Senior Baseball Columnist

Cubs camp report: Cubs giddy with optimism despite some limitations


If Alfonso Soriano can get off to a hot start, the Cubs may look to offload his contract via trade. (AP)  
If Alfonso Soriano can get off to a hot start, the Cubs may look to offload his contract via trade. (AP)  

MESA, Ariz. -- Know what's sort of refreshing about the Cubs this spring? The baseball.

Oh, not that anyone is predicting a World Series or anything. Though new manager Dale Sveum did tell his guys in no uncertain terms during his talk before their first full-squad workout the other day they are here to win one in, yes, 2012. A guy can dream, right?

But after an offseason fit more for spy novels ("Hey! Was that Theo Epstein in disguise at Starbucks!") and Rolling Stone headlines ("Rock Star executive tackles The Curse") than dusty infields and ivy ... well, guess what?

Here's that new club president now, standing alone on one of the back fields, away from the TV cameras, quietly watching. He is not driving a forklift, though he may as well be. He is not wearing a hard hat. For now, aviator shades and blue jeans work just fine.

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"It is really invigorating to be building something," Epstein says as -- thwack! -- another Cub steps into the batting cage. "You feel like you're in on the ground floor with a lot of people you really respect, united in a common bond, working your tail off to get it done.

"That's real exciting. What more can you ask? If I was here trying to do it myself, I'd be miserable. I really believe in Dale, Jed [Hoyer, new GM] and Jason [McLeod, new senior vice-president of scouting]. I'm excited to get it going."

From where they are now, it's more about the tortoise than the (Bryan) LaHair.

There is farm-system depth to stack behind Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo. There are young big leaguers to keep growing (Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney). There is a wretched on-base percentage to goose (the Cubs ranked 10th in the NL at .314 in 2011). There are rusted-out fundamentals to oil. There is still deadwood to unload (Alfonso Soriano, anyone? Marlon Byrd?).

"We definitely know more about what it is we want to become than when we're going to get there," Epstein says. "We want to develop a nucleus of homegrown players. We want to build a relentless offense. We want pitchers who throw strikes and make you swing and miss. Defensively, we want to be average or above average at every position.

"We want to make the playoffs four out of every five years, or eight out of every 10 years. In the minor-leagues, we want to develop an impact guy every two or three years.

"That's where we're going to get to."

Much has been made of the new "Cubs Way" and a new organizational manual spelling it out. Written, printed and available for reference to even the lowest-level coach in rookie ball.

In fact, the Cubs held their organizational meetings in Arizona the week before the start of spring training in another telling sign of transition and construction. Each club holds organizational meetings, but most do so shortly after the season ends.

Fantasy Writer
Sleeper ... Bryan LaHair, OF: It sounds like a joke, a player as lowly as LaHair getting handed the starting first base job prior to spring training, but if Theo Epstein is willing to endorse it, gosh darn it, so am I. Epstein's Red Sox teams may have ultimately resorted to the Yankees' model of big-name, big-money stars up and down the lineup, but they only got to that point because of his willingness early in his tenure to give long looks to under-the-radar players like this one. Usually, when a player in his late 20s puts up eye-popping numbers at Triple-A like a .331 batting average, 38 homers and 1.070 OPS, he's dismissed right away as a Quadruple-A player, but apparently the Cubs' front office thinks LaHair is different -- and not just because of his impressive 59 at-bat stint in the majors last year. The experiment could still be a failure of Kila Ka'aihue proportions, which is why you shouldn't bother with LaHair in mixed leagues, but late in NL-only formats, why not?
Bounce-back player ... Ryan Dempster, SP: How could a 34-year-old who produced an ERA near 5.00 last year be any sort of candidate for a bounce-back season? That's what most Fantasy owners will say when they stumble across Dempster on Draft Day. But before you fall into the same trap, take a second look at the numbers. Maybe that 4.80 ERA isn't the most accurate reflection of Dempster's abilities. Something went wrong for him last April -- something to the tune of a 9.58 ERA -- but he soon figured out whatever it was, posting a 3.94 mark the rest of the way. Meanwhile, his strikeout, walk and home run rates were almost identical to the ones he put up in 2010, when he went 15-12. Dempster didn't lose his stuff last year. He simply got buried early and stayed buried pitching for a bottom-of-the-division club. The latter remains an issue but if he can avoid the former, his heavy workload and near strikeout-per-inning potential should make him a late-round bargain. -- Scott White
Depth Chart | Cubs outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

"It made sense to do it now," Epstein says. "They were very valuable. We went back to the basics. We had six-hour sessions on hitting, pitching, base-running. We went over exactly what we're going to teach in the minor leagues and how we're going to teach it. What the Cubs Way is going to be.

"It was great to see the minor-league coaches and the big-league staff hammering away at that. It was really a nice time for everybody. Now you're taking pride in how to teach the game. It adds a lot. If you are teaching a minor-league kid how to make the turn at first base and you say, 'This is how they do it in Wrigley Field', it sinks in."

Randy Bush, assistant general manager and a key holdover from the Jim Hendry administration, says the approach nicely mixes both analytical and scouting tools and notes that Epstein's style is "real inclusive."

As he's gotten to know Epstein, Bush says, what's been different from the public persona is that "he has a good sense of humor. You've got to get to know him for him to expose that, but he can drop a one-liner on you. His reputation as an analytical, deep thinker, that was expected. But then all of a sudden he has you chuckling."

In Hoyer, Epstein's old assistant GM in Boston before he left to run the Padres for a couple of seasons, Epstein has a kindred spirit but not a clone.

"They're both independent thinkers," Bush says. "They're going to have their own opinions. They might go through the same process, but they have different opinions. That's refreshing. You need that."

Bush, among a handful of other holdovers, was key in helping expedite the Chicago learning curve for Epstein and Hoyer. At least, as much as it could be expedited.

"There was a good staff here that was really helpful," Hoyer says. "And Theo and I were able to combine forces a little bit and accomplish some things that we wouldn't have been able to do if there was just one of us."

Even the two of them, though, are going to have difficulty replenishing the farm system as quickly as they would like, particularly after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the amateur draft rules.

Among the drawbacks: A change in the draft rules prohibiting drafted players from signing major-league contracts, and each club is to be given an aggregate signing bonus pool. If a club exceeds that, a sort of luxury tax will kick in.

As Epstein notes, free agents are usually 30 years of age or older, and each club normally only gets one first-round pick a year. So, creativity counts -- and while the draft changes maybe aren't catastrophic, they are sort of a restraining leash on that creativity.

"We've challenged our scouts: Every day is a fight," Epstein says. "Our 15th-round pick is that much more important. Our ability to maximize waiver claims."

Even so, Epstein has here what he did not have in Boston: A blank canvas and room to create.

"One great thing about being at a place like the Cubs right now is, there's a real clear mission uniting us," Epstein says of a club that last won a World Series in 1908. "We have 103 years of clarity. We don't have to look too deep to find that clarity.

"It's good to have that. Because if you don't have that clarity, how can you hold guys accountable?"


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