Shortly after his interview on MLB Radio Network, Theo Epstein joined Jordan Bernfield on Cubs Weekly (720 WGN) last Sunday. Epstein discussed the state of the Cubs, the future of the organization and Starlin Castro.
Jordan Bernfield: Theo thanks so much for taking some time on this Sunday afternoon. How are you today?
Theo Epstein: Great, thanks for having me on Jordan.
JB: Well, I appreciate it. Let’s start with this. We are now almost through two seasons with you at the helm of the Chicago Cubs. How would you assess the way things have gone so far and have they met your expectations?
TE: Well certainly not at the big league level. I think we knew we were in for a bit of a rough time. One of the things we have going for ourselves is we are honest about the phase we are in. We are in a time of building and you know we are transparent about that. Certainly it is never easy to lose at the big league level. We hung in there fairly well in the first half. I think right around the All-Star break we actually had a positive run differential but then we know we don’t have the type of roster to withstand any real adversity. With the injuries and some of the trades of course it’s been a tough go recently. I am really happy with the foundation that we are trying build. With the two drafts we’ve had so far and with the trades we’ve been able to make over the course of two trading deadlines and two off-seasons, our farm system has gone from the bottom five to very clearly in the top five if not second best in the game as it was recently ranked. So, there’s really good spirit in the organization. Everyone’s united behind developing the core of the next great Cubs team and we are having some success in that regards. There is still plenty of work to do. But if anything, if I had to characterize the organization I would just call us eager. Eager in that we are excited about what we have developing and we are just eager to be able to show it off at the Major League level when the time is right because you can’t rush development. And we certainly need to continue with the phase of adding talent and developing the talent. Pretty soon we will be in the position where we can really focus on constructing a roster that can withstand a lot of adversity and still win 90-plus games and get into the post-season on a yearly basis.
JB: Sure, because you are trying to develop so much talent in the minor leagues and we all know as you said, the team hasn’t been as good on the Major League level as you would obviously like it to be. How much pressure is there on you and the rest of this organization that when you bring in a player whether it is through the draft, or whether it is through international signing. Whether it’s through a trade, as you have made a number of those already this season, that the player you bring in or at least some of the players that you bring in have to be the core of a team that is going to win a couple of years down the road.
TE: Well, you are not going to acquire core players in every trade that you make. But I think we don’t feel the pressure from outside expectations. We don’t feel like we have to live up to anything. I think the only reason that we hold ourselves to high standards. We feel self-inflicted pressure from time to time because there are only so many opportunities to do it …
JB: Right …
TE: You don’t have four drafts a year where you get to try to hit on some players that are going to be winning championships on the field at Wrigley. You get one day, well, actually the draft is longer. You get one time, one draft a year to make that happen. Trades aren’t made all year long. You can’t sort of wake up in May or in September and decide to make a trade. You really have to focus and execute a plan at the trade deadline and in the off-season. There are only so many opportunities to enhance the talent level in the organization. You’re going to miss on some, its baseball. If you do things really, really well you hit on 55 percent of the time and miss 45 percent of the time with your transactions. But, we do feel an urgency to get it right and to get it right quickly because we know the higher the hit rate that we have the quicker the organization will come together to match the vision that we have for it and we are just really excited about that future.
JB: Talking with Theo Epstein, the Cubs President here on Cubs Weekly on 720 WGN. And Theo, when you look at the way you guys are building this right now and trying to find volume in your minor league system so that some of these guys can come up and make a high impact on the team. It seems as though over the first two years, the guys that you’ve brought in on the Major League level is with the idea that if you bring them in for one year or two years, you might be able to move them and bring in as many of these young players as you can. It’s certainly different from the way things were in Boston. So, how do you feel that strategy is working for you? Sort of bringing in guys that are on a shorter Major League tenure with this Cubs team, at least by contract and being able to move them for prospects that you hope can be a big part of the organization’s future.
TE: Well, that is certainly not the only strategy that we’ve tried to employ. But that is a consideration. You have to be realistic of the fact that if you do fall out of the race that simply playing out the string with some of the players that are going to be free agents at the end of the year doesn’t add long term value to the organization and to the building effort that we have. Transferring those shorter term assets to long term assets, trading veteran players with expiring contracts for young players with six years of control just makes all the sense in the world. So, that part has gone really well. Certainly not perfect, but all in all we are really happy with it. If you look at last year as an example, the Ryan Dempster trade. For two months of Ryan Dempster we have Kyle Hendricks, who put up a 1.9 something ERA in Double-A this year and is all the way up to Triple-A and is pitching very well. He looks like he could be a contributor to a Major League rotation. And Christian Villanueva, who is leading the Southern League in doubles and playing an outstanding third base defensively, so that is the type of move that makes the organization better in our opinion for the long haul. This year with the Feldman deal, it is sort of the prototypical type deal of that genre in which you sign a free agent that anyone could have signed. You have him contribute to some wins at the Major League level for the first three month and then trade half a season of Feldman for Jake Arrieta, who has a lot of potential and is under control for four more years of the club and could be a solid rotation piece for us going forward, and Pedro Strop, who has similar control and could be a backend reliever type, certainly a useable part of a championship-type bullpen as well as two international slots. So, those types of deals go really well and you make other deals and you are still excited about the players you get back but maybe they are injured or maybe their development doesn’t happen as quickly as you would like. But all in all, I feel like we can hold our head up high and say we did the right thing for the organization with those moves. I think it made us a more talented organization and it got us a little bit closer to winning a World Series with those types of moves.
JB: Theo, when you look at the fan support that you’ve received through this rebuilding effort so far. Going into a big market like this giving how popular the Cubs are, you are aware of that. Are you surprised by how much people have supported it? I’ll be honest I’ve been very supportive of what you guys are doing. I think it is great, I think that so far Cubs’ fans have been incredibly behind what your effort is. What are your thoughts on that?
TE: Yeah, I’ve been very impressed and surprised and appreciative. I mean, coming in here and taking a hard look at the organization and just how far to go as far as talent on the Major League level, contracts that we had, the farm system, needing to overhaul the scouting and player development departments. I braced myself for a pretty dramatic building effort, so I felt like it was important to insulate ourselves and baseball operations from the potential criticism and pressure we knew we’d get with some of the tough times at the Major League level that were inevitable and even more inevitable than I thought in some ways (laughs). But, I’ve just been real surprised and impressed just how informed the fans are and how patient they are. We just have an optimistic, good natured fan base as a whole. It doesn’t mean that there is unconditional patience without verification. I’m really happy that the fans have taken the time to listen to what we are trying to do. We have been transparent about it. I think they appreciate that, rather than selling them a bill of goods. They’ve bought in but unfortunately we cannot reward that as quickly we would like but that does motivate us to work very, very hard day and night to make it happen. To hit on as many deals as we can to turn this thing around as quickly as we possibly can to reward these fans, because they have been more than patient enough. We look forward to the time that rather than fretting about the state of the organization and when are we possibly going to get back into the playoffs, we hope they are hammering us one day for not having the right second situational lefty in the pen because we need to win the division and not the Wild Card. And who are we going to acquire at the trade deadline to fill that type of hole …
JB: Right …
TE: Hopefully that is here before we know it. We look forward to that type of pressure that we can certainly live up to for our fans.
JB: Coming up on the final minute with Theo Epstein here on Cubs Weekly on 720 WGN. I have to ask you about Starlin Castro yesterday. He’s been in the majors a while now, even though he is 23. Sometimes we forget how young he is because he has been in the Major Leagues for so long. What is your opinion on what happened yesterday? The way Dale Sveum handled it and what do you think about the fact that Starlin that even though he has been in the Major Leagues for as long as he has and has as much service time as he has that he still occasionally has these moments where it seems like he is not extremely focused on the field.
TE: Well, my thoughts on it are I think that first of all it was a disappointing and unfortunate play. As he said he made a really bad mistake and he paid for it. I think it was handled exceptionally well, not only by Dale, but also by Castro. Often times with the development of players and the development of young men, it is not quite as important what event happens, what adversity they face as it is how they respond to it. In this case you had a player make a terrible mental error. The manager held him accountable for it, immediately removed him from the game. The player, rather than sulking, rather than placing blame elsewhere, admitted culpability for it. Said that he made an egregious mistake that he paid for it and feels like he let his teammates down, let the organization down. He apologized for it and after paying the price, the manager had the player’s back and got him right back out there the next day. He recognized that the player is a very talented player and is a good person that works hard and doesn’t want to make those kinds of mistakes and presented this as an opportunity to get better, and it is. I will say this about Starlin having three years in the big leagues now, no one should make excuses for Starlin because he needs be better and this was a mistake. I will say this, he went through the minor leagues extremely quickly, probably too quickly. He got to the big leagues and while he might have been talented enough to be in the big leagues at the time, he had not been fully developed as a player or as a person. At times you have to be held accountable. It is really important to make mistakes and be held accountable and this is probably one of the first instances that he is being held accountable. So kudos to Dale for handling it this way and now let’s see how Starlin responds. I really think this can be a growth opportunity for him. We all know this is not the player who he is. He is not a .244 hitter. He is not someone who makes mental mistake after mental mistake. The fact is that they’ve become fewer and farther between. He’s played a pretty good shortstop of late. It’s been kinda a lost season for Starlin this year. Maybe this event, more importantly the way he handles it, can be the catalyst to getting back to the extremely talented player that he is.
JB: No doubt.
The interview concluded with Jordan Bernfield and Theo Epstein briefly discussing Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.
For those that missed the transcript of the interview that Theo Epstein had on MLB Network Radio just before he spent time on WGN Radio, here is the link to the interview.