Theo Epstein Speaks: Tanaka, Samardzija, Rebuilding Timeline, TV Deal, Organizational Health, More

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Theo Epstein Speaks: Tanaka, Samardzija, Rebuilding Timeline, TV Deal, Organizational Health, More

Chicago Cubs

epstein on sports talk liveChicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was on Sports Talk Live on CSN last night, addressing a variety of offseason Cubs topics. If you missed his appearance, you can catch most of it on video from CSN here, here, and here. The videos total about 25 minutes, so, if you’ve got the time, they’re worth a viewing. It’s a deep, wide-ranging discussion.

For those who haven’t the time or inclination, here are some of the things Epstein had to say (the things I found most interesting, anyway), in all of their paraphrased goodness …

  • On the distinction between a Japanese player’s posting price and his salary, in terms of the Cubs’ spending restrictions, Epstein said, “It all comes out of the same pool of money.” That seems like a pretty black-and-white rebuke of what Joel Sherman and Gordon Wittenmyer (who asked Epstein the question) have reported, but I’d be cautious about putting too much into any of this (on either side). The complexities of the financial situation are still emerging (over the course of several years), and it’s probably not quite as simple as saying “the posting fee is like free money that the Cubs can spend without any restrictions whatsoever” or saying “the posting fee and the salaried contract are identical in every way.” The gray in between is probably where the truth lies, and it could be a while yet before we have a better understanding of how these things work. Hopefully by then, it’s all academic – which is to say, hopefully within a couple years, the Cubs are generating so much revenue that the restrictions no longer matter or no longer exist.
  • As for Masahiro Tanaka, specifically, Epstein said he doesn’t like to talk about specific players out there because it can put you at a competitive disadvantage, but he said that the Cubs are in the market for impact pitching, and they prefer guys in the prime or about to enter their prime, who can be controlled for a long time. So, like, Tanaka. Epstein said the Cubs would be as aggressive as they can be on guys like that, assuming their internal reports match what the industry seems to think about the player.
  • On Jeff Samardzija, Epstein didn’t say anything new. The Cubs like him, want to keep him, but they have to be flexible to do the best thing for the organization. “It’s very possible” that Samardzija will still be with the Cubs come Opening Day.
  • On why fans should pay to watch the 2014 Cubs, given that they might not be competitive, even if those fans understand and appreciate the long-term plan: Epstein said that it’s enjoyable to be on the ground floor, and stick with an organization/players through the ups and downs, because it’s then more rewarding at the end (as opposed to folks who bail now, and come back only when the Cubs are dominating). Epstein has said this before, and philosophically, I agree. But it’s a contentious point among fans, so I’m just going to leave it alone.
  • On the rebuilding effort’s progress: Epstein didn’t want to put a number on it, but, since he was asked, he said things were maybe about 50% of the way to where the front office wants to be. The scouting and development staff is in place and effective, young talent is being accumulated, and the big league roster is a work in progress.
  • Epstein wouldn’t say that the organization was “bad” when he took over, but he would describe it as “unhealthy.” He referenced signing win-now type players when the organization wasn’t actually ready to win (and deferring payments to them into future years), signing amateurs with deferred payments (that was happening?), and focusing too much on the next day’s headlines (i.e., making sure the team “looked” good, even if it wasn’t a realistic pennant contender) at the expense of doing something sustainable. And people question why I generally speak so positively and deferentially about Epstein and this front office? It’s because they get it, in a way “it” hasn’t been got in 25+ years in Chicago.
  • Epstein on the necessity of the rebuild, and the pain of it (I’ll quote this one): “It had gotten to the point where [the organization] was really unhealthy. So what we’re doing now is having to strip some of that away, in a lot of different ways – financially, and in terms of our scouting and player development. We’re resetting baselines so we can build it back up and make it healthy. It had to happen. You can get on me for being the one to do it, that’s fine. But I promise you, it had to happen. We don’t like having days like [Tuesday] happen where there are big trades and free agent signings, and we’re sitting it out. You think we want to be there sitting it out? No. But there will be a day really soon where we’re right in the middle of that because we have more financial flexibility, because we have lots of talented young players and assets that everyone wants around the game, and we’re going to be the ones dictating all of those big moves.”
  • The talent and the financial flexibility are coming, and Epstein once again referenced the business plan and the baseball plan more or less syncing up. “We can’t make time go faster.”
  • When the show referenced Baseball America’s recent, very specific farm system rankings, I love that Epstein corrected that Baseball America didn’t rank the Cubs’ farm system 5th. They were ranked 5th in terms of Major League ready prospects, which is a pretty important distinction (one I highlighted when that list came out).
  • Epstein was extremely confident in the Cubs’ ability to significantly increase their television revenue take (although it was a little unclear if he was speaking broadly about TV revenues for the Cubs when both the WGN and CSN deals are up, or if he meant specifically the WGN portion, which available now for bidding, but covers less than half of the games, and will probably be renegotiated again in 2019). It was clear that Epstein couldn’t get into specifics – and Gordon Wittenmyer was pushing hard for specifics – but he said, “trust me – you would want to buy stock in the Cubs’ TV rights if you could. You definitely would.” That’s a message that’s easy to say, but if you watch Epstein (it’s in part three up there, around the 4 minute mark) deliver the message, you can tell he really believes it and is frustrated that he can’t say more to “prove” it. I am suddenly re-energized about the Cubs’ ability to generate more revenue in the near-term from the new TV deal. There was always going to be an increase, but maybe the Cubs really will be able to bump things up significantly.
  • Speaking of which, Epstein noted that he has come to believe that the Cubs have been, in the past, very dependent on ticket sales for revenue. With a new TV deal in place, he thinks that will change. In other words, once the Cubs have the kind of TV deal Epstein believes they should have in a market like Chicago, the team’s revenues will become largely fixed (and you won’t have the considerable ebb and flow of dollars to the extent the Cubs have apparently had in the past).
  • Epstein intimated that, although there are unique and difficult circumstances right now, the Cubs will eventually be able to get back into the top tier of teams in terms of payroll. But that happens only after the business plans and baseball plans are hitting on all cylinders.
  • Epstein said the morale in the minor leagues right now is unbelievably good. He says the minor leaguers look at each other and see how good their teammates are, and think “it’s a big secret” just how good the Cubs are going to be down the line.
  • Important quote: “There’s no way I could make our business side happier than if I put a winning team on the field.” Put it in flashing lights and remember it: everyone wants the Cubs to win. It’s better business, even if you don’t care a lick about the ethereal qualities of being a fan. So, if you want to see the Cubs win because you love them and you’re a passionate fan, just know that you’re on the same side as the Cubs’ front office and the business guys (and who cares what their reasons are?). Everyone wants the Cubs to win, and win consistently for a long time.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.