"Our goal in 2015 is to win the National League Central," said Epstein, who was greeted by applause from the packed Oriental Theater on Friday. "It felt good to say that."
Epstein discussed the 2014 season and looked ahead during a presentation with the Cubs' season-ticket holders, who got an update on both the baseball team and business operations.
Crane Kenney, president of business operations, said the team is in "extra innings," in terms of its television contract negotiations -- adding that a number of potential partnerships have emerged. The Cubs' agreement with WGN-TV concluded at the completion of the 2014 season, which ended a relationship dating to 1948. The move now allows the team to get its broadcast and cable rights in sync. The Cubs have a contract with Comcast SportsNet Chicago that runs through 2019.
A television deal is a significant revenue source. The Dodgers, for example, launched their own cable network this year, and are set to earn $8.35 billion over 25 years.
"We know what's at stake here, and we're not going to short-arm negotiations," Kenney said.
The $575 million Wrigley Field renovations are underway, with the official groundbreaking scheduled for Saturday. The first phase involves the bleachers and extending the outer walls of the ballpark to the curb of the current sidewalk along Waveland and Sheffield avenues. This will create 300 additional seats in left field, 300 in right, and 300 standing-room seats in the bleacher deck.
Kenney said the changes will allow the team to install a 4,000-square-foot video scoreboard in left and a 2,400-square-foot video scoreboard in right field, as well as five other advertising signs.
"We're not planning any 'Kiss Cams' or wild dance contests," Kenney said of the video scoreboards -- which will show real-time statistics, replays and historical highlights in response to fan surveys.
During a question-and-answer session, queries ranged from a young fan asking about whether Clark the mascot will get a female friend named "Addison" next year (Answer: No) to how Epstein decides the 40-man roster (Epstein: "We have to make some tough decisions"). A fan wondered if the Cubs could buy all of the buildings around Wrigley Field to eliminate any conflicts with rooftop owners, and Kenney said it's not feasible. Rooftop owners make $25 million a year from their businesses and "they don't pay for the talent," he said.
The only boos from the crowd came whenever pitcher Edwin Jackson's name was mentioned, and Epstein admitted it was "tough to watch" the right-hander struggle for a second consecutive season. Jackson will "have to make dramatic improvements to have a role on the team" next year according to Epstein, and knows that.
Another fan was upset by the way the Cubs' players wear their uniforms, and said they need to show more socks. Epstein pointed out the players do wear jackets on the road.
Back to baseball. The Cubs' farm system is deep with position players -- including Kris Bryant, the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, whom Epstein said is in a position "to impact our 2015 season." Epstein said they have done "five to six years of work in three seasons" in restocking the farm system through the First-Year Player Draft, international signings and trades. He cautioned that the young talent still needs time to develop and there will be hiccups. But the players have taken a big step.
"I think it's clear we have enough talent to compete," Epstein said. "Do we have enough talent to win? That's the beauty of baseball. You don't know until you try. This is the first time we've had enough talent to compete. I believe when you're competing, you have to set your sights high."
The Cubs do plan to add impact starting pitching over the next 15 months, Epstein said, which means it could be this offseason, at the 2015 Trade Deadline or after next season. Is he wary watching top talent like Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, both free agents, who did not fare well in the postseason?
"This time of year is dangerous, because we always take the small sample size events and create majestic narratives about what it means to build a winning team and a landscape, in general," Epstein said. "We're not going to go out and lead the league in stolen bases next year because of the Royals. ... We know that buying top-of-the-rotation starters in free agency, those haven't been the signings that bring the best return in investment."
Meeting with reporters after the fan session, Epstein joked they can go ahead and write columns criticizing the Cubs for missing out on some big-name free agents this offseason.
"To be the organization that we want to be -- to be a world-class organization -- you can't be afraid of perception," said Epstein. "You have to put yourself out there and look stupid at times. We're going to miss on players by not signing them, we're going to sign players who don't work out. But we're also going to sign players who make a real impact and win those extra three, four games for us and put us in the postseason and put us in the World Series."
• Epstein said he was happy with the way the coaching staff worked out following the hiring of John Mallee as hitting coach and former Cub Doug Dascenzo as first-base/outfield coach. The Cubs hired Mallee in 2013 to be the Minor League hitting coordinator, but he quit four days later to join Bo Porter's Major League staff with the Astros.
Manager Rick Renteria knows Dascenzo well, and they have the same baserunning philosophy, Epstein said.
"[Dascenzo is] a worker and not afraid of teaching big league players -- and not afraid of saying what needs to be said," Epstein said. "To our benefit, he's a guy who is sought after and I think he's a nice add for us."
Eric Hinske moves from first-base/outfield coach to assistant hitting coach.
"I think he's in a more appropriate role," Epstein said. "He's really a hitter at heart, and loves to teach hitting and loves to talk about approach and connect with hitters. He had to learn the outfield stuff and learn the baserunning stuff, and it's hard to teach it while you learn it."