect example of a position area the front office sweated entering spring training — with Heyward projected to stretch himself as the center fielder, weakening the corners, and with scant legitimate backup options for center. When Fowler, last year’s starting center fielder and leadoff man, turned down a three-year deal from the Orioles to return to the Cubs on a one-year contract, he solved the team’s biggest depth problem.
So what could possibly go wrong now?
“I’ve never been part of a season that went as planned,” Hoyer said. “It doesn’t happen.”
The Cubs added a lot of pitching depth, but if Arrieta’s career-high workload in 2015 becomes an issue in 2016, or Lackey’s 37-year-old arm hits a decline phase, or Lester’s infield throwing problems and/or that bone chip in his elbow derail him, the rotation turns to average real fast.
Can they go two years in a row without a significant injury? And how will last year’s strong rookie class react as sophomores, now that more is expected and the league has books on them?
“You just never know,” Hoyer said.
All you can do is win the winter (check). Survive the spring (check). Enjoy a mime or two (check). And ride the enormous wave of hype into a 162-game polygraph test.
What Hoyer does know before the rush begins: “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody.”