Earlier today, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein jumped on ESPN 1000 to discuss the Cubs’ Spring Training results, the roster, the upcoming season, and much more with David Kaplan and Jesse Rogers straight from Mesa, Arizona.
You can listen to the full interview at ESPN, and check out some of the highlights, alongside some thoughts of my own, below.
- Just before Epstein came on the air, Rogers reported that the Cubs were in a position to sign Darvish to a deal worth $125 million over five years instead of $126M for six. But apparently, near the end of the negotiations, the Cubs starting pushing to add a sixth year in order to reduce the overall average annual value by $4M/year. Obviously, in the new-CBA world, where luxury tax implications matter more than ever, that was a significant move. And to that end, when he joined the conversation, Epstein suggested that his team, like most, plan out at least five years down the road for roster and payroll commitments. Given the Cubs’ soon-to-be-pricey core of young players, saving that extra $4M might prove crucial.
- Epstein thinks the Cubs have had a great Spring Training so far this season, and even admits that they’re looking sharper and playing more consistent, fundamental baseball than he remembers seeing in past camps. Some of the credit is given to the players, who’ve shown a renewed sense of commitment and hunger, but Epstein identifies the new coaching staff as a big driver of that.
- As for the individual performances, Epstein is pleased with the steps the team has taken offensively. With all of the normal caveats attendant to Spring Training, Epstein has seen the team use the opposite field more often, make a lot more contact than usual, have better situational awareness and execution, and, as a compliment to Chili Davis, batters stepping up to the plate with a plan. Davis has spoken about the mental half of the game a lot since he’s joined the Cubs, so it’s good to see Epstein support and acknowledge the success of his vision for a more well-rounded hitter.
- On the cusp of potentially losing two of their best relievers (Wade Davis and Brian Duensing), the Cubs knew they had to improve the bullpen this winter and they feel they’ve done just that. Specifically, they knew they wanted to target strike throwers – and, as we explored, they’ve done that well – but the Cubs also wanted to make sure to have guys who’ve had closing experience before. Obviously, they did just that with free agents Brandon Morrow, who’s currently slated for the role, and Steve Cishek, who comes to the Cubs with 121 career saves, but Epstein went out of his way to point out the 2017 addition of Justin Wilson for the same purpose.
- Sticking with the bullpen, Epstein points out that some of their second-tier guys haven’t been getting the credit they deserve this Spring and that they are, collectively, looking better than past camps. Specifically, Epstein complimented left-handed reliever Randy Rosario as someone who could make an impact on the big league team at some point this season. Apparently, Epstein has been particularly impressed with his sinker and slider and thinks he’s someone to keep an eye on. For what it’s worth, Rosario has thrown 6.1 scoreless innings this spring, including a couple yesterday, allowing just three hits and four walks against four strikeouts – opposing batters are hitting just .142 off him.
- Asked about whether this infield defense could be the best he’s had in Chicago, Epstein pointed out that, for the most part, it’s the same guys. HOWEVER, he does acknowledge that they’re all coming in with a lot more experience than they ever have before. I’d also add that Javy Baez is expected to get more starts at second than any other season so far, which will improve the defense. But more importantly, Epstein also mentioned that Addison Russell has never looked better at shortstop than he does right now, and think he’s in for a really good season defensively. More specifically, after working with coach Brian Butterfield a lot this Spring, Russell’s throws have looked sharper and harder and even more accurate than usual. Russell’s shoulder health will play a big role in how strong his throws are, but Epstein seems to think he looks and feels good, and I’m inclined to believe him.
- On the tent/alderman drama that Brett discussed earlier today, Epstein said that he usually stays out of those disagreements unless/until the business side of the organization asks him to get involved. In short, he seemed to believe that the Ricketts family will find a compromise that’ll make all parties (the players, their families, and the neighbors) happy. Wrigley’s location inside a neighborhood makes problems like this arise more than any other stadium, but the location is also part of the charm. No one wants to lose that, so sometimes compromises (on all sides) need to be made.
- Epstein wished Jake Arrieta the best, acknowledged that the Cubs wouldn’t be wearing rings without him, and added that he’s glad Arrieta landed a deal with which he was content (he started to say “happy,” but stopped himself and switched to content). When asked about why the Cubs weren’t involved at that price, Epstein pointed out that they’re very happy with the pitching additions they made, and also hinted towards some past attempts at extensions, but didn’t really give too much away.
- On the idea of putting the captain’s “C” on Anthony Rizzo’s chest, Epstein was reluctant. He mentioned that they did it once before with Jason Varitek in Boston, but didn’t seem to think it was necessary. In fact, according to Epstein, a captain’s influence is more powerful when it arises organically, not when some guys wearing suits in the front office pin a letter to someone’s chest (even if it’s someone everyone agrees on). “We don’t have to put a C on anyone’s chest to know who our leaders are.” Epstein concluded by complimenting Rizzo’s off-field leadership.
- And finally, Epstein suggested that the decision to add power-pitchers like Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, and Brandon Morrow were very calculated. Although the Cubs pitching has been very good in recent years, they’ve not necessarily focused on elite “stuff.” Instead, as Epstein put it, the team has been focused on having the best timing/movement/game-planning/execution (and they’ve done that well), but it sounds like he didn’t want them to become too one-dimension. Thus, the nasty power pitchers.