No shortcuts on Cubs' road to success

CHICAGO -- Jed Hoyer, the new general manager of the Chicago Cubs, said everything you need to know about his new team's recent history with this pithy line: "Unfortunately, we only saw the Cubs six or seven times a year." This was how the man named Jed, who spent the last two years in San Diego, started a longer answer on the state of the Cubs' defense.

Most Cubs fans would totally agree with that quote -- just take out the word "only."

I think he meant "unfortunately" as in he didn't have an in-depth "eye test" scouting report, but I choose to believe he meant it how you read it.

Throughout his talk with reporters, and by proxy, Cubs fans, Hoyer, the smiling 37-year-old heir to Jim Hendry's mess, echoed the previous comments of his boss Theo Epstein: There's a lot of work to do here.

In fact, "Men at Work" might be the new theme of the new-look Chicago Cubs. Epstein introduced his top two lieutenants, Hoyer and Jason McLeod, the new boss of the minor league system, Tuesday at Wrigley Field. The crowd wasn't teeming like it was last week for Epstein, but it was a scene.

Weird, but I don't remember this kind of fanfare when Randy Bush was hired.

The first impressions were strong. Epstein got off to a great start in Chicago by bringing Hoyer and especially McLeod, the hidden gem of this new regime, as his first hires. These are guys with a track record of success, mostly in Boston, and they'll bring in a much-needed fresh outlook to the top of the baseball operations department. These are guys that like to ask questions. I've always found that curious people are the smartest.

"To me it's all about information, getting as much as you can," Hoyer said. "Getting in a room and debating it out and coming to consensus."

One reporter jokingly referred to this as the reuniting of the Beatles. Sure, if the Fab Four sang about run prevention and strong minor league foundations. (If you play "Revolution 9" backward, it says, "Quantitative analysis complements traditional scouting.")

Like Epstein did last week, Hoyer spoke longingly and lovingly of the importance of building an organizational foundation, strengthening the farm system, implementing the newfound "Cubs Way" and not impulsively signing past-their-prime free agent based on prior performance.

That's all great, but basically the two whiz kids repeated what every general manager or president has said at their introductory news conferences since the dawn of the printing press. I want to find the Baseball Guy who started off his tenure by saying, "I plan on signing every high-priced, declining free agent at the winter meetings lobby bar. I could care less about the minor leagues and, oh yeah, I hate pitching and defense."

But here's the thing, even a hardened cynic like myself believes the Men at Work have a cogent plan. I'm utterly opposed to the World Series promises, but Cubs fans should at least feel good about the way this franchise is heading. And while most watched the news conference live, we got good stuff when the cameras went off. These guys are the real deal, as far as I can tell.

I'm feeling so generous I won't make fun of Hoyer for this hokey quote that completely misses the point of what Cubs fans want:

"There is nothing more gratifying for a fan than to watch a player get drafted or signed, to watch him go to Peoria, Daytona, to Tennessee, to Iowa and then eventually make his debut."

That might be what gets a front office executive excited, but Cubs fans don't care how the bison is raised, they just want the bison burger, ya dig?

Well, I guess I'm not that generous. But I'll give Hoyer this, at least that misstep wasn't as bad as Epstein's cheesy "baseball is better" poem last week. That was so corny the Cubs will probably make everyone repeat it before Sunday home games.
Whatever, I'm just being a jerk. Winning the news conference is for public relations people. These are baseball guys who just happen to have the ability to elucidate, so I'm not impressed they can communicate.

I want to see results, starting this offseason. It isn't just about farm systems and patience, that's part of it, but this is a big league organization. This isn't "the Field of Dreams," it's Wrigley Reality. Cubs fans have given this team time and money and they deserve better than "wait 'til next year."

Somewhere in Florida, the current manager of the Chicago Cubs is de-boning a fish, or telling stories about the time he benched "Cassie" to teach him a lesson.

Epstein and Hoyer said they haven't made a decision on Quade's future just yet, but listen to this stirring vote of confidence from Epstein.

"Jed and I met in person with Mike for six or seven hours at least," he said. "It was a good meeting, a productive meeting, a through meeting. Mike is clearly a good baseball guy and we have a lot to process. We're going to speak again shortly and we hope to have a resolution on this matter hopefully within a week from now."

Translation: Don't waste your time making out lineups, Mike. I give him until the end of the week.

Quade's a great guy to have a six-hour conversation with, but there's no need to keep him around for another year to sit through open speculation about his replacement. It would be inhumane. The players wouldn't respect his authority, if any still do.

Hoyer said he and McLeod are banned from bringing anyone over from the San Diego Padres, which is a shame. I would've liked to see them try to hire Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley as manager, or as pitching coach with a big raise.

That would've been a wild-card choice, and a good pitching coach doesn't always equal a good manager (see Larry Rothschild), but it's really what a guy like Balsley represents. Texas Rangers pitching coach, and brother of Greg, Mike Maddux is a managerial candidate too. If the Cubs can get him, all the better.

What I'm saying is the Cubs need to focus on pitching first and then defense, and then power hitting. This team really missed Larry Rothschild last season and Mark Riggins wasn't the solution.

As Hoyer said, there's no question where the Cubs need to focus.

"Defensively, I think that's a clear area of improvement," he said. "Run prevention in general. Improving your defense improves your pitching and that's certainly something the Cubs did not do well last year."

He's definitely done his research. The Cubs -- hampered early by injuries to two starters, later by the exile of a mediocre Carlos Zambrano (Epstein said he had an "enlightening" talk with Z's agent and more "enlightening" talks with Cubs officials about him.) and throughout the season by Carlos Marmol's wildness (10 blown saves) -- had the worst walk rate per nine innings (3.64). They were mediocre or worst in most other pitching categories, like, opposing teams having a .301 average of "balls in play."

I know errors are a flawed stat, one that the new Cubs braintrust probably treat as pedestrian. But, still the Cubs had 134 of them, 10 more than the next-worst team, Oakland. Their team-wide ultimate zone rating (a defensive metric) was a little more forgiving. The Cubs were only 14th worst.

Signing home run hitters to take advantage of Wrigley Field in the summer is great. There's nothing wrong with paying for power, but the Cubs might be at a point where it makes more sense to focus on pitching and defense, I mean, "run prevention." That's why Tom Ricketts hired Epstein, to bring this team in a new direction, right?

With that in mind, Epstein essentially bade farewell to the thought of Aramis Ramirez returning.

"Reading the tea leaves, it seems likely that he'll be moving on and we'll be looking for a new solution at third," Epstein said.

That's bad for the offense, but good for the defense. Because it would be so difficult to replace Ramirez's production at third, I asked Epstein if they would try to do it with a better defensive third baseman.

"There are lots of different ways of improving the club," Epstein said. "You've got to wait and see what the market looks like, what the market is emphasizing, or overemphasizing in different years and you tend to find value elsewhere. Pitching and defense have always been the core of team-building throughout baseball. In recent years, it's sort of taken on added attention as there are certain ways to quantify it.

"We can't discriminate. We have to be equal opportunity employers when it comes to building a winning team. Any way to improve the club, if it's through offense, pitching and defense or athleticism, we're going to take advantage of it."

In my mind, along with Ramirez, the Cubs should also get rid of Marmol, Marlon Byrd and catcher Geovany Soto, all of whom could make way for varying abilities to fill other holes. Alfonso Soriano is a financial sinkhole and doesn't fit in with his bosses' philosophical leanings, but I think the Cubs are stuck with him for another season at least.

Speaking of Soriano, Hoyer made sure to reiterate Epstein's point from last week that this new regime wouldn't be paying for past performance on the free-agent market. I think that's damn near impossible, especially when you add the human element to the decision-making process.

Does that mean the Cubs won't be after top free agents in the coming weeks?

"No, I wouldn't say that," Hoyer said. "But I do think we have to get together and see what free agents are the best bet going forward. Certainly some guys age very well, other guys don't. I think a lot of it is profiling what guys have peak years left in the tank. But yeah, you don't want to be paying for someone's resume. That is the true danger of free agency, and something we need to avoid."

So forget Prince Fielder and the dream of Albert Pujols. The Cubs need to focus on pitching anyway.

A local option that Epstein and Hoyer should focus on, one that would cement the new "Cubs Way" is Mark Buehrle, who filed for free agency from the White Sox. Buehrle, aging like a fine wine, could have a really strong closing run left in him and his skill set fits in perfectly with the Cubs' newfound beliefs. He throws strikes and plays good defense, winning his third consecutive Golden Glove on Tuesday.

In the end, that's what it all comes down to: throwing the ball and catching the ball. I think we can all agree on that.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.