<
>

Maddon's arrival doesn't change Cubs' offseason plans

CHICAGO -- How many press conferences, radio shows and other media interviews does Cubs president Theo Epstein have to do for people to understand one simple point: his plan for the team hasn’t changed even after hiring an elite manager like Joe Maddon.

The Cubs will stay the course.

“Having Joe doesn’t necessarily change our plans this winter,” Epstein said Monday. “We’re out to add talent. It (Maddon) might make it easier, but we’re growing. We’re not going to speed it up because Joe is here. We’re not going to slow it down because Joe is here. We’re going to continue to grow this thing organically and compete and I look forward to that.”

Does that sound like a man who's ready spend a huge amount on free agents? Epstein could always be lowering expectations but that’s not been his style since arriving in Chicago. He’s usually brutally honest about the Cubs' situation and what they’ll do in the front office.

“I like where we are as an organization,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to have an eye on competing and we’re going to try and build it the right way, not force it, not rush it. We’re mindful of next offseason as well as this offseason to try and find the right fits and make the right moves.”

In almost every one of these interviews, Epstein brings up next winter. He did so the day after the season ended and he did it again Monday, and he’ll keep doing it to remind people the Cubs are more likely to be aggressive in signing players after 2015 then before. That’s when pitchers like Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto and former Ray David Price are available. It’s a deeper class, the Cubs will be one year closer to becoming a full and functioning offense and they’ll be inching toward realizing new money streams from television and Wrigley Field.

It means the wild free-agent predictions for this winter -- one New York paper had the Cubs spending $340 million on pitchers Max Scherzer and Jon Lester -- need to come back down to Earth.

More than likely, the Cubs will be in on one or two of the bigger names available: Lester and catcher Russell Martin. A second tier pitcher like Brandon McCarthy, Edinson Volquez, Justin Masterson and even former Cub Jason Hammel are real possibilities as well.

After that, the Cubs will look to the outfield and some veteran leadership in the form of Johnny Gomes or possibly Mike Morse, both of whom have been talked about internally over the last 12 months, according to a source familiar with the situation. Tori Hunter could be a veteran presence in the clubhouse as well. Free agency began in earnest Tuesday.

Despite the crazy optimism that surrounds the hiring of Maddon, it doesn’t change the fact the Cubs are the youngest team in the league, especially on offense where growing pains are more likely than not. They’ve stated from the beginning of the offseason that they aren’t going all-in this winter. Not yet.

“I’m not saying we’re all the way there,” Epstein said. “We may not peak in 2015, but we’re competing.”

“Competing” is a vague enough term that even if the Cubs finish under .500, Epstein can’t be called a liar. Undoubtedly, under Maddon, the team will take some steps forward but there will be a few steps back as the Cubs learn how to grind through a 162-game season. Some free agents will help, but they can’t make up for the overall lack of experience on the team.

“You can’t force these things,” Epstein said. “You can’t tell players to get comfortable. It takes time.”