The Chicago Cubs are trying to get another solid series winning streak started, but have been battling their bullpen and injuries along the way. And in the meantime, Ben Zobrist remains out for personal reasons, Javy Baez has a foot injury (not that it’s slowing him down), both closers are missing in action, and the Astros and Cardinals are coming to town soon! Hello.
We’re still early in the season, no doubt, but things sure feel like they’re picking up. Cubs President Theo Epstein jumped on 670 The Score today to discuss the state of his team and we have the highlights of that convo, alongside some thoughts of my own, below. The full interview is embedded at the bottom of this post.
- According to Theo Epstein, Javy Baez is feeling good, and he/the Cubs may have dodged a bullet with his injury, described as just a contusion with “nothing structural” going on. WHEW. The Cubs are going to check him out when they get to the ballpark today, and apparently Joe Maddon had two lineups ready: one with him in it, one without. Let’s hope we see the good one.
- Epstein likes the aggressive base running taken by most of the Cubs – he said that’s how they stole two runs last night – and hopes to see it continue. He knows sometimes that means you run into silly looking outs – which stinks, because those 27 outs are the team’s most precious asset – but sometimes, you just have to take risks. And with that in mind, he gave credit to Cubs coach Brian Butterfield, who’s apparently very good at coaching up base running strategy. Epstein admits that you can teach speed or instincts, but you can improve your awareness and strategy.
- Along those lines: the front office prefers base runners to run through the bag at first, because it’s safer and quicker most of the time (with some exceptions), but didn’t seem to be particularly annoyed with what seems like something the Cubs do an awful lot.
- Epstein is extremely proud of his veteran rotation, especially because they each really challenged themselves to get better as early as Spring Training (i.e. no one rested on their previous success). For Kyle Hendricks, that meant early work to help him get off to a faster start. And for Jose Quintana, that meant the development of a third pitch, his changeup.
- And to that end, the changeup has been the key to Quintana’s success, according to Epstein, because he got way too predictable with his fastball and curveball last season, particularly the third time through the order. So this Spring, Quintana worked through several grips to find out that worked for him and forced himself to throw 4-5 changeups every inning no matter what (see why you can’t trust ST stats). Now, Quintana has command of three quality pitches, each of which can be used in different ways to get the job done. You just have to love that.
- As for Yu Darvish, Epstein knows that it has taken him longer to come around, but believes that his more aggressive approach of late has been working and should help him continue to turn the corner, as he has been.
- According to Theo Epstein, Wrigley Field has played like an extreme pitcher-friendly park this year because of the weather, which gives the pitchers a bigger margin for error, but punishes the hitters a bit more, too. I was curious about that so I took a look. And, well …
Cubs offense at home: 100 wRC+ (14th in MLB)
Cubs offense on road: 124 wRC+ (2nd in MLB)
Cubs pitching at home: 2.46 ERA (1st in MLB)
Cubs pitching on the road: 4.77 ERA (20th in MLB)
Wrigley Field has been an extreme pitcher-friendly ball park so far this season.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) May 22, 2019
- Yup. We’re gonna have to dive into that more later.
- As for the bullpen, Theo Epstein recognizes the concerns, but lauds the performances of the guys who’ve stepped up in the absence of their ninth (Brandon Morrow) and eighth (Pedro Strop) inning guys. With that said, he concedes that the front office is always looking to improve the bullpen and they’ve done exactly that in just about every season the Cubs have been competitive – particularly for down the stretch, when the games matter most. He did acknowledge – thankfully – that it’s an area they’ll want to shore up.
- At the same time, Epstein artfully stated that trades are more likely than free agent signings during the season, because there’s not as many free agents out there (obviously referring to Craig Kimbrel). He also said that there were reasons the team didn’t invest heavily in free agency over the winter (the budget) and those reasons remain true. But he did make sure to note that obviously if you can get a quality piece without having to give up prospects, you owe it to the organization to try to make that work. All comments considered, I don’t think the Cubs are necessarily out on Kimbrel, but it didn’t sound particularly likely. Even if they did earmark some money for mid-season additions, it’s still not clear how much Kimbrel will cost or what kind of deal he’s looking for.
- And beyond everything else above, Epstein also discussed Tyler Chatwood’s continued improvement and slowly expanding role as well as Willson Contreras’ athleticism behind the plate. You can check out the full interview at 670 The Score for more on that and a little more overall.