Before Spring Training began it was obvious the top prospects in the system would be the focus in Cubs Camp and throughout the Cactus League games until they were reassigned or optioned down to minor league camp. And Kris Bryant’s mammoth home run Friday just added to the buzz.
Theo Epstein and Jeff Samardzija spent time Saturday morning discussing the young players in big league camp.
Jeff Samardzija likes what he has seen from Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. Samardzija said Saturday, “Even with all of the attention they’ve been getting, they’ve really kept their heads on straight. They’ve kept their mouths shut.”
Samardzija has noticed they really stick together and they are “a close knit group” plus they “kind of feed off each other.” Samardzija mentioned in interviews prior to the start of camp that he liked seeing Javier Baez and Jorge Soler at the complex working hard and preparing for Spring Training. Samardzija also pointed out they are “going to need each other” when they are called up to the majors.
Samardzija complemented Junior Lake for his work ethic as well and said he “set a great example” for players like Bryant, Baez, Soler and Albert Almora to look at. Lake prepared every day, according to Samardzija, and got to the field early and was never late.
Theo Epstein on The Game
Theo Epstein joined Connor McKnight and Todd Hollandsworth Saturday morning for the inaugural ‘The Ballyard Show’ on 87.7 The Game. After discussing the weather in Chicago and the rain in Arizona, the conversation shifted to Spring Training and Rick Renteria.
Theo Epstein talked about the flow of Spring Training and how Rick Renteria and his staff are doing are so far in camp. Renteria is very thorough and meets with his staff three times a day. Renteria and the coaches have a morning meeting each day, then they meet with the team each day before practice and then meet again after the workouts or the game to go over everything that happened during the day. Epstein also said that he or Jed Hoyer will meet with Renteria each day, informally, to make sure everything is okay and to see if there are any issues they need to address. Epstein and/or Hoyer also discuss with Renteria the plans for the days ahead and how each player is being used or should be used so the manager and the front office can stay on the same page.
The veterans in the clubhouse are on the same page with Renteria and the coaching staff. Epstein explained how important the relationship between the manager and coaching staff is with veteran players. Even with such a small group of veterans, as Epstein put it, Renteria cannot lose them because the young players will see that and act accordingly. The veterans have to be role models and show the young players how it is done in the majors.
On Starlin Castro and the message that has been delivered to him to try to get him back on track
The communication from the front office to Starlin Castro to “be himself” began around June of last year. It became apparent to Epstein and Hoyer that he was being pulled in several directions and not receiving a constant message. The Cubs would like him to go back to playing the way that he did when he was successful. Epstein explained that it is hard to get a player to change direction in the middle of a season.
“It is hard during the season sometimes to make those adjustments,” Epstein said. “Even with a day off or two days off at the All-Star break, there is nothing like an off-season to reset. So, I think the message for him coming into this season has been the same. Which is be yourself. We support you. We have your back. Yet continue to work on your game.”
Castro has been open to making some adjustments to get back to some of the mechanical things he has not done recently that made him successful initially.
“Sometimes it’s just as easy, just as simple as giving the player the peace of mind that he knows he is fully supported by the organization. People around him believe in him and just go out and play his game,” Epstein said. “He really earned that by putting in some hard work this winter. He showed up in much better shape this year. Our strength and conditioning coach, Tim Buss, was down in the Dominican for over a month with Starlin and the results have been good so far. It’s a limited sample so far, but his swing is free and easy and he’s aggressive looking for his pitch.”
Epstein added Castro’s unique ability to barrel the ball has come back for him.
On Jeff Samardzija, his future with the Cubs and the ongoing trade rumors
Theo Epstein said the Cubs and Jeff Samardzija “have a great relationship” and they had a “good honest talk at the start of camp.” Every talk Epstein has with Samardzija is about baseball. Whether it is about how to get the team off to a good start this season or getting him locked in.
Epstein said the “trade narrative right now is just through the media.” Epstein knows that is the media’s job. There will be a resolution to Samardzija’s future with the Cubs in the next two years. “There is nothing pressing. There is no trade talks going on right now, Epstein said. “It’s really all about baseball.” Epstein explained that it’s a daily narrative that is being brought in from outside of camp that “is not really going on right now.”
On Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards and what the organization expects from the prospects during Spring Training
“The organization looks for several things from a young prospect in his first time in big league camp,” Epstein said. “The first is the simplest, just to get him exposure to the big league staff, to veteran big league players so they can get comfortable and get familiar with what it is like to go through the daily routine at the big league level. It is not the season so they don’t get to experience the grind. But the more they are around the veteran players and pick their brains. The more they play games with the Major League speed of the game they can adjust to it. It’s really just get comfortable so the next time they are in big league camp or three years down the road when they are in big league camp and they’re actually trying to make the team, or they are carrying the responsibility of holding down a regular position for the club, they are a little more comfortable.”
The second thing is getting the players ready for the season. It is Spring Training and “there are certain fundamental areas” that need to be addressed. The minor league players, even if they are in big league camp have to work on the areas in their development plan.
The Cubs are really working with Kris Bryant on his defense. The team wants Bryant to stay low so the routine groundball doesn’t get through him. Epstein said Bryant is “outstanding” to his backhand, a little bit better than he is to his left. The team is working on improving his first step quickness.
The Cubs feel adding some “bulk” to C.J. Edwards is important but if he isn’t able to that doesn’t mean he will not have a successful big league career.
“It is not as if he cannot have a career as a starting pitcher if he does not get bigger,” Epstein said. “There are always exceptions to every rule. I think we just feel like the more bulk, the more muscle mass we can put on him, the greater the chances of maintaining durability and being a 200-inning pitcher instead of a 180-inning pitcher. Having a 15-year career, instead of a 10-year career.”
Edwards has one of those unbelievable metabolisms, according to Epstein, that allows him to burn whatever he eats. But that could change for Edwards as he reaches his mid-20s.
Epstein explained that Edwards “is naturally gifted with an explosive fastball” that has late cutting action. “When it is up in the zone,” Epstein said. “It beats barrels with some riding life. When it’s down, it’s a groundball pitch. It is just one of those fastballs that is really hard to square up.” And both his curveball and change-up are really developing.
Theo Epstein feels that what will truly make the Cubs successful is their ability to acquire and develop young talent, and develop it the right way then “integrate that talent onto the Major League roster.”
The unanswered questions on how the front office is going to make the big league team more competitive keeps them up at night. Epstein said once again that just having impact talent in the minors and hoping they arrive at the same time “is not really a plan in and of itself.”
“You really need to provide the proper environment for them at the big level. You need to provide the proper cover for them at the big level,” Epstein said. “That is something you are going to see over the next few years because there have been plenty of organizations that have had more than seven of the top 100 prospects and they look up and it hasn’t translated into success at the big league level. So, the problem is not solved by just generating talent in your organization. You have to translate that into wins at the big league level.”
Theo Epstein and the Baseball Operations Department plan on addressing the area as the focus shifts and they receive “increased payroll capacity.”