The Winter Meetings give Epstein and the other 29 clubs that opportunity to gauge agents and players.
"[The Meetings are] one of the few times that all 30 clubs are actively engaged in talking trade, which is nice," Epstein said Thursday at Wrigley Field. "There's a perception out there that the job of a GM or club president is always on the phone with the 29 other clubs talking about trades, and it really doesn't happen that often. You have to seize those opportunities at the GM Meetings, at the Winter Meetings."
The Cubs' top priority? Adding depth to their pitching.
"We need starting pitching," Epstein said. "You can't take your chances very seriously as a club if you go into a season with not just five guys you can point to, but six, seven, eight guys. You better know who your ninth starter is going to be because you're going to need him. The numbers show you're going to need your ninth starter through the course of the year."
The Cubs actually needed 10 last season as they dealt with injuries to Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells, inconsistency by fill-ins such as Doug Davis, and Carlos Zambrano's early exit.
Zambrano is healing after taking a line drive off his face during a start in Venezuela. There is no timetable for his return to pitch there, but he is expected to make at least one more start for Caribes. He needed 16 stitches to repair a cut after he was hit.
There also have been reports that the Cubs will try to deal Matt Garza, who has two years remaining of arbitration eligibility. Garza could very well be the Cubs' Opening Day starter in 2012.
"He's exactly the type of guy we'd like to build around," Epstein said.
Where do Cashner and Jeff Samardzija fit in the Cubs' plans? Epstein said they've had discussions on the two right-handers, who both have expressed an interest in starting.
"I do see both guys being really valuable pieces to the picture," said Epstein, encouraged by Cashner's performance in the Arizona Fall League after missing most of the year because of a strained right rotator cuff.
Epstein also noted Samardzija looked much better in the second half of the season, and added "next year is a big year to build on that." Samardzija was 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA overall in a career-high 75 relief appearances, and gave up four earned runs over 28 2/3 innings in the final two months.
Sean Marshall, who appeared in 78 games and recorded a single-season franchise-record 34 holds, is not in the mix to be considered for the rotation.
"If you have the best left-handed reliever in baseball, it's hard to think about taking him out of that role," Epstein said.
Maybe Epstein will take advantage of the meetings to discuss a possible contract with representatives for free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. After all, the Cubs have reportedly been linked to the pair.
"I don't think we pay too much attention to rumors," Epstein said.
Their priorities haven't changed, Epstein said. He and general manager Jed Hoyer want to build the Cubs the right way for the long haul, mainly through scouting and player development and with the acquisition of young players. The second aspect, Epstein said, is taking advantage of every opportunity they can.
"We're not going to do anything to serve the second priority that disrupts the first," he said. "If there's a move that makes us much better in the short term, but it's at the expense of doing things the right way and building it for the long haul through a core of young players, we're not going to make that move."
Keep that in mind when you hear the next rumor regarding the Cubs.
The new collective bargaining agreement rules regarding what teams can spend in the First-Year Player Draft will simply require more diligence. Epstein said the Cubs will have to make sure they get the evaluations right as far as scouting players.
"You have to answer the ultimate question: Which player is going to have the best career?" he said.
The adjustments will not affect how they spend money on free agents, he said. Epstein said, "We just have to be better" in terms of scouting.
He did just that during a recent trip to the Dominican Republic to see, among others, Cuban outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler. Epstein would not comment specifically on the two players.