Earlier today, Cubs President of Baseball Operation Theo Epstein jumped on 670 The Score to discuss the Cubs recent offensive explosion, the growth the team has been making as a whole lately, the issues in the rotation, and a whole lot more with McNeil and Parkins.
You can catch the full interview right here, but I’ll cover some of the highlights, alongside some thoughts of my own below.
- First thing’s first: Yes, Theo Epstein couldn’t help but reminisce about the team’s 2016 World Series Game 7 victory last night, because they were wearing the same road blues as rain was falling on the field. I don’t have anything to add, besides we were all there with you, Theo.
- On a more substantial level, Epstein seemed to think Joe Maddon’s comparison of Javy Baez to Manny Ramirez was, well, funny (at best), and likened it to a classic Maddon hyperbole – like when he called Jorge Soler “Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline.” But he does love what he’s seeing from Baez.
- In fact, Epstein believes Maddon is right in that Baez’s recent growth at the plate does have everything to do with his plan before he steps into the batter’s box and his decision making once he’s there. In so many words, Epstein added that incorporating those elements of his game while not losing his identity as a player (aggressive, wicked bat speed) is what’s unlocked this new level of production.
- Epstein also explained that, now, when Javy takes one wild swing during an at-bat, he’ll turn to the dugout, give a knowing nod of understanding, as if to say “Oops, I know what I did there,” reset, and go on to have a great at-bat, which “makes him very dangerous.” For what it’s worth, Baez is swinging at slightly fewer pitches out of the zone compared to last year and at a ton more pitches in the zone. He’s just a more confident batter than he ever has been, and has been ready and willing to attack when the right pitch comes his way.
- Moving on, Epstein said that “growth” is the word that comes to mind when he considers his 2018 Chicago Cubs team as a whole, and sounded genuninely thrilled about how things have gone. In fact, Epstein said he rather be just 11-9 (like the Cubs are right now) with the amount of growth this team has shown than lucked their way into a hotter start in the standings.
- In a way, Epstein credited the inconsistent offensive start for the changes that came soon thereafter. He said the issues throughout the lineup forced some ears to open up and some hard work to be put in. More specifically, Epstein believes the direction of Chili Davis and the enthusiasm of the players helped them improve their overall contact skills, their situational hitting (having an A-swing and a B-swing), and their ability to use the whole field. Of course, being the risk mitigator that he is, Epstein warned that there’d likely be some backsliding, some regression, and even some failure, but added that he really trusts this group to put in the work to make things right.
- When asked about the increased playing time for Albert Almora and what it might mean for Ian Happ, Epstein said that, by the end of the season, everyone will get all the playing time they need, before adding that Maddon will still mix, match, and play the splits as needed. Continuing along the same thought, Epstein pointed out that he’s happy to see Almora doing well, but that he still has room to improve against righties. And when the time comes for him to sit back and work on things, Happ can be there to cover center in his absence (Epstein also complimented the work Happ put in during his mini-break from the starting lineup, and believes it’s already paid off). As for the rest of their game, Epstein said that Albert Almora may be the more natural center fielder, but Happ is faster and more versatile overall. “They just bring different things to the table.”
- Moving away from the offense, Epstein acknowledge Yu Darvish’s early-season issues (particularly)when things start to fall apart), but didn’t sound too concerned. It’s “all part of the journey,” said Epstein, adding that big time free agents rarely ever come in to a new situation and dominate right away (remember Jon Lester’s first month?). So be patient, because he’s been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball for a while, and he probably will be again.
- Epstein also suggested that Darvish should rebound more smoothly than most, because he’s an extremely good worker and listener, who is “hyper-focused” on examining what’s gone wrong. Apparently, he’s been talking to his teammates and coaches a lot to improve and isn’t shying away from the issue. “It hasn’t been pretty, but he’s owning that and getting better.”
- As a follow up, Epstein was asked if Darvish would be better suited with a personal catcher, to which he responded, “No.” He later added that a personal catcher might actually do more harm than good in the long run, and that it’s not something Darvish even wants.
- Sticking with Darvish, Epstein suggested that getting full use of his arsenal will also help him turn that corner. In other words, it sounds like because of a combination of the weather, and, more importantly, just regular early season rust, Darvish hasn’t had a 100% feel for his wide repertoire, which affects the game plan going into a start. The goal, then, will be to get a feel for all of his pitches, so that he doesn’t have to work around what he wants to do in place of what he can do.
- As for the other free agent starter, Tyler Chatwood, Epstein doesn’t seem to be too worried. The walks are obviously frustrating, but there’s also been plenty to like. The way Epstein put it, Chatwood has been an “extreme version of himself” so far, and they’ll continue workin on smoothing out the edges. But besides that, Epstein has been very impressed with his ability to work himself out of jams – and not just the physical/mechanical aspects, but also the mental strength it takes to not throw in the towel.
- And finally, I’m sure our friends at The Ten-Yard Line (our Chicago Bears sister site!) will be happy to learn that Theo Epstein thinks the Bears should draft Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson with the 8th overall pick in the draft tomorrow. Nelson has been a frequent topic of discussion at the Ten-Yard Line and we’re all kinda pulling for him to still be on the board when the Bears go on the clock.