Epstein says Cubs will address starting pitching, defense, situational hitting

One could hardly blame Cubs president Theo Epstein if he hung on to 2015 for just a moment before moving on to the business of the day Thursday: looking ahead to 2016.

After all, once a season ends for a team, the dynamic it creates is gone forever, for better or worse.

This year's Cubs were a young, fun bunch that exceeded expectations by advancing to the National League championship series before being decisively bounced from the postseason by the New York Mets.

Before the Cubs headed for winter hibernation, they came back out onto Wrigley Field for one final curtain call after Wednesday night's 8-3 loss to the New York Mets, giving the Mets a four-game series sweep.

“That tip of the cap was genuine, it was heartfelt and it was well deserved on behalf of the fans,” Epstein said during an almost hourlong session with the media. “They were incredibly patient with us for three years during the rebuild and stuck with us. When it was time to fall in love with the team and show up and get loud during the second half of the season and through the playoffs, they did that incredibly well.

“The fans mean the world to us, really incredible connection between this year's team and the fan base. We look forward to that continuing for years to come.”

The Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, finishing third in the National League Central and winning the second wild-card spot. They beat division rivals Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the wild-card game and division series, respectively, before being outplayed by the Mets.

Some of the Cubs' weaknesses were exposed during the NLCS. So it wasn't surprising that Epstein addressed some, if not all, of those during Thursday's session.

Among the areas he addressed were starting pitching, outfield defense and situational hitting.

The Cubs entered the postseason with two dependable starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Youngster Kyle Hendricks was up-and-down, and he moved up from No. 4 in the rotation to No. 3, supplanting Jason Hammel, who was ineffective for almost all of the second half of the season.

So it wasn't surprising to hear Epstein say that adding pitching would be a priority this off-season.

“The topic sentence is we would like to add more quality pitching,” he said. “Anyone who follows the team knows that we've been open and transparent about it that we're really building on a foundation of young position players, and we're going trust ourselves to add pitching along the way and build really effective pitching staffs over the years and to add impact pitching throughout the organization.

“We need more pitching, that's obvious … We want to continue to add impact pitching. We want to continue to add starting-pitching depth at the big-league level.”

Whether that pitching comes from free agency or trades remains to be seen.

“Free-agent pitching is a necessary evil at times,” Epstein said. “It's only evil because it is inherently risky, but it's necessary because you can make such an impact on our starting staff right away by fishing in those waters.”

The second area Epstein addressed was hitting. In the small sample-size world of the NLCS, the Cubs were 21-for-128 (. 164) against good pitching, but situational hitting was an issue that popped up from time to time during the regular season. Epstein said he, general manager Jed Hoyer and field manager Joe Maddon have discussed the issue.

“I think we can get better as a situational hitting team and as a contact-hitting team, and that's something you can address through player personnel if the right player is out there, the right fit but also through emphasis and coaching,” Epstein said. “We've already talked — Joe, Jed and I — about how situational hitting is going to be an emphasis in spring training.”

The Cubs have several young players who are better with the bat than they are with the glove, and that became apparent in the playoffs, particularly with defensive play in the outfield.

“I think we could generally improve our outfield defense a little bit,” Epstein said. “That's something that happens not just with personnel with the personnel we may add but through coaching and repetition and emphasis in certain area. Young players do get better defensively with work, and we plan to work.”

Whatever the Cubs do in the off-season will cost money, whether they sign a free-agent pitcher or sign their own salary-arbitration-eligbile players, such as ace pitcher Jake Arrieta, to 2016 contracts. A playoff run should help the financial picture even as the Cubs await a possible lucrative TV package by the end of this decade.

“The run that we had this year helps in a number of ways,” Epstein said. “In the short term there's a little bit of a bump from the revenues that you get from the postseason.

“Obviously the interest in the team increased during the second half of the season into the postseason. If the incredible support we got this season into the playoffs is any indication, there's going to be a lot of interest in our club next year, which should help revenues.

“The 2016 payroll is not going to be as big as the 2020 payroll because of the TV deal and everything else. But what the team accomplished this year should help.”

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