Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was in Boston late last week, and spoke with WEEI on a variety of topics. You can listen to the full interview here, and although the focus is (obviously) Red Sox-heavy, there were a handful of very interesting Cubs bits.
Among Epstein’s thoughts:
- The most incredible bit shared by Epstein was a team policy on pre-arbitration and arbitration extensions (i.e., long-term deals for guys in arbitration or before arbitration (double i.e., already under team control)). “You get as many free agent years as makes sense and you get a club option. We established that policy. We would not do a deal with an arb or a pre-arb player without getting at least one free agent year and without getting at least one club option. That’s a policy that I took with me to the Cubs. I think it makes sense if you are going to give that kind of security, the club should get a benefit in return.” I agree with Epstein on the security/benefit dichotomy, but I’m surprised that this is something of a formal policy. It sheds new light on the oft-rumored Jeff Samardzija extension discussions (club options, by definition, inure to the benefit of the team, not the player), and will have to be kept in mind as other young players come up. I’m one for flexibility, but obviously I do like pre-arb extensions that lock-up free agent years and come with team options.
- Epstein confirmed what many have said for years: the changes to the draft and free agent compensation was “the biggest challenge” upon arriving in Chicago. Epstein says teams no longer have control over how much they can emphasize the draft. As part of the strategy in Boston, Epstein allowed certain free agents to walk (gaining two draft picks for them), spent way over slot in the later rounds to get additional 1st/2nd round talents, and traded prospects for shorter-term players, knowing that the loss of prospects could be recouped relatively easily.
- On spending big on Masahiro Tanaka, as opposed to older free agents, Epstein suggests he simply doesn’t believe there has been much great value out there for typical free agents. A selected quote: “I can’t say I’m surprised [Tanaka received so much money], because, to answer your question, it just reflects the dynamic that there are many, many teams with lots and lots of dollars to spend and very few places to spend them. [There are] very few players that represent sound investments for the dollars. I think anytime in this market that you find a player who will be in his prime years, or pre-prime years, or close to his prime years and has been healthy, and has sort of recognized tools and has a track record – in this case not even a track record in the Major Leagues – but a track record that you can point to, that player is going to draw significant interest and probably get more than is expected just because the supply and demand dynamic dictates it. There are lots of teams demanding talented, prime-aged players and the supply is really a trickle because fewer and fewer players of that ilk are reaching free agency.” All reasonable, and all true. At some point, to support a competitive team (and to support your young players), you’re going to have to go out and sign older players to deals that may look a little ugly. But, to optimize the value of those deals, you want to time them as close to your actual competitive window as possible.
- Epstein emphasized the importance of makeup when identifying (and locking up) core players. As Epstein put it, “You really want to make sure that your core players are team first guys and are pretty unselfish and are competitive and love the game and driven to win and good teammates.”
- After some time for transition, Epstein believes the Cubs’ scouting and player development machine is now running at full speed. It seems fair to say that the 2013 draft looked very impressive on paper, and the 2013 minor league year – from a development perspective – was a clear success. Hopefully 2014 mirrors 2013 in that way, because the Cubs will need another solid year from the machine to position the organization for sustained success as soon as 2015.
- Epstein added that drafting and developing players effectively is the clear way to long-term success. Not that we didn’t already know this, but it sounds like Epstein believes it even more in the post-2012-CBA world.