The 2012 season was obviously a disappointment in terms of the final record, but Theo Epstein said he was encouraged by how the Cubs established a better culture and by some of the additions.
Fans will still have to be patient, said Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, who met with the media one day after the team wrapped up the season at 61-101.
“Having not been here previously, I think there was a real improvement in the culture around the team and the mood around the clubhouse,” Epstein said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “Despite being a losing club — and we can’t get away from that, we were a losing club — there was a real professionalism, a real spirit of unity, a real effort to play hard every day, to have each other’s back, to prepare.
“We had our lapses,” he said. “We had plenty of bone-head plays on the bases and things that shouldn’t happen, but on a whole, it was more of a winning atmosphere than you typically see around losing clubs. That’s something we can build on, that’s something we’re going to expect, that’s going to be the standard, that we can continue to build on.”
A lot of the credit for that change goes to first-year manager Dale Sveum and his staff. That could make the Cubs more attractive to free agents. Epstein said they will be looking at free agent pitchers to fill some of the holes in the rotation created by the trades of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm.
“Players want to play for certain managers,” Epstein said. “I guarantee you, starting today and throughout the whole winter, players will be talking about how great it is to play for Dale Sveum and be part of this clubhouse we have here.
“I’ve also heard that players want to be part of the solution here, and want to be part of the club that ultimately wins a World Series here,” he said. “We have an opportunity as well. With a certain tier free agent, we can sell opportunity.
“I think Paul Maholm would tell people he’s really glad he signed here. … I think he feels good about his Cubs experience, and would come back here in a second if he got the opportunity.”
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Epstein would prefer the roster was 100 percent homegrown. But some of the top prospects need more time. Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson, who struggled in two months with the big league team, were both told they will open next season at Triple-A Iowa. Epstein said Vitters has had a tough time initially at every level he’s advanced to. The third baseman batted .121 in 36 games with the Cubs. Jackson’s swing wasn’t ready, Epstein said, but they wanted to promote the outfielder so Sveum and interim hitting coach James Rowson could work with him. Jackson finished at .175 with 59 strikeouts in 120 at-bats.
“I think he’ll have a much more productive offseason because of what he was exposed to than if he had stayed at Triple-A,” Epstein said.
Rowson, who took over in May when Rudy Jaramillo was dismissed, will either remain with the big league team or could return to his duties as Minor League hitting coordinator.
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The 2012 season is significant because it’s the year Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora joined the organization, Epstein said. Rizzo took over the No. 3 spot in the lineup when promoted from Triple-A on June 26. Soler, a 20-year-old Cuban outfielder, signed a nine-year, $30 million deal in June, and Almora was the team’s first-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Other highlights for Epstein included Javier Baez, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2011, who made progress in his development; Darwin Barney, who proved to be one of the elite defensive second basemen; and establishing the scouting and player development infrastructure.
The Cubs drew 2.8 million fans this year, the first time they did not reach 3 million since 2003. Fans can expect more growing pains.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Don’t worry about 101 losses because we have a magic plan to win the World Series in 2013, and it’s going to happen — be there now,’” Epstein said. “I think what we’re trying to communicate is there is a plan, there is a vision. It might be a little bit longer term than we all want it to be but we’re committed to it. There’s great reward at the end. You can’t guarantee results. But I’ll tell everybody, we won’t be satisfied unless we’re in the postseason year in and year out.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, he said, was veteran Alfonso Soriano, 36, who hit 32 home runs and set a career-high with 108 RBIs.
“Coming in here, I actually had a little trepidation of how we’d handle him and the contract and if his skills declined, how we’d handle playing time,” Epstein said. “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Those concerns proved to be completely baseless. What a pleasant surprise he turned out to be.”
However, Soriano’s trade value is high. He has two years, $38 million remaining on his eight-year contract, but also has 10-and-5 rights.
“If teams pursue him in a trade, we’ll consider it,” Epstein said. “If we trade him, we’re losing something, so we have to get something back in return to justify that.”
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Despite the losing record and long hours, Epstein did enjoy his first summer in Chicago, saying it was a very livable city for him and his family. After a company softball game Friday, it’s back to work for 2013.
“My hope is that years from now, when we’re celebrating successes year in and year out, we look back at 2012, and say, ‘Look how far we came,’ and I think we will,” Epstein said.
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs promoted Shiraz Rehman to assistant general manager, reporting to general manager Jed Hoyer, on Thursday. The team now will have two assistant GMs in Rehman and Randy Bush, who will continue to serve in the role he has held since December 2006. Rehman, 34, joined the Cubs in November as assistant to the general manager after six seasons with the Diamondbacks, where he was director of player personnel. He also held the titles of director of baseball operations (2009-10) and manager of baseball operations (2007-08) after joining the D-backs as a baseball operations assistant in December 2005.
* Losing 100 plus games should motivate the young Cubs.
“We have a lot of young guys who are learning and trying to make the adjustments up here,” pitcher Travis Wood said. “I think it can only help us in the long run. This season will leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. I think we’ll all be fired up and ready to go this spring.”
* Sveum proved he’s very patient during what was a trying season. Will fans support the team as it goes through its growing pains? Wednesday’s crowd was 27,606, and the Cubs finished with less than 3 million at home for the first time since 2003, drawing 2,882,756 for the season.
“I’m sure they’ll gradually get a little less patient,” Sveum said. “People still have to understand things don’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual repair job as well. Whatever happens in the winter — free agents, non-tender guys, whoever you bring in — we have to have some guys who can hit home runs, too. I don’t mean literally. Guys have to have good years.”
* The Cubs won their season finale for the first time since beating the Rockies, 8-5, on Oct. 1, 2006, at Wrigley Field.
* Starlin Castro became the first player to play shortstop in all 162 games in a season on Wednesday, and is the first Cubs infielder to appear in all 162 games since Ron Santo in 1968.
* Tony Campana stole a base and finished with 30 steals for the season.
* Shawn Camp made his 80th appearance, and became the ninth pitcher in Cubs history to reach that mark, and first since Sean Marshall in 2010.
* What’s the biggest thing Sveum will take from this season?
“To really know that I have a lot of patience,” he said. “I kind of knew that was one of my fortes anyway but this tried your patience quite a bit. I can always fall back on that if I don’t have anything else.”
Maybe one of the reasons is he stayed patient was because he didn’t read any negative comments in the local media.
“I don’t read the paper, I don’t ‘twit’ and I don’t do Facebook,” said Sveum, who meant that he doesn’t “tweet” as in Twitter.
– Carrie Muskat
Wednesday’s game was more than No. 162 for Bryan LaHair. It was a chance for him to make his grandmother Theresa smile. LaHair hit a solo home run in the second and a walk-off RBI single with two outs in the ninth to lift the Cubs to a 5-4 victory over the Astros. This was personal for LaHair, and not just because it was a chance to redeem himself after going from National League All-Star to bench player following the rise of Anthony Rizzo. LaHair’s grandmother is battling cancer and it’s been a difficult fight.
“That game was for her today,” LaHair said.
With the game tied at 4 in the ninth against Hector Ambriz (1-1), Anthony Recker walked and was lifted for pinch-runner Darwin Barney, who moved up one out later on Tony Campana’s bunt single. One out later, Starlin Castro, the only regular in the starting lineup on the last day of the season, playing in his 162nd game, drew a walk to load the bases. LaHair then lined the first pitch to right for the game-winner.
LaHair talked to his mother last night to get an update.
“The last thing my mom said was, ‘Get one for her,’” LaHair said. “I told her to let [his grandmother] know I’ll get one.”
The Cubs ended with 101 losses, second-most in franchise history, and behind only the 1962 and ’66 teams that finished 59-103.
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs dismissed third base coach Pat Listach after Wednesday’s game, and were still evaluating interim hitting coach James Rowson’s status. The rest of manager Dale Sveum’s coaching staff will return in 2013. Listach, 45, was in his second season in his second stint with the Cubs. He was a coach or manager in the team’s Minor League system from 2000-08 before serving as the Nationals third base coach from 2009-10. Listach was the Cubs’ infield coach, and worked with second baseman Darwin Barney, who compiled a 141-game errorless streak.
“This is hard for me,” Barney said after getting the news. “He was one of the first people who really saw what I had and believed in it and voiced his opinion for me a couple years back. It’s tough. He’s going to be fine, he’s got a place in baseball and he’ll find work somewhere for sure. It’s hard to see him go. We spent a lot of time together preparing for these games and putting together the season I had defensively.
“Whenever I try to give him credit, he tells me, ‘It wasn’t me, it was all you. Don’t think I did anything,’” Barney said. “The reality is, he did [help]. He turned me onto a lot of different ideas and different things. It’s just sad, it’s sad to see him go.”
Rowson was promoted from Minor League hitting coordinator to replace veteran hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo in May. The Cubs batted .240 this season, ahead of only the Astros in the National League.
– Carrie Muskat
Alfonso Soriano wasn’t in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s season finale. Dale Sveum asked the veteran if he wanted to play, and Soriano said that was enough.
“Personally, I feel proud of myself,” Soriano said of his season, in which he hit 32 home runs and drove in a career-high 108 runs. “At 36, what I can do, even with a bad knee, I just worked hard to do what I could do because I love this game and never like being down. I’m working hard to make this team better. If I’m healthy, I know I’ll put up numbers but more important, I can help this team win.”
He will not have surgery on his troublesome left knee, but spend the offseason strengthening it. He’s quieted his critics.
“People always see me with the wrong eyes,” Soriano said. “I think the manager and [Theo Epstein] and all those guys, they appreciate what I do. They gave me an opportunity to bat cleanup and I did the best I could to make the team better.”
When Soriano signed his eight-year contract in November 2006, it was with the idea that the Cubs would win now. They did win go to the postseason in 2007 and ’08, but that was it. Now, they’re rebuilding. How long can Soriano wait?
“It depends on how long,” he said. “If they want to rebuild next year, I’ll be here. If they want to take longer than two years, I have to think about moving to another team that can win quickly. I have two more years on the contract and maybe I’ll retire after that. I want to have one more shot to get to the World Series before I retire.”
“I just say that — the way I feel now, I wish it could be my No. 8 year on my contract so I could retire today,” said Soriano, weary from the season. “There’s two more years left.”
So he’s not going to play when he’s 40?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think two more years — it depends on how I feel. If I feel like I feel now in two years, I’ll want to retire right away.”
– Carrie Muskat
Starlin Castro today will become the first player in Cubs history to play at shortstop in all 162 games in a season. The previous single-season mark was 160 games, set by Ivan DeJesus in both 1978 and 1979. This also will be Castro’s 161st start at shortstop, which is a franchise record. DeJesus (1978) and Don Kessinger (1968) shared the previous mark of 158 starts at shortstop in a season.
Castro will become the first Cubs infielder to appear in all 162 games in a season since Hall of Famer Ron Santo did so in 1968.
Only three players in the big leagues have played 162 games at shortstop during the last 10 seasons: Baltimore’s Miguel Tejada (2003 and 2004), Montreal’s Orlando Cabrera (2003) and Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins (2007).
With Wednesday’s game, Elias Sports Bureau says Castro will have played in 195-consecutive games, the longest active streak in the National League and the second-longest active run in all of baseball trailing only Detroit’s Prince Fielder (342 entering today).
– Carrie Muskat
The Cubs appear to have shutdown the offense for the season. They were shutout Tuesday for the second straight game, the first time they’ve been blanked in back to back games since July 21-22 at St. Louis. They’ve lost 29 straight games when scoring three runs or less, dating to a 3-2 win against the Cardinals on July 28. They’d like to end with at least one more “W.”
“Whenever you go into the winter when you finish good as a starter, whether you’re swinging the bat really well, you have a lot better winter, you sleep a lot better,” Dale Sveum said. “It makes a big difference how you finish.”
This was the first meeting between two teams with 100 losses since Sept. 30, 1962, when the Cubs and Mets squared off in the season finale at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won, 5-1, and closed the year, 59-103. That was the Mets’ first season, and they finished 40-120. Chicago and Houston close the 2012 campaign on Wednesday.
On Monday, the Cubs managed two hits. On Tuesday, they mustered four, and went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
“Deja vu [from] last night,” Sveum said. “Not a lot of good at-bats, not a lot of quality at-bats again and left some guys, striking out with guys in scoring position. It kind of typifies the whole season these last two nights, swinging the bats.”
Sveum will shake up his lineup for Wednesday’s finale, and use the reserves. Expect Starlin Castro to start at shortstop, which would be Game No. 162 for him, but Adrian Cardenas, for example, will start at second.
“For the most part, the season didn’t go very well, obviously, but a lot of these guys deserve to kick back,” Sveum said of his regulars. “Just let them sit back and watch a game for once. I asked [Alfonso Soriano] if he wanted 110 RBIs or whatever, and he said, ‘No, I’m fine.’”
One more to go.
– Carrie Muskat
* According to a report, the Cubs plan to add 56 prime box seats in 2013 by moving the brick wall three feet closer to the field. Crain’s Chicago Business reported Tuesday that the proposed changes will be on the agenda of the permit review committee of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday. Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, said Tuesday he was not privy to the information.
“I would probably want to sit down and study it,” Epstein said. “I don’t see it as a big deal, one way or another if it’s only a couple of feet, but we’ll see.”
* The Cubs have lost 100 games for the first time since 1966 and only the third time in franchise history but Epstein didn’t put any of the blame on first-year manager Dale Sveum.
“The 100 losses are not his fault the least bit,” Epstein said. ”He’s done a really good job of maintaining as much of a winning culture as he possibly can during a season like this.”
Sveum said he’ll take time this offseason to evaluate the job he’s done. He asked the veteran players for feedback as well.
“The bottom line is it’s the players game, and you send them out there to play,” Sveum said. “It’s their job to perform and it’s my job to manage the game and it’s my job to manage the clubhouse and make sure it’s an atmosphere that these guys enjoy coming to every day, no matter the good times or the bad times. That’s my job. Wins and losses are what they are, but the bottom line is putting these guys in situations where they can succeed and they have to do the job.”
Epstein said all relevant discussions regarding the coaches and staff be done following Wednesday’s season finale.
* The Cubs hope Brett Jackson has an Anthony Rizzo type off-season, and can come back in 2013 even better. Rizzo batted .141 last season when first called up to the big leagues with the Padres. He made several adjustments with his stance, and since he was promoted on June 26, he was batting .288 with the Cubs. Jackson was batting .174 in 42 games since being called up from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 5. Sveum, a former hitting coach, has a list of things he’d like to see Jackson do.
“I’d like to see him completely revamp his swing and lower half,” Sveum said. “They’re not things that you’re asking somebody to stand on their head about. There are players in this game who have made drastic, drastic adjustments and it’s propelled some of them to Hall of Fame stature and long careers in the big leagues. I’ll go to my grave saying if you don’t make any adjustments in this game, you won’t stay here long.”
* Sveum began one-on-one discussions with pitchers on Tuesday, and will do the same with the position players, starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
– Carrie Muskat