Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein spoke at length to reporters ahead of Opening Day, and MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian was good enough to transcribe the whole thing here. It’s worth checking out for Epstein’s thoughts on the Mookie Betts deal, testing so far, to how David Ross conducted camp, to player demonstrations, and so much more. Give it a read.
One area that stuck out to me in the immediate aftermath of the Cubs putting together their 30-man roster to open the season was Epstein’s really extensive comments on how the bullpen selections were made at the margins. The one guy that was missing who was a surprise was Ryan Tepera, and Epstein actually had an explanation for that. Similarly, Dillon Maples and Rex Brothers seem to have gotten the final two spots because they had specific supporters.
Here are Epstein’s full remarks on the bullpen construction, which give you a good sense of what the organization thinks of many of the guys in their bullpen:
“Let me start just by noting the toughest decision related to [Ryan] Tepera. And in his case, it’s not a matter of him not having the talent to help us, because we think he certainly does and is going to play a large role and help us. He was just a little bit delayed. There were a couple of instances in which he missed a sim game or a bullpen with procedural delays. So, it put him behind a little bit. And he was trending in the right direction. He certainly threw the best that he has all camp in that last outing at the White Sox. So, we think he’s going to pitch really big innings for us. We just believe that he’ll benefit from a little bit of time, a couple more times off the mound to continue to get stronger, continue to lock it in. And then he’ll be ready to come up and contribute. So, I don’t want anyone to read in any more than that into his option. It was really just to, in a shortened Spring Training, in which his was shorter than just about anybody else’s due to some things beyond his control, we wanted to buy him a little bit more time. We thought that was the prudent thing to do.
“Also, that opens up some opportunities from some other guys. If you look at the ‘pen, you can kind of group the guys a little bit. The Woods — Underwood, Norwood and Maples. Three homegrown power arms who are at different stages of their development and coming into their own. All will have an opportunity and a chance to make an impact.
“Underwood has been a tremendous success story this camp and really put a ton of work in during the hiatus to round out his game. He’s added a plus curveball to go with his plus changeup and his heater, so he’s pitching with a lot of confidence and has three weapons and can offer a lot of swing and miss.
“Norwood — same thing. He’s made himself a lot better over the course of the last year, and especially took advantage of the hiatus. Throwing extremely hard. Commanding his fastball better than he has in the past, and he’s got the swing-and-miss split to go with it. So, two homegrown power arms with a ton of potential there.
“And then Maples is somebody that Rossy really fought to get on the team and have an opportunity. Another guy with wipeout stuff. One of the best sliders in the game. Still rounding out some of the hard edges of his game and has some continued development. There’s a real upside there. With those three arms brings a real element of stuff to our ‘pen that’s needed to succeed in this day and age.
“And then Rex Brothers is someone else who’s improved quite a bit. Pitching in the mid-90s with a plus slider. Someone the staff really fought for. He was really good in the second half of last year, if you look back, and he’s carried it forward through Spring Training and into this camp. Another swing-and-miss arm to go with our other lefties.
“Ryan. Wieck. Sadler, who we made a small trade for, he’s been very impressive throwing strikes with his sinker and cutter, and an outstanding breaking ball as well. Winkler and Jeffress, a couple veterans who took a real professional approach to this camp and are sort of starting to peak at the right time. And Rowan Wick, also improved throughout the course of the camp.
“And Kimbrel is continuing to put the work in to get back to the top of his game. So, it’s a lot of power arms in the ‘pen. A lot of upside potential and something that we’re going to need those guys to be good to get where we want to go this year.”
I think Epstein believes, genuinely, that the Cubs have a ton of breakout potential in the bullpen. But he also knows there is almost no certainty in there. It’s a group that could as easily explode as implode.
That was a big risk that the Cubs took in constructing this year’s pen on the cheap, but there is at least one part that I really like about it: the chance is actually there for guys to break out.
The thing about building out a bullpen of pretty-certain-veterans is that you’re either gonna get what you hope for (solid performance) or something worse than that. What you’re not going to get is surprising upside from a controllable player. If you want that, you not only have to bring and/or develop those types, you also have to actually give them meaningful innings. This year, for the first time in the last five years, the Cubs are REALLY going that route. You can’t find the breakout relief arms if you don’t ever look at them in the first place. Half of the reason this works for the Rays each year is because they DO IT each year.
… of course, the plan was more interesting to me back when it was going to be 162 games and David Ross was going to have a lot more time to figure out what he had. In a 60-game sprint, there will be only so many innings – and grace – to go around. I’m not sure it’s going to be enough time to really feel like you know who has broken out into a guy you can trust in late September, much less 2021 and beyond.
Nevertheless, I’ll stay a little hopeful. This is a group of big time boom or bust types. The movement or velo or spin or whatever – it’s all loud, loud stuff. But there’s a reason a lot of these guys were available to the Cubs. You just have to hope their infrastructure can do more with these pitchers than other organizations could.