Theo Epstein Talks Cubs on Boston’s WEEI

Theo Epstein joined Rob Bradford and Alex Speier during last Thursday’s Hot Stove Show on WEEI. The Cubs President of Baseball Operations talked about the Red Sox latest championship, the challenge of building the Cubs system and when the right time is to sign a player to a long-term extension. Plus, Epstein admitted during the interview that he tried to trade for RHP Junichi Tazawa since he took over the Cubs while Tazawa was out recovering from Tommy John surgery, but Ben Cherington would not deal the right hander.

Theo Epstein covered a lot of topics in what ended up being close to a 30-minute interview on Boston’s WEEI.

This is not a full transcript of the interview with Theo Epstein on WEEI. The first several minutes of the interview was spent discussing the Red Sox latest World Series Championship, the relationships Theo Epstein still has with the Red Sox front office and the players he brought into the organization that helped the Sox win their third crown in the ten years. The full audio of Theo Epstein’s interview with Rob Bradford and Alex Speier can be heard by clicking here.

WEEI: Well that is obviously the idea with developing homegrown talent, developing young players into future regulars of a championship caliber team is kind of central of what you are trying to accomplish in Chicago right now. Where do you feel like you guys are in terms of what you inherited which was a significant building project? This has been an off-season that last year you identified some building blocks. You signed guys like Rizzo, like Starlin Castro to long term deals. And then of course you have to have the transition, the managerial transition after the season. Where are you guys in terms of building the foundation for what you believe will be sustained success?

Theo Epstein: Well, I think you have to separate each category out as far as the infrastructure and where we are with our scouting department and our player development department. I really like where we are. We brought over a lot of the processes that we had instilled in over a decade in Boston. And since the game is always changing we tried to improve on them as well so we don’t fall behind. Brought in some people, kept some people and it is really hard to get your processes running full speed, especially with the draft. We really try to run a thorough department where we focus on the currency of the draft which is information and digging deep in statistical and scouting and medical and make-up information. That is something that, you know, took a few years to get up and rolling in Boston and I think you have a really competitive advantage once you have a process that works and people that buy in and you go out and apply it every year and you refine it and you have a lot of good drafts that way. It doesn’t happen overnight so it took us a year to really transition and now we really feel like we are rolling in that department, same with player development. We were lucky enough to bring in Brandon Hyde as our field coordinator the first year. He became our director of player development for a couple of years and now he is actually our bench coach and he brought in a good team of coordinators with him. Jaron Madison is now the farm director. So, just really good people. In player development we’ve got our player plan system up and running. We wrote the Cubs Way manual, pilfered a little bit from the Red Sox Way …

[All laughs]

TE: … And changed it a little bit for the National League. So those departments I feel really good about and I rest easy at night. I think we’ve had a couple of good drafts. Almora, Pierce Johnson and some quality pitchers the first year and then the second year highlighted by Kris Bryant and then a slew of college pitching. And our system I think has reflected that and in addition to the aggressive international signings that we’ve made, we’ve gone from a system that wasn’t very well thought of to one that’s, I think pretty clearly a top five system in all of baseball and we’ve been ranked as high as second in some publications. We have some impact position player talent coming. We need to get a lot deeper with pitching. And clearly those results have not manifested yet at the big league level. So we are two years into a building project that is probably going to take a longer time than that, but I think there is plenty of momentum internally and plenty of momentum in the farm system. Our job is to make sure that the transition with those players to the big league level goes smoothly and that we accumulate as much talent as possible at the big league level so that when we are ready to make a run we can sustain it for a long period of time.

WEEI: Theo Epstein, president of the baseball operations for the Cubs is joining us. Theo before we get into something you mentioned about the challenges of building a starting rotation, you also talked about the evolution of baseball and how you are going to have to adjust on the fly. In the years since you’ve been in Chicago, what has been the biggest challenge for you because of the way things have changed?

TE: I think the biggest challenge is really the change to the CBA. You can’t really choose how much you want to emphasize the draft anymore. In Boston we decided that is was going to be fundamental to our approach that in order to win a World Series we needed to develop homegrown players. In order to develop homegrown players we wanted to shift as many of our resources as we could to the draft. Not only scouting resources and our time and our attention but to a certain extent, the extent the rules permitted, dollars, and draft prospects. And so we let free agents walk after the ’04 World Series. We let Pedro and Lowe and Cabrera walk. And we used those picks to sign the Ellsburys and Buchholtzs of the world. And then you made a trade for Victor Martinez knowing that yeah you are going to get a year and a half of production from him and help us get to the post season hopefully and then we are going to let him walk. I think we got Henry Owens and Matt Barnes for Victor. So that was just a fundamental part of the approach. It was a strategy. It was pretty important to how we built the organization. Then we also gambled on later round players and gave them first and second round money. And that was a significant help to building the organization as well. Then we obviously worked really hard on our scouting process and the scouts that we brought in and how we were going to evaluate talent. That played a huge part of it. You can’t just put resources in without having great scouting acumen. I thought frankly we did all of that well and that was probably the single most important thing we did to put us in a good position to have good success for a long period of time. And now, you can’t really develop a strategy around accumulating draft picks. Sure you might have someone in a given year you can make a qualifying offer to. In the case of the Red Sox and Yankees maybe a couple, multiple players you can make qualifying offers to and get picks that way. But you only get one pick you don’t get two anymore. The scope of players who can receive compensation is much more limited and most mid-market teams and below will very rarely, if ever, will have compensatory picks for leaving free agents now. So that’s just something you can’t factor in and obviously you can’t overpay players in later rounds anymore unless you really go for a bargain with your first round pick. So that’s just really changed the game. You can still, quote-unquote, dominate the draft and make an impact in the draft the way we used to try to, but it’s on a much smaller scale. I think the days of getting like Barnes, Swihart, Owens, Bradley with your first four picks, like we did in 2011, those days are probably gone and you just have to make do with one or two picks like that in a given year instead of going for the whole bounty.

WEEI: With regards to the kind of scarcity of, you know, the possibility of building through the draft it seems like that’s had considerable impact, in terms of the market, for veteran players, from my vantage point certainly. You said that you have had struggles in order to build the rotation part of what you have going forward. You guys were very publicly connected to Tanaka in his posting case. Were you surprised by where the Tanaka market ended up? And to you, what does the fact that he ended up signing that contract, functionally a seven-year, $175 million contract, or at least team commitment to him, say to you about how valuable pitching has become? How scarce it has become?

TE: Well, I think it is actually, probably in practical terms even a bigger contract because if you factor in the impact on the CBT tax that the Yankees will have to pay going forward now, if indeed Tanaka was the player to push them over it for this year and therefore a higher rate in subsequent years. I can’t say I’m surprised because to answer your question it just reflects the dynamic that there are many, many teams with lots and lots of dollars to spend and very few places to spend them. A very few players that represent sound investments for the dollars. I think anytime in this market that you find a player who will be in his prime years, or pre-prime years, or close to his prime years and has been healthy and has sort of recognized tools and has a track record, in this case not even a track record in the Major Leagues, but a track record that you can point to, that player is going to draw significant interest and probably get more than is expected just because the supply and demand dynamic dictates it. There are lots of teams demanding talented, prime-aged players and the supply is really a trickle because fewer and fewer players of that ilk are reaching free agency. It’s pretty rare that you find a player, maybe one player a year like that through the posting system. Maybe one through Cuban free agency that was a player that qualifies to be outside of the international spending pool and that is about it. So you are going to see these prices that cause people to shake heads. You still have to justify it, it still has to fit your long-term payroll plan, but because of the TV deals, the teams that have them, have a lot of money and not a lot of players, attractive players, to spend the money on.

WEEI: How much pressure does that put on an organization to make long-term commitments to young players, maybe even young pitchers, earlier than might have been the case in the past? Or is that decision making process the same as it was for you for instance with guys like Castro and Rizzo and your efforts to talk at various points long-term with Samardzija? Is the impetus to do so the same as it was when you went through the kind of slew of early career deals with the likes of Lester and Buchholtz and Pedroia?

TE: I think there is a little more significance to wrapping up your players now with a little bit more urgency. But it is not as transformative as it is in the draft. It just means you cannot miss in the draft now. Because it’s really the acquisition and development of everyday players and hopefully impact players that dictate your fate now. Whether you take a player that you develop, year by year and have them for six and in most cases six and a half to seven years and then let them go or you wrap them up and buy some of their prime years in early free agency that way and extend the window. Either way, that’s what your ability to do that and your ability to do that consistently over time will dictate the success of your franchise. Whether you choose to wrap up a guy here or there or let a guy walk here or there, those decisions are important but there are two kinds of organizations. The kind that can consistently produce young players through the draft and international market and the kinds that can’t. And the kinds that can’t will have to be extraordinarily good in professional scouting and extraordinarily good in trades and extraordinarily good, slash lucky, in free agency in order to have any kind of sustained success.

WEEI: You know Theo, Jon Lester was here last week and he talked about maybe taking a hometown discount and I know that’s a relative term, but in general terms when you’re dealing with a player and you’re dealing with a player’s agent. How much of it in your experience is the player driving the agent or the agent driving the player? Or does it just depend? Because people in the public just see it as the player should be running the show and if he wants a hometown discount then he’s going to take it. What’s that dynamic like in your experience?

TE: It is completely dependent on the player and in some cases dependent on the agent as well. But it just depends on a lot of factors. The player’s personality, the player’s history with the team with the agent, so you get all kinds. You get players that are very clearly running the show and making the decisions and the agent clearly works for the player and the player will identify the priorities and will say get a long-term deal done with this team. Or he will say put a condition on it and say if you can get really close to market value or really close to my free agent value, get a long-term deal done. Or he will say I want the most money and if we can get a long-term deal done that we feel good about, great. If not, we’ll go to free agency. And then there are other cases where players, in my experience at least observing it from a close proximity, there are the players who kind of don’t necessarily get that involved in it and just asks for their agent to update them when there is something important to talk about. With those players it is a little bit harder to get long-term deals done because you end up running it through the agent and the agent presents it to him and you are not sure necessarily how it is presented. I think it definitely to get the right long-term deal done with a homegrown player it definitely has to be bilateral. It’s really hard to just have a unilateral negotiation where you’re entirely chasing a player to make it happen because yes there’s security that counts and matters, that’s how those deals get done. But the lure of free agency is very attractive so if the player is passive through the process, he tends to just go year by year. It takes a player having some interest to make it happen as well.

WEEI: You know it’s fascinating because you go through your tenure in Boston and you really, seemingly timed out approaching guys at the right time. I go back to Beckett. He was down, I think you guys might have done that in the middle of 2006 when he was down and you approached him and he wanted to get a deal done. And you obviously approached Lester and Buchholtz and these other guys at really, really good times because you end up getting deals done. What is that conversation like within the front office? Do you look at guys and say, okay every guy is different as you said, but this is a good time to approach him because maybe their value is a little bit down? What’s that like because you did have great success in doing that?

TE: Yes, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Probably the threshold question, is this a core player or is this someone we really want to have part of what we have going on here for a long period of time. In the cases of players who are talented enough that we think they are going to be stars that can be a pretty obvious answer. But we also factor in, not just talent but makeup. Now that there is such a level playing field and it is harder and harder to just go out and acquire impact talent. You really want to make sure that your core players are team first guys and are pretty unselfish and are competitive and love the game and driven to win and good teammates. So, that’s a pretty big factor in the discussion as well. Then, even for players who are more role players it might be appropriate, given the specific situation with the contract to wrap them up, just to increase their value internally and potentially externally by having a contract that offers more control. So the threshold question is how valuable is this player to the franchise? How much to we want to wrap them up? And the second component really revolves around timing. In general buying low is a good thing. I think that if a player goes out and has a career year that’s normally not the time that you want to rush out and wrap him up to a deal. You might want to maybe wait until he’s having a season that’s more typical of his performance. Then if there is ever an instance where a player underperforms for any reason, it can be randomness, it can a non-chronic injury, there might be something going on in his life where there might be some circumstance that causes him to underperform. But if you believe in the player’s projection and you believe it’s better than his recent performance that’s always an attractive time to try to lock up a player as well. Just as, you know, agents always want to talk after a career year, teams usually want to talk after a down year. But, another factor is just the player’s age and timing and how you see the arc of their career and how you see them fitting into the roster construction of the club going forward. So, if you look at like Pedroia’s deal …

WEEI: … Signed after his MVP year, so good job buying low on him [all laughs] …

TE: … So I was going to use that as an example of not buying low. So he just won rookie of the year and then the subsequent year he won the MVP, so we weren’t buying low but we felt like once he had that much hardware and once got into the arbitration process it was going to add up. We knew he wanted to be here. From the day we drafted him we were all in on his make-up and we had become all in on his talent and we felt like if we could do a long deal it made sense. So getting him after his second season it didn’t make sense to do a shorter deal but if we could do a long deal that really bought out a couple of years of free agency and gave us a club option that made sense. Youkilis, a player we tied up a little bit later who we weren’t certain was going to have the world’s longest career, but was a top three, top five MVP guy for a couple of years in a row in his prime. We felt like we could get just the right window with him and that the timing of that contract ended up working out really well because if we hadn’t tied him up we probably would have had to re-sign him at free agent dollars …

WEEI: … At Jayson Werth money, right? That was that class …

TE: … Yes, you know and the Red Sox would still be paying him huge money now and now that his Major League career seems to maybe be over, or at least taken a pause as he goes to Japan. So, the timing of those deals worked out well. The Buchholtz deal it was really important for us to get a couple of club options. If you can ever do that with a pitcher it just extends the window just right. And with Jon Lester, he had interest in staying if we would do a fair deal. I think it made sense to do a deal that would give him another bite at the apple, but we extended his window and got a club option. So, it ended up setting up really well for the club and for the player and he’s going to, knock on wood, get his other bite at that apple with another healthy season this year, or maybe sooner. The timing of those deals is probably the biggest thing. At the time we stress over $500,000 here or $250,000 there and making sure it is just the right amount of years and getting those extra club options. And that stuff is important and I thought we did good deals for the most part. But in the end what matters is that you put the player in a position to perform because if he performs those deals are going to be good deals. Then as importantly you timed them right. You buy out as many prime years as you can. You get as many free agent years as makes sense and you get a club option. We established that policy. We would not do a deal with an arb or a pre-arb player without getting at least one free agent year and without getting at least one club option. That’s a policy that I took with me to the Cubs. I think it makes sense if you are going to give that kind of security, the club should get a benefit in return. I think that if you talk to the players that signed those deals, they don’t have regrets. They got security. They were paid well. They got to play where they wanted to play. And they were put in a position to perform. They worked their tails offs. They performed. They got to win championships and then they get another bite at the apple. So it was really a win-win.

WEEI: I will wrap up with this. Given the centrality of what we’ve discussed about acquisition of top amateur talent, in terms of team building, obviously this is an exciting time for you guys with the Cubs, in terms of the group of prospects that you have coming up and graduating to the upper levels. That said, how attentive are you to what some of the guys who you did bring into the Red Sox system who have yet to really make it into the Major Leagues? Bogaerts, having just scrapped the surface of course, but for instance with that insane class, draft class of 2011, or at least potentially insane draft class of 2011 with the Barnes, Swihart, Owens, Bradley group along with Mookie Betts or the Garin Cecchini of the world and the Xander Bogaerts of the world. How has that group developed relative to what your expectations were for it and how much do you follow what that kind of group of people to whom you were once fairly closely connected, at one point, are doing?

TE: I follow them really closely, probably with like equal parts admiration, pride and jealousy …

[All laughs]

TE:  I am really proud of what we built. As far as GMs go, I think I was pretty hands-on with how we built our scouting department and went out and saw the players. It was just a great decade. That was probably the most fun I had working on the draft was at the beginning and bringing in Jason McLeod and when Jason left promoting Amiel who has done a phenomenal job. So, yeah I’m proud of those players, and that last draft. Look, there was enough that went wrong in 2011. I think in time, it would be a wonderful thing for everybody if, maybe we’ll reach that day when people think of 2011, they think of that draft class, my last draft with the Red Sox. That would be nice, because it would mean great things for the Red Sox and it would mean that those players went on to have great careers that would maybe wipe some of the memory of September 2011 away for everybody and for myself, as if that hasn’t happened enough already with a lot of those same players helping to win a championship in ’13. But, yeah it was a great decade in the draft there, a great last draft and those players are performing really well and we see them up at the top of prospect rankings. I definitely root for them. I covet them here with the Cubs at times …

[All laughs]

TE: … But I wish them well. I think the Red Sox are just really well positioned because Ben has done a phenomenal job with the clubhouse mix and with the talent that he’s brought in. It’s probably the deepest system in baseball on the way with plenty of impact talent. They should be good for a long, long time. I think of the 50 players on the World Series rosters, I think there were something like 35 or 38 homegrown players between the Red Sox and Cardinals. Those two franchises are going to continue to excel. That’s really our model with the Cubs. We’re starting from the bottom of the well but we’re digging our way up. That’s where we want to be. We want to have a team with young players, pre-prime and prime age players, mainly homegrown, not that we won’t use players in trades and bring in talent from the outside, not that we won’t complement them with free agent signings from time to time, but we want to get to a point where we feel great about the roster, great about our farm system, great about our salary structure, great about the five- and 10-year outlook, and then you can have off-seasons like the Cardinals and Red Sox have had where you just operate from a position of strength and you get to pick and choose what you want to do because you have depth and redundancy at a lot of positions and those players that you referenced are going to be a big part of making that a reality for the Red Sox. They have great scouts and great leadership so they should continue that dynamic for a long time.

WEEI: Theo, thank you for joining us, we really appreciate it. I know that we all expect good things from the Cubs this year and I look forward to following you this year.

TE: Alright, sounds good guys. See you soon.

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