One year ago, Epstein and Hoyer headed to the Winter Meetings less than two months after taking over the Cubs. They had a manager but needed a third baseman, an outfielder and some pitching. They only knew about the talent in the Cubs' Minor League system from scouting reports or video and were still figuring their way around Wrigley Field.
Epstein, president of baseball operations, and Hoyer, the general manager, have a much better feel for the players in the organization now and don't need name tags anymore. But they have the same wish list for the big league team.
The goal to "build the foundation for sustained success" hasn't changed. After losing 100 games for the first time since 1966, it just may take the Cubs longer than fans want.
They got a head start this offseason by signing free agent pitchers Scott Baker, 31, and Scott Feldman, 29, each to one-year contracts. Both are penciled into the rotation, even though Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, and will join starters Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Travis Wood.
"I think they're both really good pitchers," Hoyer said of Baker and Feldman. "We feel both Baker and Feldman provide a lot of value in the free-agent market. Our approach is not going to change based on the previous years. You're always looking to find guys who can out-perform their contracts and guys who can really provide value -- and that's what we're looking for."
The Cubs reportedly came close to acquiring Dan Haren in exchange for closer Carlos Marmol, but Haren's medical reports made them pull their offer off the table.
"We're pursuing pitchers across the spectrum," Epstein said. "[We're looking at] some guys who might be classified as 'buy low,' there might even be 'buy high' guys, some multiyear deals, some trades. We're looking for pitchers who can step in and improve our rotation. If there are sound investments out there, whether they're big or small, we'll pursue them and try to sign them."
The fact that they did offer Marmol means there may be some surprise deals this offseason. Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo are likely the only untouchable players. There were reports that the Cubs were among the teams talking to the Marlins about disgruntled outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, and shortstop Starlin Castro was listed as possible trade bait.
Epstein and Hoyer crossed off one item on their wish list when they signed veteran catcher Dioner Navarro to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. Navarro, 28, who batted .290 in 24 games last season with the Reds, will back up Welington Castillo, who is projected as the starter. Plus, the Cubs signed their lone free agent, reliever Shawn Camp, which gives them a durable arm in the bullpen.
With the early moves, the Cubs are committed to nearly $50 million in salaries next season. Epstein and Hoyer don't want to reveal their 2013 budget, but the Cubs' payroll has topped $100 million in each of the last five seasons. The list of arbitration-eligible players includes Garza, Samardzija, James Russell, Luis Valbuena and Ian Stewart.
They do need to make some decisions regarding Stewart. Last year, on the last day of the Winter Meetings, the Cubs acquired the third baseman from the Rockies for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu. Stewart was coming off an injury-shortened season in 2011, and, unfortunately, continued to have problems with his left wrist in 2012, eventually undergoing surgery in July.
The Cubs most likely will non-tender him and then re-sign him to a Minor League deal. The free-agent pool of third basemen is weak, and the Cubs' prospects, including Josh Vitters and Junior Lake, aren't quite ready, which means Epstein and Hoyer may try to make another deal.
Expect more transactions this offseason as the Cubs continue to fill the holes, but they're not expected to be among the bidders for the high-priced free agents available.
"We're going to be aggressive in free agency, but we're not going to do things that are going to limit us going forward where we feel we're hindered by a certain contract," Hoyer said. "We have some money to spend, and we'll be active trying to improve our team for next year.
"I think the contracts we signed last winter are a good model, and I think we have the chance to maybe sign more of those this year with a little more money to spend. They're contracts that have served us well."
Last January, Paul Maholm signed a one-year, $4.25 million contract with a club option of $6.5 million. One year ago, David DeJesus signed a two-year deal at $4.25 million each year, with an option year for 2014. Expect more contracts like that, as well as some creative and cost-efficient decisions.
The Cubs have impact players in the system, but they're young. Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Javier Baez need time to develop. The Winter Meetings could be an interesting week as the Cubs continue their rebuilding process.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.