Theo Epstein spent time Tuesday with Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago. Epstein discussed a variety of subjects including Jeff Samardzija, the buzz surrounding the prospects in big league camp and Kris Bryant on the eve of the first full-squad workout of the spring.
Jesse Rogers: With Team President Theo Epstein on the eve of full squad workouts, does the message to the team ever change really from year to year? Work hard and good things will come about.
Theo Epstein: Well, that is definitely part of the message. But, yeah each year, depending on the circumstances there is a little bit of a customized message. It depends. Hopefully someday we are talking to them coming off a World Series and then you have to talk about not looking back at last year and looking forward. Each year presents its own unique set of circumstances.
JR: I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but for the first time in this new facility that we are standing next to, you are going to have in that locker room what WE think, fans and probably media alike and maybe you guys as well, at least from a position player-wise, sense, the names that will hopefully turn the corner for this team and maybe even break the longest championship drought ever.
TE: That was a little bit overly dramatic. No, I think we have some talent in the minor leagues, especially with our position players, a few guys who have a chance to be impact players. But that is the cycle of baseball. When your team is not doing too well at the big league level you end up picking higher in the draft and we are very focused on building our young talent base. So we should be talented. Nothing is guaranteed from any one prospect that is why they are called prospects. Yeah we are optimistic that a lot of those guys can break in over the next several seasons and hopefully establish themselves as winning players. But it doesn’t stop. You don’t stop building for the future just because you have a few guys and then there is the important step of integrating them onto the Major League roster and actually creating a winning team going forward is the most important thing. So yeah we feel good about some of the talented guys that are here in big league camp but that in and of itself doesn’t mean too much.
JR: Let’s take a step back, you’ve talked about the perception of this team and you’ve been very transparent about your plan yet there is always going to be some negative thoughts because you finished in last the last couple of years. So my question is the message. Do you think you’ve delivered the message the best you can? Do you think even the media has filtered it the right way?
TE: What are you talking about, message to the fans?
JR: Yeah. Yeah.
TE: Yeah, I think we’ve been pretty transparent. It is not always a comfortable thing to talk about because from the day you show up in Spring Training and you are around big league players and big league team all of the time the focus has to be on winning each day and we are contending until we are NOT. That is the most important thing but as far as taking a step back in the big picture it is pretty obvious what we’ve been up to. We haven’t tried to hide the ball. I think we’ve had to adjust a little bit along the way. Initially there were some hopes, I talked about duel fronts and parallel fronts and really trying to compete at the big league level while we built up for the future. We’ve had to adjust. Some things have not gone our way in different areas that have made our path more clear. So we have probably been more single-minded about building for the future even than we intended to be initially. But we are completely committed to it. And we believe given all of the circumstances this is definitely the right path. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror or look forward to coming to work if we were trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. So, we feel like we are doing this the right way. Trying to build the organization from the ground up obviously requires a lot of patience, but we’re united in this effort and we feel it is going to pay great dividends for our fans year in and year out and that’s why we are okay with it because we feel ultimately they are going to be happy for a really long time.
JR: What I find interesting is I think that it is almost ironic if you are forced to be more single-minded it also forces you to do that much better of a job for the future. What I am getting at, things like flipping Scott Feldman early in July instead of trying to squeeze out a few more wins out of him later in the month when you probably aren’t in the pennant race at that point. All of the things that you’ve done in July really are going to pay off for this team, I know you hope, in the future. But if you are trying to win a few more games you don’t do those things. Or if you are just trying to win a few more games.
TE: It is hard to serve two masters at the same time. You have to make a realistic assessment of where you are. It is easier when you let that play itself out and you can go into July and if you are in it, you very clearly go for it and then if you’re not you look at little bit to the future. But sometimes you have to make those assessments earlier in the year too and always just be honest about where you are as an organization.
JR: Isn’t that the difference between what you are trying to do and maybe some other clubs. You are not thinking .500, and I hear that from fans, ‘Hey, can they get to .500?’ I say that’s not the goal. If Scott Feldman can get you two arms that are going to be here maybe five to ten years, that’s the goal.
TE: It is not the most comfortable thing to talk about. As you said at the start of Spring Training, we’re trying to win. The way we can surprise some people and contend is by getting off to a good start. The way you get off to a good start is by being very prepared and having a good Spring Training. So that is where our focus IS and I think, obviously, every day you go to work and you make a realistic assessment of where you are as an organization. If something makes an awful lot of sense for the future you have to strongly consider it.
JR: I’ve got to ask you about Jeff Samardzija only because he’s part of the core of this group, I think you’ve said that before. And he admitted and it is obvious there is a gap in something here with the negotiations. If you lose Samardzija, whether it be to free agency or something else. Is it a step back for this building process?
TE: I’m not going to speculate about what happens if we lose Jeff Samardzija. He’s in our starting rotation and we look forward to him taking the ball every fifth day. I think our relationship with him is great. He is extremely competitive so that plays a role in negotiations. Sometimes there is just going to be a natural gap where a player values himself for what he can do and the team has to factor in a little bit more what he has done. It doesn’t mean we’re tremendously far apart. If you are apart then you just kind of table it for another day. We’ll see what happens but every day he is here helps this organization. He sets the right tone. He’s a leader of sorts off the field with his competitiveness. Obviously we will end up signing him or we will end up trading him or he will end up leaving as a free agent. One of those three outcomes is going to happen. We’ll just do what’s best for the organization.
JR: With him in particular, I’ve always said I really want to see him pitch in July, August, September for a contending team in a pennant race. He seems like that type of player that rises to the occasion. We’ve seen him in the big games. Opening Day, against the White Sox. Do you feel any player raises his game in a contending situation right?
TE: I think he’s got that ultra-competitive where I do think he kinda feeds on the adrenaline of the big spot and everything. At the same time it is also something, that if he had probably one thing to work on this year it is sort of maintaining his calm and composure when things start to escalate during the course of a game so he can just relax and execute a pitch instead of trying to overpower the hitter every time. It would be an awful lot of fun to see him starting game one of a post-season series for the Cubs.
JR: Last thing going back to the prospects and they do look good. I was at the Arizona Fall League and I just think Kris Bryant is a Major League hitter. I mean, maybe not today or tomorrow but very soon. Is it just simply it is better to be cautious? Nobody ever failed at having an extra half a year in the minor leagues.
TE: No. It is not about being cautious. It is about development. This is not the NFL. This is not the NBA where players go straight in. There is an entire process of development where players need to go from amateurs to professionals. Physically, mentally and fundamentally. And there is a whole check list of things they have to accomplish in the minor leagues. Days are gone where players jump right from college to the big leagues. There is an awful lot for these guys to learn. You look at Evan Longoria who is probably the best comp as far as career progression to this point for Bryant with what he accomplished in College and how he tore up the Fall League. He went to Double-A that next year. Spent the entire year at Double-A. It is an awful lot for these guys to learn. I would just urge you as you look at the situation and fans as they think about it. Think not in terms of timing, when is this guy going to be ready? But in terms of substance, like, what does this guy need to do to be ready? Because that is how we look at it. We don’t set a timetable for our players, but we do very clearly and in writing give them expectations of what they need to work on physically, mentally and fundamentally. And when those things get accomplished then they come up here.
JR: Thank you.
TE: Thank you.