As Spring Training approaches (Hey! Pitchers and catchers have officially reported today!), even for a relatively settled team, there’s been a myriad of open items and questions heading into camp.
Lucky for us, Cubs President of Baseball Operations joined Jim Bowden and Craig Mish on Serious XMs Fantasy Baseball Channel to discuss many of those questions and more. You can listen to the interview at Sirius.com – nicely transcribed by the CCO – or take in some of the highlights, along with my thoughts, below.
- At a certain point in the negotiations with Jason Heyward, Epstein got the impression that the Cubs were his preferred destination. Because Epstein wanted Heyward as well, the impetus turned to the front office and ownership to “make it work.” Ultimately, Heyward took less guaranteed money to be with Chicago (even if some MLB execs think it was outrageous), which wound up becoming a theme with several Cubs free agents, this winter. [Brett: I liked Epstein’s description of the negotiating process, and I couldn’t help but think of passing notes in study hall. “Do you like us? Circle YES NO”.]
- Epstein expects a big season out of Jorge Soler – who is “not just a slugger,” but an advanced, polished hitter at the plate – as evidenced, for example, by the 2015 playoffs. Having purposefully slimmed down this offseason, Soler is focused on improving his right field defense for 2016 (luckily, the Cubs have the best right fielder in baseball in the same locker room to lend his advice).
- Epstein really likes Kyle Schwarber. There’s a rather large segment praising everything from Schwarber’s bat, makeup, pitch recognition skills, timing, power, use of all fields and more. The plan, for now, is that he will split time between left field and catcher both this Spring and in Chicago.
- Epstein confirms that Javier Baez was just about to be called up to the majors when he broke his finger last season. Obviously, that’s a bummer, but when Baez did finally come back, Epstein was encouraged to see him immediately accomplish one of their developmental goals: calm down in the batters box.
- If you recall, Baez did perform quite well after his return to the Cubs, and made significant strides in nearly all of his batted ball and plate discipline statistics. Epstein ended on Baez by saying, “He’ll be our backup shortstop, our backup third baseman, our backup second baseman. He’ll be one of our backup outfielders. I think he’s going to see a lot of time this year.”
- Epstein once again recalls the Addison Russell/Billy McKinney/Dan Strailey for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel trade from 2014, refusing to call it a bad move for Oakland. Apparently, the A’s rotation had some guys reaching innings limits and dealing with injuries that were not public knowledge at the time. Billy Beane did not want to squander the A’s legitimate competitiveness that season, so he made a gutsy move. Epstein admires it. [Brett: And, to this day, I still think it was a solid move for the A’s. They had a great team that year and a particularly good chance to make a run, which would have been severely harmed if their pitching had faltered. A team like the A’s has to strike when the striking is good. Throw in the fact that Russell was dealing with a serious hamstring injury at the time, and you can understand the deal a little better from the A’s perspective.]
- Speaking of Russell, Epstein believes that power is an underappreciated part of his game. In fact, the Cubs expect him to hit a lot more home runs and be a “pretty dynamic offensive player.” It’s easy for fans to forget that Kris Bryant, for example, had just been drafted and begun playing in rookie ball when he was Russell’s age. He has so much projection left.
- When asked about prospects who might make an impact somewhat near-term, somewhat down the road (technically for fantasy baseball purposes), Epstein brought up Willson Contreras and Albert Almora. Both players he says – in not so few words – are extremely talented, underrated and ready for AAA this season. More importantly, both play positions that are ultimately unblocked by young players at the Major League level and are a big part of the Cubs future. I’d tentatively expect to see both in Chicago before the season is over and it doesn’t sound like they’re going anywhere after that. [Brett: Sorry I keep cutting in. I thought it was interesting to hear Epstein mention that Contreras, a catcher, has an opening long-term at the big league level. Not that it would be a huge surprise, but that suggests Schwarber as a full-time catcher, even down the road, is unlikely to materialize. He could still get in occasional starts, though, as part of a mix-and-match (which is actually what I really hope to see for him over the next five or so years).]
- And, for fun: Epstein used to play fantasy baseball back in high school, but before that, he used to play a computer game called MicroLeague Baseball – where he purchased a special floppy disk so that he could play the “General Manager Function.” He’s since stopped playing fantasy baseball (that’s like, his life), but still does the fantasy football thing every year. In fact, he says he won the Red Sox Front Office fantasy football contest both years the Red Sox won the World Series: “Trust me, I was insufferable during those years, just walking around the office like Rickey Henderson – like I could do no wrong.”