Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein recently spoke at the height of the team’s slump, and just before they busted out 31 runs and a series sweep against the Marlins. His words, as usual, were thoughtful and restrained at a time when it was hard to be that.
So, now that things are feeling a little better, Epstein jumped onto 670 The Score with Bernstein & McKnight today to discuss the ebbs and flows of the game, the team’s ability and desire to trade prospects, the outfield defense, and so much more.
This really was a good one – in fact, Epstein also got into some very specific thoughts about not trading for a rental – *cough* Manny Machado *cough* – at the deadline, and we already tackled that part right here.
You can find the full interview at 670 The Score and the rest of the highlights below.
On Fate and the Unpredictability of Baseball:
Epstein indicated that he and the front office talk about how unpredictable baseball can be every single day during the regular season … and how that’s very different than the winter. In the offseason, Epstein said, it’s all about planning, strategizing, and measuring everything down to the most granular level (i.e. getting value out of every single dollar and roster spot). And every single year, he convinces himself that, with the right scouts, the right evaluations, and the right data, they’ve finally figured it out … and then the season happens, throwing everything for a loop. “Baseball doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels,” Epstein proclaimed, but when the trade deadline and offseason come back around, he knows he’ll think he’ll have cracked it again.
He added that although things tend to work out given enough time (over the course of a season or even a career), the day-to-day realities of the sport can be unrecognizable.
On the Slumps
Epstein went onto explain that he likes to get out and talk to the media when the Cubs are doing bad, because he feels like it’s his responsibility (you probably won’t hear a lot of in-charge people say that).
However, it’s not just about taking the blame when things are bad/credit when they’re good, it’s also about showing fans that the front office and team gets frustrated, too … and that it’s okay to feel that way. “You can’t let it ruin your experience or allow yourself to jump to conclusions – baseball ebbs and flows all the time,” but it is okay to feel those things. “We all surrender to baseball” in the end.
When Expectations Shift to “Win Every Season”
From a fan standpoint, Epstein believes the “World Series or bust” mentality can actually be very healthy. For one, it likely means you’re following the right team, but for another it holds them to the right standards. But with that said, you don’t want to let those expectations ruin your enjoyment of the rest of the team/season.
Specifically, Epstein pointed out that while the Cubs are in full-on win mode, they’re still trying to grow and develop some young players. So much of their roster are pre-prime guys, so that’s still part of the overall calculus. “So much more has to go right before we fully realize our vision.”
Epstein continued by saying that because the team won when they were so young, the expectations are probably even higher than planned. In other words, he understands how fans can say, look, they won a World Series when everyone was this young, imagine what they can do over the next five years. And while that is the hope/expectation, even for the team, it does set up some natural disappointment.
Every player doesn’t reach his potential right away, Epstein added. And some never do (think about Jorge Soler and how long it took for him to become the player he has been this season). It’s all still a lot of hard work and waiting. It’s important to remind yourself that the bad times are perfectly natural and also make the good times – when everything does finally come together – all the sweeter.
Yu Darvish Frustrating Start
According to Epstein, Darvish had a pretty typical first month for a free agent. Sure, some guys hit the ground running, but that’s much more rare. Epstein then likened Darvish’s first month to Jon Lester’s first month with the Cubs back in 2015, before adding that Darvish’s is actually more encouraging, because unlike Lester he hasn’t lost any of his stuff or velocity. As long as Darvish is healthy – which he is, although currently on the DL with parainfluenza virus – Epstein doesn’t have any long-term concerns
On Addison Russell’s Offensive Expectations
Not unlike the World Series expectations, Russell’s great start (stabilizing force at shortstop, huge postseason and clutch performances early on) got the expectations rolling really fast. And while Russell’s not where the Cubs think he’ll ultimately be yet, the Cubs see more positive signs this year (particularly, driving the ball to right-center, which makes Epstein think he’s seeing it much better) than they did in 2017.
For what it’s worth, Epstein was right on. Russell’s hitting the ball the other way at a 27.8% clip this season (versus 24.0% for his career) and hitting it to center 44.4% of the time (versus 34.5% for his career).
Eventually, Epstein wants him to start pulling it more to really tap into that power (like his first homer of the season yesterday), but because development sometimes moves in steps, this is good progress.
On the Recent Roster Churn and New Rules
Although the Cubs had a stable roster at the start of the year, people have been moving around a lot more lately, which is generally okay because it has some side benefits. Namely, getting exposure for rookies (he named Justin Hancock and Luke Farrell) so they can know what to work on what they go back down.
Similarly, Epstein reveals that there have been roster-rule discussions at past league meetings, including the idea of more fungible rosters in April (because of bad weather and early-season postponements) and September (because the rosters are too big, bullpens too deep, and games too long), but nothing has come from those talks yet. It’s on the league’s radar.
On the Outfield Defense
Although it’s all a bit of a work in progress, Epstein believes in the outfield group’s defense. Specifically, Jason Heyward’s miscues were just flukes you’re not likely to see again, because he’s the best defensive right-fielder in baseball. Epstein has “zero concern” there.
On Albert Almora, Epstein is glad fans are finally seeing his full abilities. Apparently, he took things easy (on purpose) when he first came up, but is finally letting it fly now that he’s more comfortable as a big leaguer. Sticking with Almora, Epstein lauded his pre-pitch positioning, smart reads, and ability to finish the big plays, not just dive for the marks in effort. He also complimented his throws, but, hey, we all know Almora and Heyward are great … let’s get to the guys we all want to hear about.
Epstein believes Ian Happ is still growing in center field, but has shown some progress. From Epstein’s point of view, Kyle Schwarber is moving around much better and believes he’s been pretty consistent overall. It’s hard to get it from just these few lines, but he genuinely sounded pleased/excited with Schwarber’s defensive progress.
On Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez
“I’m really happy for both guys,” Epstein admitted about the former top prospects. Not only is he rooting for them, personally, he suggests that their success can actually help the Cubs. “It makes us look good, makes our scouts look good, makes our development guys look good,” Epstein said. If other teams believe Cubs prospects that hit (i.e. make it) in the Minors are going to hit in the Majors, that’s good for future trades.
And get this: according to Epstein, the team sorta knew all along that Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez were going to be the guys they eventually traded. The Cubs signed them at a very young age (16) and at a time when they had the Kris Bryant/Jorge Soler/Javy Baez/etc. group ahead of them. He said they knew there was a strong likelihood from Day 1 that they’d be the guys to supplement the roster, not win with it. So how does Epstein feel about their moves?
Well, in short, one got them a World Series and the other got them a long-term, high-quality starting pitcher … so, yeah, from his perspective, it has already worked out.