Theo Epstein joined Barry Rozner and Connor McKnight during Hit and Run on Sunday morning (670 The Score) and discussed the state of the Cubs, the farm system and the big league team. Epstein addressed the Cubs’ desire to sign Jeff Samardzija to a long team deal and the fact they feel Starlin Castro will stick at shortstop.
Theo Epstein also addressed the reasons behind why the Cubs are building the organization from the bottom up and why they are not able to infuse the big league roster with talent while also focusing on the farm system.
Barry Rozner: Welcome back to Hit and Run on the Score, he’s Connor McKnight. I am Barry Rozner. And we are privileged now to spend a few minutes with Cubs President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, who joins us on the Lake Lawn Resort hotline. Good morning Theo and thanks for spending some time with us today.
Theo Epstein: Good morning guys, thanks for having me on.
BR: We appreciate it. So Theo, generally speaking I am wondering how you feel now about where you are. You’ve had two drafts, two international signing periods, two trade deadlines, you’ve built up a terrific stockpile of legitimate prospects. You’ve basically had about a year and two or three months to get this going. How do you feel about where you are right now?
TE: Well, I think there is a real dichotomy involved. I think we are thrilled with the state of the farm system and the health of the organization overall relative to where we were about 18 months ago. I think from a consensus standpoint we’ve probably gone from a bottom five farm system to a top five farm system and it usually takes a little bit longer to do that. So we are taking advantage of the opportunities that we do have. Two trading deadlines and that comes with consequences at the big league level as you’re seeing now. Two drafts that we are pretty happy with, two international signing deadlines and two off-seasons of trade opportunities. So, it hasn’t been perfect by any stretch. There have been some hits and some misses but I think overall, both in terms of potential impact players, which I think is the most important, and overall depth which is also very significant. I am happy with where we are and with the people and the processes we have in place, both in our scouting operation and in our player development operation. I am very happy with the people that are most responsible for that progress. That said, we need to push forward and try to get better because it is a very competitive landscape out there. On the other hand, the big league picture hasn’t been as pretty. We know that. Usually when you are pushing forward in your farm system it is because you have high draft picks and because you are making trades. There is a price to pay at the big league level. That said, we can’t help but to be a little disappointed that we haven’t provided more consistent improvement with our young players at the big league level. More progress that’s demonstrable. Progress, player development of young big leaguers is not linear, so it’s understandable. With that said, I think we have to hold ourselves to a little bit of a higher standard at the big league level.
BR: You know I think people know who you are talking about and they are aware of it as well. They know which players are important to the future here. It is guys like Castro, Samardzija, Rizzo, players like that. Where are you right now on a guy like Starlin Castro? He made some interesting comments yesterday after the game, after hitting the game winner yesterday. He talked about how he’s not thinking anymore. He’s done thinking. He just wants to play baseball. I know you guys have tried very hard to get him to take a more thoughtful approach to the game while not affecting his natural ability. Where are you in that process with him right now?
TE: Well, I still very much believe in him. I think when a young player has a number of things go wrong within the course of one season. Sometimes it can be a physical factor. Sometimes it can be a fundamental factor. Sometimes it can be a mental factor. When you have maybe one of each or you have two or three things affecting you in the course of a season it can be really, really difficult despite the length of the season to turn it around in-season. And especially the young players, I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over again. Sometimes it just takes getting into the winter to hit the refresh button to have perspective on the things that were bothering you …
BR: Right …
TE: You feel like you have to do better. You put the work in and you magically come back with better perspective and much improved and resume your level of play the next Spring Training. I think that we are going to see out of Starlin why it has been like a five month long slump. It is really, really hard for young players, especially ones that have never struggled to hit that reset button in season. It doesn’t matter if you give them a couple of days off at the All-Star break. There is just something about the rapidity of the season that requires you wait until the winter to get it right, sometimes. Now you don’t give into that but it is the reality sometimes. With respect to his approach, I think we do try to make all of our hitters aware of the benefits of basically one simple thing which is getting a pitch you can drive. That said, with aggressive hitters, and especially with Starlin, yeah, sure there has been some of that dialogue. But there has always been that recognition that he’s an aggressive hitter. That he has unique hand-eye coordination and his ability to put a lot of pitches, in different parts, inside and outside of the strike zone, into play relatively hard. So, there is an awareness not to ever take that away from him. Now, it’s more art than science. So, were there things done at one point that maybe made him think too much and did he come into camp trying to advance too much as a hitter, rather than just a cummulation of at bats and thousands of at bats take their natural course and allow him to mature, maybe. I’m sure there is some of that. Long ago we went up to Starlin and just asked him to just clear your mind and listen to use his own instincts as a hitter. Starlin says that no one taught me how to hit, no one taught me how to hit originally to get me here. I think what that means, he says it in a very nice way, is that he is a feel hitter. He drifts a little forward to his swing. He doesn’t sort of naturally pull the ball hard in the air and he just has to have that feel for the barrel and has to be feeling really good about himself to be able to hit the ball with backspin to the pull side and that’s fine. I think you saw last night after feeling good about himself for a few days, yesterday afternoon rather, that he was able to take a fastball that leaked back in over the plate and get inside of it with the barrel through the ball and you saw the juice that he still has left in his bat. I am very bullish on his future. I just think we need the winter to get him straight.
Connor McKnight: Talking with Cubs President Theo Epstein here on Hit and Run. Theo you mentioned how Castro needs to develop and what he’s been doing the last couple of months at the plate and I think there’s equal amount of questions with him at the field, or in the field I should say. And there has been some mistakes, both mental and physical, and a lot of people have wondered for a while whether or not he sticks at shortstop. I wonder if you are as bullish on him in the field as you seem to be at the plate.
TE: Yeah, I think that he can certainly stick at shortstop. I think when you have struggles they are, often times again with young players, carried out into the field. The one massive mental mistake that he made when he caught the popup on National TV and put his head down, that came, I think, towards the end of a stretch where he played really good Major League shortstop for a period of about four to six weeks. So we see these long stretches of him playing excellent shortstop. There are still some fundamental things he’s working on. He needs to gain ground on balls a little bit more. He needs to come to the ball rather than lay back and all of a sudden he’s got to rush a throw. Those things are fundamental issues that I think he can improve on and will continue to improve upon. Bottom line is that he’s gotten a lot better in the last two years. There are no physical issues. I think when we get him straight at the plate we will see a more consistent play. I think he’s made some strides this year defensively despite the occasional high-profile lapse.
CM: Jeff Samardzija is a guy on that pitching staff who has shown that he’s incredibly talented and can do things with a baseball that not a lot of others can do. I find it interesting that he is the age that he is and he seems to have that maybe one hidden year in between going from relief to starting and whether or not you put those miles on him as a starter or a reliever I think is interesting and you guys have a decision to make with Jeff Samardzija coming up in the off-season. He’s just on the one-year deal with still a year of arbitration eligibility left I believe and a lot of people are kinda looking at him as kinda of a key as to where you guys are going in the next little bit here. Is Jeff Samardzija and his status something we can, as that goes forward, something we can read into as far as your plans for the future?
TE: No, I’m not sure if you’re asking about our desire to sign him to a long term deal. I don’t think that has ever been a question. We have been. We are and we will continue to be interested in locking him up for the long term. It hasn’t been a perfect year of progress and development for Jeff and there are lessons he’s going to learn from this season that will make him better in the long run. But that doesn’t change the way I view him. I still think he is going to develop into a consistent top of the rotation starter. He has the stuff. He has the physical ability. He has the make-up. There are a couple of things that are holding him back. Namely this year, honestly, the ability to respond to adversity in the course of a game and to keep his composure and continue to execute pitch after pitch regardless of what is going on behind him. I think that cost him yesterday a little bit. It has cost him a number of times throughout the season. He’s so talented that usually when there is a big inning it’s because there’s an inability to sort of harness his emotions and calm himself down. It is the same thing that makes him great. His competitiveness and the hard-nosed nature of that and that also gets in his way sometimes. So he needs to continue to harness that. I’m sure that there are people out there that have doubts about his ability to turn the corner but I am not one of them. With that said, it’s not always easy to sign someone to a long term deal. There has to be mutual interest. So we will see where that goes. But regardless, we control him for the 2014 season and the 2015 season, and hopefully for a long time to come.
BR: Theo, I think most Cub fans truly get it now. Maybe a majority didn’t at the start. But I think a majority really understands it now. They are remaining patient, I believe for the most part, certainly not everyone. You’ve talked about the noise from the media and the fans and other baseball people. Not in a negative way but understanding that you can’t be distracted by that, not let that affect your timeline. Are you immune to all of that? Are you aware and does it affect you at this point?
TE: You know after a long decade in Boston I’m probably pretty callus to it. I don’t know if anyone, any human being is completely immune to it, that would be a neat trick. Certainly callus to it, used to it and hopefully by this point emotionally mature enough to a point where it doesn’t affect me, at least not my decision making. That said, I think it is replaced by an internal pressure, internal drive that we all feel that we put on ourselves where we are asking fans to be patient and in return we will provide something special. I think the average fan will probably say, well you are asking me to be a heckuva lot more patient that I ever expected so it better be a heckuva lot more special when we get there (laughs). And I think we feel the same thing. We are clearly taking the long view here. It is the right thing to do. Some of it is out of necessity, frankly, because we simply don’t have the payroll flexibility that we would need for a quicker talent infusion given some of the limitations and timing of our business plan and the realities of a lot of circumstances surrounding the ball club right now. We need to take the long view. It is not easy. I do enjoy the scouting. I enjoy the draft. I enjoy the player development part of it. I enjoy the young players, I believe in young players. But in an ideal world we would be doing both. We would be infusing a lot more, sort of ready talent in this situation, to speed up the clock a little bit with Major League players. We don’t have that luxury right now. We need to be fully committed to what we are doing so we can deliver on that promise. So that fan who says, that says hey you are asking me to be a lot more patient that I ever imagined then maybe we can deliver something maybe more special than they did imagine. I do believe that day is coming. It was a fantastic year in the farm system and I believe as the organization as a whole. I believe that despite what we’ve seen at the big league level, I am convinced based on the talent we’ve acquired and started to develop that this organization is a lot closer to winning the World Series than we were.
BR: There is no doubt that you’ve got a stockpile now and it’s legit. I mean you’ve got 20 to 22 guys that are legit when there was probably one when you got here. So, there’s a lot there. They are not all going to get here. They are not all going to be superstars. You will use some as trade chips and I’m sure you will evaluate that and figure that out. But in the meantime, you look at all of those players coming and you think about all of the time that you’ve spent and all of the money that you’ve spent on the minors and the international signings and the draft and in the Dominican and everything else. Will you have the resources then to pair that up? How will the timing be in terms of, I don’t know, revenue from renovations or any of that? But will what will you have in terms of a Baseball Operations Department, the revenue you will need to jump into free agency or however you need to spend it when the time is right?
TE: Yeah, absolutely. That is the plan. But we need a lot of things to go right and there are a lot of really talented people working on that behind the scenes. It depends on our ability to come through with our over the air TV package, TV rights deal which is up soon. It depends on our ability to come through and for the right market develop the cable package, which is five years from now, six years from now. It depends on, most importantly, on our ability to get the Wrigley renovation, restoration done quickly and done well and done in a manner that generates revenue. Then ultimately it will depend on our ability to put a better product on the field at the Major League level so that we can stop the trend in attendance and reverse it and get our attendance back up where it should be and generate revenue that way. So, it just depends in our overall investment in the club from a financial standpoint. Just as we have a baseball plan, one that takes maybe a longer view than anyone would want. In an ideal world we also have a business plan and it also has a longer term perspective. Right now we are at a point where we have not realized those revenues yet, those increased revenues yet, as an organization but there are a lot of building blocks being put into place. A lot of work being done behind the scenes with the Wrigley issue, with the sponsorship issues, with the TV deal that will pay dividends for us. The timing still matches up with our baseball plan and the business plan. There is great synergy between those plans and the departments even if it’s not as quickly as either side would like.
CM: Talking with the Cubs’ Theo Epstein here on Hit and Run. I am Connor McKnight. He’s Barry Rozner. Theo, you mentioned patience and timing a couple of times so far just this morning and I think that probably boils down to individual players as well. Maybe those that you are kinda collecting at the Double-A level or will be at the Double-A level next year. Javy Baez is a kid, who we’ve talked about in a roundabout way so far this morning with the fantastic year the farm system has had. I know there is going to be, and Jed’s talked about this before with Anthony Rizzo back in San Diego. He mentioned that he rushed him and didn’t exactly use the patience that he would have liked to have used the first time around with Rizzo. You guys are going to have to at some point, whether it is Baez or another prospect, resist temptation to bring that kid up. I wonder how you and Jed evaluate those kids and evaluate the timing for each one of those prospects when that time comes.
TE: Well, we rely on their individual player development plan. That is a mechanism we use to make sure we optimize each player’s development in the minor leagues and get the player invested into his own development. So each player has a document that breaks down his strengths and weaknesses from a physical, mental and fundamental standpoint. And when those weaknesses are addressed and become strengths that’s when they move up through the farm system and ultimately that is how they advance to the big league level. Obviously there are more factors involved, but a big league promotion you have to have opportunity and the mix has to be right for the Major League roster but that’s essentially how we do it. If you look at the history of some of the players that came through the Red Sox’s system. I am a firm believer that it is important to do everything you can to fully develop a player. There is no such thing as fully developing a player in the minor leagues because players continue to develop at the big league level. I don’t like rushing players. I like players that have every chance to maximize their development in the minor leagues before they come up here. I think it is important for players to fail in the minor leagues and bounce back. To undergo some sort of adversity and then learn how they can adjust and bounce back. The prospects, the Ellsburys, the Pedroias, the guys that have gone onto to have success and those were more advanced college players, they all spent time, significant time, in Triple-A and they’ve all gotten to the point where they not only held their own and not only succeeded but for stretches of time dominated, and developed some of time at the minor league level including Triple-A. I just believe that we are invested in these players for two decades that it is important not to rush them, not to show them off, not to appease anybody but to develop them as fully as you can so that they are ready to come up here and succeed.
BR: Theo, we really appreciate your time. You’ve been gracious with your time today and we look forward to talking to you again next year on Hit and Run.
TE: Thanks guys.