Theo Epstein Speaks: Players Drove Clubhouse Changes, Extensions, Happ, Almora, Russell, Bullpen, More

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Theo Epstein Speaks: Players Drove Clubhouse Changes, Extensions, Happ, Almora, Russell, Bullpen, More

Chicago Cubs

Later today, the Chicago Cubs will open up their eighth season under the watchful eye of President Theo Epstein, and it figures to be competitive one, if nothing else.

But before the season started, Epstein has made his rounds with the media, including an interview at 670 The Score earlier this morning. I had nothing better to do, so I’ve collected each his thoughts and comments below, alongside some thoughts of my own. Enjoy.

  • According to Epstein, the Cubs are in a “bear of a division” and a “gauntlet of a league,” and they have a lot to prove, but the pressure should still not exceed the pressure, as Joe Maddon would say. “These guys should still be having fun.”
  • Relatedly, the news of the additional structure/rules in the clubhouse has been overblown, according to Epstein. There is a sense of urgency after the “dramatic and traumatic” way last season ended. But the changes were organic and player-driven, not a direct ruling from above. I actually really love hearing that, because these sort of changes can feel oppressive if the players aren’t the ones driving it. Epstein and Jed Hoyer both helped steward “the movement” so it went in the right direction, of course, but Epstein was clear that this was completely from the players.
  • Ian Happ took the news of his demotion “like someone who really cares about the other 24 guys, really cares about the Chicago Cubs winning, and really wants to be a part of it. And that’s exactly how someone like that should take the news.” Epstein wouldn’t go into too much detail about the demotion, but did say that Happ is in the middle of an adjustment period that’s going to take him to new heights in his career. He concedes that Happ was already an effective player with great tools, but added that this is more of a long-term development plan. “It was a small step backwards for a huge step forward.” As you can imagine, the adjustment, in general, is finding the right balance between his impressive power and more contact.
  • Epstein’s biggest concern/focus besides health this season? The Cubs have a lot of Triple-A pitching options this year, but picking the right guys to fill in at the right times, will be their biggest, and most important challenge.

– Epstein also made some other media rounds this week … 

  • After Kyle Hendricks accepted his extension with the Cubs, he said “Hopefully, this starts a trend where this group can stay together.” And Epstein’s response, said with a smile, was pretty funny: “I’m glad Kyle said that, because it’s inappropriate for me to.” He continued: “Look, I think you guys know how much we believe in this group. We have some special people in there. We’d love to keep it intact as long as we can. Hopefully this builds some momentum in that direction. We’ll continue to quietly try to get things done.”
  • On the battle for the last spot in the bullpen, Epstein said that Allen Webster was actually the guy “who’s thrown the best of almost anybody in camp.” If it weren’t for the lack of a second left-hander in the bullpen, he would’ve made the team. From the sound of it, Epstein expects Webster to contribute in the big leagues a lot this season. Epstein had nice things to say about lefty Kyle Ryan, who’s been great at inducing weak contact, too, and was the other last guy in the mix.
  • At The Athletic, Epstein went back into the Happ demotion, but really tried to drive home how much they believe in him as an impactful player. “Everyday at-bats will be the key to him unlocking some of these adjustments while keeping the strengths that made him a first-round pick and gave him above an .800 OPS in two years as a 23-year-old big leaguer,” Epstein said. “His future is extremely bright and we believe in him.” Samesies.
  • On Mark Zagunis, Happ’s replacement, Epstein is very complimentary. “This guy has always given a really quality at-bat,” Epstein said. “Last year he was battling a number of injuries. Not just nagging things, but significant injuries that sapped his power. It was kind of surprising that he was able to hold his own getting on base last year even without the power because he just couldn’t drive the ball.” Now that Zagunis is healthy, Epstein is expecting a quality at-bat every time.
  • Also, with Happ heading to Iowa, of course, Albert Almora will get more chances to become a regular.
  • At the Chicago Tribune, Epstein discussed the team’s sense of urgency: “October really starts in March,” Epstein said of the win-now mode. “In this case, every game really counts, and we like the way it feels when we go out and show what we can do and play good baseball. And we don’t like the way it feels when we play short of our expectations.” Epstein added that there has been a little more intensity this spring.
  • And finally, on Addison Russell, Epstein said it was not yet appropriate to talk about baseball when he’s still got other, more important matters going on. Epstein called his personal work “the most important work he’ll do in his career.” Epstein added that this sort of growth is a long-term thing. There’s not some sort of epiphany Russell – or anyone – can have that just suddenly makes them a better person. It’s more of a process, than anything else.

Author: Michael Cerami

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