Considering how much more the Chicago Cubs have been winning lately – and against good teams like the Dodgers! – President Theo Epstein was probably a little more happy to talk about his team with 670 The Score today.
I listened to that interview and have collected some of the highlights alongside some thoughts of my own below. Epstein touched on a whole lot in this one …
- On the bullpen’s sudden turnaround – specifically with respect to the improved command – Epstein was very complimentary, especially because relievers, unlike starters, who have the benefit of their side sessions and more time to prepare, have to make adjustments on the fly and in-games. And to that end, he credits coaches Tommy Hottovy, Lester Strode, and Mike Borzello. In short, the early season wonkiness can be partly attributed to small samples, but also to a lack of aggressiveness in the zone. But with a little more confidence, the bullpen has been more aggressive lately and it’s showing in the box score.
- Relatedly, Epstein believes that Willson Contreras has “taken that part of his game [receiving/pitch framing] to another level.” It might not show up in the framing numbers just yet, but Contreras looks calmer behind the late, according to Epstein, and that’s just on top of his improved game-calling and relationship with the pitchers. Sweet.
- Jason Heyward’s hard work is finally paying off, and he looks way more confident and comfortable with his “more classic” swing at the plate. Specifically, Epstein loves seeing him do more damage with those up and away pitches that really allow him to extend his arms and hit for extra bases. And, in turn, because of the newfound slugging threat, pitchers have been way more cautious with him, which has allowed him to tap back into his excellent eye. This is something we’ve talked about with respect to Heyward for so long. His on-base skills and low-strikeout rate vanished when he stopped hitting for extra bases, because pitchers were just firing strikes without any fear of serious damage (worse case scenario was a single … every now and then). But now that he is a threat for doubles and homers again, the improvements are compounding in the results.
- On Addison Russell, who’s beginning his 7-day Minor League stint which’ll lead right into the end of his domestic violence suspension, Epstein was particularly guarded. Basically he repeated the same stuff we’ve been hearing for a while – essentially, “He’s been putting in his work off the field, now he’s gotta put in the work on the field and we don’t know how long that’ll take” (that’s not a direct quote, but the gist of what Epstein said). He added that they don’t want to get ahead of themselves, that they’ll take it one day at a time, and that they don’t want to disrupt the good stuff that’s been going on at the big league level (with respect to Javy Baez at shortstop, no doubt).
- And when asked how they monitor Russell’s off field work, Epstein explained a little, but avoided particulars: “We’re all invested in a positive outcome here. Not just for him, but for the people in his life and for the organization. The decision that we made, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to be a small piece of the solution. Individually for him, more importantly for the people in his life, and more broadly to help chip away at the plague of domestic violence.”
- Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora are in a bit of an offensive rut right now and have not been playing up to their potential. HOWEVER, the Cubs believe they’re seeing signs that Schwarber is ready to start producing again – like he did through the first few series of the year – and they’re excited about that because their lineup is completely different against right-handed pitching (interesting that he said RHP in particular, but I wouldn’t read too much into it) when he’s a force at the heart of the lineup. As for Almora, Epstein says that even when he’s struggling at the plate, he can add so much by way of his center field defense. In short, the Cubs don’t want to overreact to small sample sizes and think both guys will be fine eventually.
- More broadly, Epstein said that while the Cubs would love to dedicate way more playing time to both guys to develop, that only works in a vacuum. And right now, the Cubs have a lot of other players that need to be playing everyday because they have to be committed to winning first and foremost. Production over talent and whatnot.
- The Cubs and Joe Maddon are both committed to winning in 2019. There is nothing else to update on an extension right now. OOOOOOOoooooo-kay.
- Carl Edwards Jr. returned to the I-Cubs last night from his short stint on the IL (he hurt his hand falling down some stairs) and pitched well, netting two strikeouts in a scoreless, hitless, walkless inning of work. According to Epstein, Edwards had good velocity and command. And if he keeps that up, the results will continue pouring in, giving him more confidence and getting him back to Chicago as soon as possible.
- Ian Happ, meanwhile, went 2-4 with a double and a walk last night, and has had a really great attitude lately. Epstein says he loves how he’s not focusing on results and as instead trying to improve the underlying performance that will return him to the player he’s capable of being. Epstein believes that once he makes the necessary improvements and returns to the big leagues, it’ll be for good (ditto Edwards on that point).
- The only time Javy Baez surprises Theo Epstein is when something he tries doesn’t work. LOL. Same.
- And finally, Epstein was thrilled to see Tyler Chatwood more or less dominate on Sunday as a starter, because when he’s on like he was, that’s the pitcher he can be. Chatwood worked very hard to streamline his delivery this offseason and create more consistency (obviously in an effort to improve his command), because when he can get his pitches in the zone, he can get a ton of soft contact and quick outs. He hasn’t showed it often, but it’s in there and he deserves to show people what he can do: “He’s not a liability, he’s an asset.”