I can only imagine the transition from being on crazy pre-draft and draft lockdown, to being on pre-Trade Deadline lockdown, and what the months of May, June, and July are like for Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. I suspect it’s one big haze of constant working and stressing and thinking and planning and agonizing and calculating and delegating. As a Cubs fan, I’m thrilled that there’s a smart dude in place to do it; and, at the same time, I can’t imagine folks being crazy enough to want his job.
Epstein took some time from that craziness today to join the McNeil and Spiegel Show on The Score just now (UPDATE below: Epstein was also on ESPN1000 with Waddle and Silvy), in part to promote his foundation’s Hot Stove Cool Music event, which is this Friday, June 20 at The Metro, just across Clark from Wrigley Field. It was really a fantastic interview, not necessarily focusing on the same old stuff, and well worth your listen - you can listen to it here at the show’s page.
In the interim, here’s a paraphrased version of some of the most interesting things Epstein touched upon, as well as my thoughts (“I” and “me” are Epstein, parentheticals are from me):
- On developing hitters like Starlin Castro: Hitters have to be themselves; you can’t make them into automatons. If a hitter doesn’t feel natural, he can’t hit well. I think there’s a misperception about what we were trying to do with Starlin Castro last year. First, do no harm. But, over time, if you focus on some simple concepts, you can improve a player in the long run. You don’t want to take away Castro’s incredible hand-eye ability, but you can help him in the long by helping him focus on how good he is when he gets a pitch he can drive. I think you’re seeing a lot of progress from Castro this year. (The implication here is that part of the success we’re seeing from Castro in 2014 is attributable to his development and struggles in 2013. It’s all been a process.)
- On the importance of makeup in developing players: The game is played by human beings. So character/values/makeup/etc. really matters as much as any performance metric you can look at, because it informs how the player actually plays. Really proud of the adjustments that Anthony Rizzo made over the offseason. He worked with Joey Votto (!!!), learned some things from Votto and from his own struggles last year. You now see Rizzo outthinking pitchers this year, taking the right approach in various situations. Those types of things happen from learning, from adversity, from resetting in the offseason, and from wanting to get better. (Wow – many of us have made remarks about the Rizzo/Votto comparison this year (“Votto-lite”), but it turns out there’s actually something to it. Rizzo has been so tremendously confident at the plate this year, he very much looks like Votto in that regard.)
- On the financial side of things for the Cubs: For a year or two we’ve known the financial situation we’re in, and there’s great cooperation between the business and baseball side. There are a lot of parallels. We’re focused on big picture, thinking about long-term, trying to have success year-in and year-out. The business side is trying to do the same thing. They face some headwinds from the outside contracts, the structure of the sale, the CBA, the taxes, the TV deal. They sound like excuses, but the business side is trying to take a big picture approach instead of griping about those individual issues. You can’t do it all at once, and it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to take years. But the business side is laying a foundation. It may not manifest in dollars for some time, but they’re going about it the right way. (Shameless self-plug, all of this sounds very much like the conclusions I laid out earlier this year in my piece about the syncing of business and baseball plans.)
- I just liked this line: If you have great young players, and tremendous financial resources, you’re likely to put a good team out there for years to come.
- On how the Cubs have been so successful at identifying and signing short-term starting pitchers: It’s a holistic approach. You have to have a healthy pitching infrastructure, which means right pitching coach (“I think Chris Bosio has done a phenomenal job”), right minor league coaches, right approach to scouting, right approach to pitching health, having good defense behind the pitcher. If you don’t have all those things, you’re swimming upstream. We’ve also done well at evaluating talent and trying to identify undervalued talent. If you can find high-caliber pitchers who haven’t done it recently – or whose true talent has been disguised by other factors – that’s how you build up value. (The Cubs probably can’t continue to hit on the Maholm/Feldman/Hammel types at the same rate/level they’ve been hitting so far, but obviously there are institutional reasons they’ve been able to do it. It’s not just good luck.)
- On Jeff Samardzija as a good bet to stay healthy long term, and on those rumors of new extension talks: Samardzija has been incredibly healthy in his career, and has a fresher arm. He’s got an ideal pitcher’s body. He’s a horse. On contract talks, nothing good comes from talking about it publicly. Certain things remain confidential. Nothing has changed – we’ve had good dialog with Jeff and his representatives, from the very start up until today. No talks were ever ended or reopened. Just a nice long, consistent dialogue. We’re huge Jeff Samardzija fans. (However you choose to read that, I didn’t get the impression Epstein was giving anything away in either direction. So, don’t really read much into this. These guys just don’t comment publicly on these things.)
- On Kris Bryant: Fans love getting to know young players, and wanting to see them on the big league level. Fans should be very excited about Kris Bryant. We’re all very fortunate that we got Bryant, and we’re a better organization because of it. When he makes his debut is not as important in the big picture as how great it looks like he could be eventually. I’m just trying to be thankful about how awesome it is to have him in the organization, rather than fretting about when he gets promoted. He’s a young player, so there are going to be ups and downs. (#Sparkle)
- On whether the Cubs will be willing to do one of those enormous $140, $150 million contracts for a pitcher: It is a core tenet of our organizational philosophy that we can better predict positional player performance than pitcher performance. It’s hard for either one, but there’s more consistency with positional players. You can’t ignore pitching. Once we start to turn the corner and have the makings of a competitive team, it is possible to go out and get good, healthy, effective pitching – we’ve had some success before doing that. For a top of the rotation starter, you have to take on more risk. That’s just the nature of the beast – it’s a huge contract or a huge trade. Can you do those things, knowing that risk/reward probably doesn’t tip in your favor? Knowing that you might not completely get maximum value/efficiency that way? Sure. You just have to do it at the right time. You have to be in a position to absorb the blow if it doesn’t work out. (I got the sense that Epstein was speaking relatively generically here, so resist the urge to say that this is Epstein confirming that the Cubs will spend big on a pitcher this offseason. He was simply saying that, all things equal, you’d rather spend big money on position players – but sometimes you’ve got to spend big on pitching, because pitching is important. The timing with pitching, however, can be more tricky, because you can’t let your organization be crippled by pulling the trigger at the wrong time (and/or on the wrong guy). I didn’t take his response to be ruling anything out, or necessarily saying anything specific was going to happen. Classic Epstein.)
UPDATE: It’s an aural bonanza. After being on the Score earlier, Epstein hopped on ESPN with Waddle and Silvy. You can listen to the replay here, and it’s another great listen. Here’s a paraphrased version of some of the most interesting things Epstein touched upon, as well as my thoughts (“I” and “me” are Epstein, parentheticals are from me):
- On the Samardzija extension reports: Samardzija’s working every day to do his best, and the media has to do its job, but nothing has changed. He’s got a year and a half left, and we’d love to find a way to keep him. He’d love to stay. But sometimes things don’t work out. Don’t play armchair psychologist with players, because they’re real people and there’s a lot going on in their lives. Hard for fans/media/whoever to evaluate from a distance. (On that last part, Epstein is making a very important point that I try very hard – and sometimes fail – to remember and stress here at BN. We know so, so little about what’s actually going on behind the scenes, especially as it relates to everyone involved in “our sports stories” being actual flesh and blood people. You know lots of people in your life, right? Are they robots who behave and think in clear black and white terms? No? Well, players, agents, executives, and coaches are people, too. Sometimes, that – and the fact that we outsiders have such small snippets of the whole story – can make the difference between a trade and an extension and/or something else entirely.)
- On appropriate lengths of deals for pitchers: Only philosophy I have is to build an organization that is so healthy that you never have to give a pitcher a long-term guarantee. The problem is that that’s not really realistic. You just have to know what you’re getting into when you sign a long-term deal with a pitcher. You’re probably not going to get full value, but it’s a necessary evil. Try to keep your organization in a place where you don’t have to sign a huge contract, but understand that you can pick your spots where you might. (This essentially echoed the themes he touched on earlier. There are no set rules, but pitchers come with a slew of additional concerns.)
- On the state of pitcher health: Arm action, biomechanics, stress of innings, total innings, length of pitching career, etc., all of these things factor into pitcher health projections. There’s probably not a Tommy John epidemic right now, insofar as pitching has always had the potential for injury. Younger players are throwing harder and harder, and we might be seeing the fruits of that.
- On whether a lack of money is making baseball moves difficult: No, and no real surprises. Great common vision in the organization, and we’re going to be a financial powerhouse in the future. We need to build a foundation on the baseball side, and the business side is doing a great job building a foundation on their side. A few years ago, we had a talent deficit, we didn’t have a deep farm system. We have tried to accumulate as much young talent as possible, because when the time is right and the money comes, we’ll be in a much better position than we would have been in if we had taken a different approach. On the business side, they face a lot of disadvantages that sound like excuses, but they exist. So the business side takes the long view – the TV deal is going to come, and that’s going to change our outlook. The Wrigley renovation will happen. So they’re laying the foundation for a future financial superpower. It just takes time. When we get to where we’re going on both sides, it’s going to be a very, very powerful position to be in. (Again, this is similar to what Epstein said earlier. The big money will be there eventually, but not for a little while yet, and so the baseball side is focusing, as they have been, on accumulating young talent. But things will be good soon. None of this is new or surprising. And I suppose it’s either encouraging or disappointing, depending on your perspective.)
- On whether there were financial surprises when he arrived: When you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t full understand the landscape and the idiosyncrasies. But for the last year or two, there have been no surprises. If we tried to “win now” in 2012 and maximize every dollar for the short-term, we would not be in the position we’re in now, with a thriving baseball operation. Once I got here and better understood the realities of the situation, and we came to terms with what the vision needs to be in terms of the time, we just got down to work. (If you’re really reading between the lines on this one, you could say that Epstein was hinting that he didn’t fully understand what the financial picture would look like when he arrived, and it took a year or so to figure that out. But he’s largely conceded that before – that The Plan had to be flexible, and had to adjust on the fly early on – so this, too, is not a surprise. I would add that I think many in the organization, not just the baseball said, were not necessarily expecting the financial side of things to proceed exactly as they have over the past four years.)
- On Kris Bryant’s promotion schedule: Kris Bryant is doing everything that we could ask of him at AA, and if he continues to work on his weaknesses, especially defensively, there’s going to be a time in the not-too-distant future when he sees AAA this year. But it’s a process, and there are adjustments. He’s dominating AA, but that doesn’t mean his development is complete.
- On the importance of failure as part of development: You do want to see a player fail so that he can experience adversity and improve, but that doesn’t always mean hitting .180. It can be smaller, developmental “failures.” It can be discomfort, it can be a challenge to routine, etc. (Excellent way to answer this nagging issue, I think. Folks have tried to pin the Cubs on their comments about wanting to see Bryant fail and overcome that before promoting him.)
- On Javier Baez: It’s been a struggle at time for Javy this year, but in ten years looking back, even he’ll say this was an important year for him. He’s a hard worker and he’s competitive. This year, he’s been forced to adjust, and understand what makes him successful at the plate. With advanced pitching that has been relentless attacking the vulnerabilities in his approach, he’s having to learn to make adjustments. This will help him in the long run, because once he learns how to do it, it’s in his toolbox for the future. (For what it’s worth, Epstein’s tone throughout this part sounded confident, and positive. I didn’t really sense any disappointment.)
- On manager Rick Renteria’s job so far: Ricky has done a phenomenal job with what he’s been challenged with – put young players in a position to succeed, and allow them to feel comfortable and adjust. Look at what Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are doing this year; Ricky has created an environment in which they’ve thrived. That’s very important for our process. He’s been consistently positive, energetic, treated people the right way, etc. Look at the way we’ve played over the last month – I don’t think we’re that much fun to play against. (Indeed, the Cubs are 16-12 in their last 28. That’s still not the most important thing about Renteria’s stewardship, but, I’m just saying, Epstein is right.)