Theo Epstein Speaks: Schwarber Catching, Prospect Philosophy, Heyward, Candelario, More

After three World Series rings and two broken curses, Theo Epstein has earned at least one thing: When he speaks, we listen.

Well, Epstein joined David Kaplan and Jesse Rogers on ESPN Radio, touching on a number of important and pressing topics … so give it a listen.

Below, I’ve collected some of the highlights from their chat and added some thoughts of my own. Enjoy.

  • There’s certainly some fluffier bits at the top of the conversation, but it’s still pretty interesting. Epstein addresses what the team must do mentally to get back to where they were last season and when winning the World Series “really kicked in.” Most of it is stuff we’ve heard before, but there’s certainly nothing bad in hearing Epstein talk about the Cubs.
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  • Asked when (or really, whether or not) a wave of starting pitching will ever emerge from the Minor Leagues, Epstein claims that the Cubs have “at least three super talented guys at the lower to mid-levels” who have a chance, but that’s not how he likes to think about his organization’s pitching (ah, but who does he see as the three!?!? Cease, de la Cruz, Clifton? Albertos? Inquiring minds want to know!). While you can “plan” around your young position players, pitchers are a whole different story (TINSTAAPP). Epstein doesn’t beat around the bush with this one, basically adding that if there was one thing he’s learned throughout all these years is that your pitching plans always “blow up on you.”
  • Epstein continues by adding that of the two avenues they could have taken, he (clearly) believes that building around position players (in the draft and through trades/international signings) is the way to go. At the same time, you’ll obviously always have pitching needs, but Epstein prefers to address them year by year (with the hope that one or two guys can emerge here or there).
  • While we knew that Epstein preferred to build around position players, because obviously, I’ve never quite heard him explain the year-to-year pitching strategy out loud. We’ve certainly seen him piece together really great rotation after rotation, but I don’t believe they’ve ever conceded it was a dedicated approach. Perhaps they might not use as many resources to target that young cost-controlled starting pitcher as we originally imagined/expected.
  • After dealing with widely being considered the favorites last Spring, this Cubs team is well-equipped to deal with any labels placed on them this year. Whether it’s favorites, defending Champs, trying to repeat, or anything else, they’re just going to play their game their way, like always.
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  • Epstein’s goal for the Cubs, now that he’s won the World Series, is to continue developing the organization into one whose culture is bigger than any one person. To use Kaplan’s examples, he wants the Cubs to be in the model of Alabama football or the New England Patriots – an organization that expects winning and creates their own luck. And apparently, he very much expects that to carry into the non-player personnel, as well. They’re not quite there yet, but it sounds like a swell plan.
  • And, for what it’s worth, Epstein believes that the key to building a successful organization top to bottom is transparency. They were transparent about the rebuild (which bought them credibility), they were transparent about “embracing the target” last year, and as the favorites again this year, they’ll continue to be transparent about their goals and motivations. Again, excellent.
  • Moving on, Epstein reiterated that Jason Heyward had “a remarkable offseason,” and that he’s never seen a player of his caliber (and contract) work as hard as he has this winter. Apparently, he was in the Spring Training facility almost every single day this offseason. More importantly, Epstein believes that Heyward’s swing is “so much better” now than it was at this time last year. If you want some encouragement on Heyward’s progress, with some specifics on how he looks in batting practice (different from last year) I suggest you check out the rest of Epstein’s remarks around the 14:00 min mark.
  • Epstein also – fairly candidly – discussed Kyle Schwarber’s immediate future (like 2017) as a catcher, and I bet it’ll surprise you [Brett: It actually did surprise me a little bit]. I think, by now, we had all come to expect that for this season Schwarber was mostly going to be something just greater than an emergency catcher, but it sounds like he’ll be more of a true third catcher instead. While Epstein admits that there are really just two full-time catchers (Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero) in 2017, the existence of Schwarber and his ability to catch will be used to create more favorable match-ups before and during games. And furthermore, Epstein added that even if Schwarber’s limited this year, that doesn’t mean he can’t catch more often down the road.
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  • Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, Jeimer Candelario, and Chesny Young have each impressed the big man this Spring, but Jimenez is one player that has really caught Epstein’s eye (naturally). “The balance and presence in the batters box is really impressive,” said Epstein after commenting on how Jimenez only just turned 20 years old.
  • Epstein also heaped tons of praise on Jeimer Candelario, mentioning that if it weren’t for the glut of young position players already on the roster, Candelario would be getting a ton of attention throughout the league. But sooner or later, Epstein was sure to add, he’s going to force his way into the Cubs plans.
  • There’s a hilarious anecdote about the Red Sox *not* signing/drafting Justin Grimm, despite Epstein’s strong push for it that you’ll want to listen and chuckle over. And it also reveals a bit about Epstein’s draft strategy and how he’s been forced to adapt over the years as the rules change.
  • Epstein believes that lefty Brian Duensing is an underrated guy who might prove to be a big part of the bullpen in 2017. Needing someone to get those “big outs” against tough lefties late in the game seems to be especially important to Epstein, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Duensing – who is in on a modest big league deal, by the way – make the team right out of camp.
  • In addition, however, Epstein mentioned that Mike Montgomery could help backfill that role as well, considering that he should be spending some time in the bullpen throughout the season. To be sure, that really depends on how he pitches as a starter, and how healthy Brett Anderson is throughout the year.
  • As we discussed yesterday, Epstein believes that the next competitive advantage is learning how to better predict, avoid, and treat injuries. It may sound obvious, but I assure you that the method they’re taking to get there is anything but.
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    For more comments on the state of the Cubs organization from the man himself, head over to ESPN and give the interview a listen. There’s far more detail than I could have ever included here and several more topics were covered. And remember, when Epstein talks, you should listen.

    written by

    Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami

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