Speaking with InsideTheIvy.com just before the official start of spring training 2009, Kasper reflected on some of the Cubs' off-season moves and shared several of his thoughts on the team's outlook for the season ahead in this Q-&-A.
Q: What to you was the most surprising move of the Cubs' off-season? Were there any real surprises?
A: Not really. I think most people would say that the trade of Mark DeRosa to Cleveland was surprising, but then you consider the Cubs wanted to maybe shuffle the deck just a little bit; maybe not fundamentally change the nucleus of this team after losing again in the sweep in the playoffs. It allowed them to go out and get Milton Bradley, something they wanted to do to help the outfield. But I think going into the off-season—I'm trying to put myself back into mid-October—I guess I thought the Cubs would make a couple of trading deals, just to shake things up a little bit without, again, fundamentally changing the makeup of this team.
Q: There was so much talk about getting more left-handed with the addition of Bradley, Aaron Miles, etc. After watching this team struggle so much at the plate in the playoffs the last two years, do you think they were just one or two bats away from reversing any of the things that happened?
A: It's such a fine line. A short series can go either way. To sit here and try to figure out why the Cubs haven't won in those short series I think in some ways is futile. But as an organization, you absolutely have to try to come up with every possible explanation for what happens either positively or negatively. And I think the Cubs decided that, first off, this offense was tremendous last year. It was clearly the best offense in the entire National League. The Cubs were as patient maybe as any team of recent history for this franchise. They really hadn't been known over the past several years as an offense that was going to be very patient, but they led the National League in runs, in on-base percentage, in slugging, in walks; they were the only team to score over 800 runs, so you didn't want to go in there and change too much. But if you get into a situation in the playoffs where you face a team like the Dodgers with a lot of power arms from the right side, you would like to have a little versatility.
So the way I look at the moves that have been made, it doesn't necessarily make this offense better, and if you look at the numbers when it's all said and done at the end of the regular season, I don't think they're going to be necessarily better than they were last year, but they don't need to be better. What it does is maybe gives the manager another option or two when you get into a situation where you have to throw a left-handed batter against a power right-hander, especially late in the game. … The Cubs weren't quite as balanced as maybe they would have liked to have been, and I think you're going to see that a little bit more here in 2009.
Q: It's a new season and not to keep dwelling on the past, but you were around for the playoff series last year when a lot of people said the mood of the clubhouse was down after Game 1 of the NLDS. What was your read on the team's attitude?
A: I thought it was business as usual. I think the attitude and all that other stuff is way overrated. You just go out and you play and do what you can. I thought the Cubs played the best game of the series in Game 3; they just couldn't score runs. When you don't score runs, you look flat and then you come up with all these other—in my opinion—excuses about the attitude or whatever that I don't think really play into it that much. They were beaten by a hot team that had been a lot better with Manny Ramirez late in the season, and you just accept it for what it is.
You go back two years and it's the same situation with the Diamondbacks; they got hot at the right time and that was the story. Winning Game 1 is probably pretty important as you look ahead, and we don't take anything for granted; you can't assume the Cubs are going to make the playoffs again this year, but let's assume for conversation sake that they do make the playoffs. I think Game 1 becomes important if for no other reason than the fans. When you lose Game 1—it felt like a funeral at the ballpark. It really did. Just for the overall morale of maybe everyone around this team, it probably would be a good idea to get off to a good start in the series. Even though winning Game 1 is not the end-all, be-all, I think it probably would be important for all that other stuff that you mentioned.
Q: The last two years, the Cubs have been up for sale … and this year they moved Jason Marquis and DeRosa among others, which cleared up a little bit of salary, especially with Marquis. Do you think the Cubs were affected more by the sale this last off-season than in the previous two? Were they affected by the economy? Are any of these things something that affected the team at all?
A: I'm sure it's a combination of all of the above, and the fact that a couple of off-seasons ago, the Cubs spent a ton of money on multi-year contracts. You mentioned Marquis; he was a guy that was brought in during that off-season after '06. I don't know what the payroll number actually will be, but I'd be shocked if it goes down. I mean, nobody is recession-proof totally … but I think the economic realities are that most teams are not going to go out and significantly add to their payroll considering the (times) that we're in, and the fact that the Cubs will have a new owner coming in possibly before opening day.
It sounds like the Ricketts family are real close to becoming the official owner … that will I'm sure make it just a little easier in terms of going out and spending money, although the Cubs have said all along—and Jim Hendry has said all along—that Sam Zell has never stood in the way of improving the ballclub. I think Sam Zell has been a really good owner for this franchise when you consider the success the team has had since he purchased the Tribune Company.
Q: I don't think it's a stretch to say that Bradley was the biggest addition of the off-season. What was your reaction to the signing?
A: I think it was a terrific signing; a guy who led the entire American League in on-base percentage and OPS last year. The biggest question for me and I think for everybody is: can he remain healthy? He's only played in over 100 games three times in his first nine years; 12 times (he has been) on the disabled list. He was pretty healthy last year, but only played 20 games in the outfield. That's the biggest question: can he play 100-plus games in the outfield and remain healthy? If he can do that, he does add that versatility because he's a switch-hitter.
There have been some conversations about what he brings to the clubhouse, but you know what, everything I've heard is that he's a great teammate. He's had some situations where he's played on the edge emotionally on the field, but the Cubs' ace pitcher has had moments like that in the past. Carlos Zambrano is very competitive and I think Bradley bringing that competitive nature to the North Side is a great thing. But the bottom line is that he continues to hit the ball like he did last year in Texas.
Q: How much do you think the Cubs will miss Kerry Wood and was it time to part ways as Jim Hendry seemed to feel?
A: On a personal level, everyone who has ever met Kerry will tell you it's a big loss. He's a wonderful guy who made Chicago his home and battled through lots of adversity in his career, and he's someone you definitely root for. Having said that, because Carlos Marmol had such a fantastic year and the fact that Jim Hendry was able to acquire Kevin Gregg, the Cubs felt like they would be covered at the end of games and instead of paying Kerry a ton of money, which he deserved, they made the tough decision to let him leave via free agency and to use that money to do some other things. We'll see how it plays out, but I think the Cubs will be fine at the back end of their 'pen.
Q: There were a lot of discussions about Jake Peavy in the off-season. Where do you think those talks stand right now?
A: I have no idea if they have a shot at getting him, but if they can this would be one of the best starting rotations on paper in recent memory. You'd have, really, five guys that you could say could be your opening day starter. It sounds like the Cubs and Padres haven't talked about Jake Peavy since the Winter Meetings. I don't know what the Padres would require; if it would be less than what they asked for a few months ago. Again, the Cubs' ownership situation probably comes into play. But even if the Cubs don't make that deal before opening day, it's still possible they could pursue it once the season starts. I think it would be a pretty good deadline deal if you acquired one of the better starting pitchers in all of baseball. I think everybody agrees that having him in your rotation would be a wonderful thing; it's just a matter of what you'd have to give up and what kind of dollars you'd have to spend.
Q: Jeff Samardzija came up last year and had a solid second-half. What were your impressions of the Cubs' top pitching prospect?
A: There's no question he's a major-league talent and has a great fastball. He really needs to work on his secondary pitches; his slider and his split. But it sounds like that's something he knows and will continue to work on. I don't know what his future is, whether he'll be a full-time starter or a short reliever. The way I look at this is, if Jeff Samardzija doesn't make the club out of spring training or isn't in the role that he envisioned, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. What it means is you have a lot of depth and a lot of competition. This is not about, right now, the long-term future on the field of this team; it's about trying to win a World Series in 2009. I do think Jeff Samardzija will be a big part of that process, but if you have an opportunity, again, to go out there and get a Jake Peavy—or if Chad Gaudin wins the fifth starter's spot out of spring training, or Aaron Heilman or Sean Marshall—so be it.
If Samardzija has to spend a little time in the minor leagues, I don't think it's the worst thing in the world for him or the organization. … I think they've had options in the fifth spot (in previous years); they just haven't had the quality of options like they have this year. I think of all the guys we just mentioned would make a rotation somewhere around baseball, and two or three of them are not going to make it for the Cubs this year. I think that's a very positive sign of the depth this team has.
Q: Were you surprised when the Cubs traded Felix Pie? It seemed that was one of the worst-kept secrets of the off-season. Was it something that just had to be done?
A: I don't know if it had to be done; I think for his development it probably did. He is way too good to be in Triple-A. I mean, every time he's gone down to Triple-A, he's dominated but had struggles at the big league level. There's no question he is a defensive upgrade for probably just about anybody on any ballclub you'd have—in centerfield. He's excellent defensively; that's never been a concern. But offensively, he still struggles to make consistent contact. The strike zone still needs to improve and going back to the previous answer, the Cubs are not in a developmental mode right now and they couldn't stick Felix in center and say, ‘Struggle through it, figure it out and we'll be fine.'
They're at a point now where they need production out of just about every spot in the lineup and there just wasn't a place for him on this major-league roster. But he has a career on-base percentage of .284 and … 287 plate appearances, about half a season, so it's still a small sample size. But in general, you kind of are what you are in terms of strike zone recognition, so that needs to improve considerably. He's only slugged .331; he has to get a lot better offensively and he has a chance now in moving on to a different ballclub over in the American League. I wish nothing but the best for Felix. I think he has a chance. He has a lot of talent and a chance to be a really good major league player, but he still needs to make some strides offensively. He's only 24, so he's still a very young person, let alone a young baseball player. He's got a long way to go and he has a lot of time to make those improvements.
Q: This will be your fifth year in the Cubs' broadcast booth. What have you learned in that time?
A: It's the greatest ballpark in baseball with the greatest fans in baseball, and I think the greatest city in the country. My family loves living here. We're from the Midwest originally and we're near our family. We have a lot of friends here that we've known for a long, long time and we've made a lot of new friends. The fans have just been awesome, and working with Bob Brenly every day has been such a treat. He makes me better on the air every day. I thought that Bob might have a chance at managing the Brewers. That didn't happen and he seems fine with it. I think he appreciated the opportunity to interview with Doug Melvin in Milwaukee, but he feels good that he's happy here. He didn't look at it as a bad thing to come back here and work in the broadcast booth. I would like to think that if he's in the Cubs' television booth with me for a long, long time that he'd be happy to do that.
It's been a great, great run. We've called a lot of wins the last couple of years as opposed to the first two seasons and we hope it's just going to get better and better. And we really, really, really hope to see the Cubs go much deeper in the playoffs than they have the last couple of years.