Theo Epstein joined Barry Rozner Sunday morning on 670 The Score to talk about his team and the upcoming season.
Theo Epstein addressed the Kris Bryant question, expectations, Jon Lester and pace of play. Epstein reiterated that there is room in the budget to add to the roster during the season if it makes sense for the team.
Barry Rozner led off the interview by asking Theo Epstein if he knew all of his players were okay Sunday morning with the rash of injuries that’s hit other Chicago teams. Epstein said, “There is a 20 percent chance of rain today, so we might just go ahead and cancel practice all together so that everyone is safe.”
On the passing of Minnie Minoso and if he knew him
“I just admired him and his impact on the game and his legacy from afar then actually met him for the first time the day of Joe Maddon’s press conference. He came by to wish Joe well. I think those two have crossed paths before in the past and got to chat with him. Incredibly full of life and gracious, great guy. First black player in Chicago in the big leagues and what an impact on the game he had. It’s a shame he never made it to the Hall of Fame while he was alive but hopefully he gets in eventually. He’ll be missed, a great man.”
On his thoughts about Kris Bryant
Barry Rozner explained that he spoke with Bryant’s agent Scott Boras on Friday night about the financial and contractual implications of Bryant starting the year in the majors. Rozner thinks the Cubs should leave Bryant in the minors until June 1 when he is past Super Two status.
“Just evaluating him from a baseball standpoint, I’m kind of laughing at how big a story this has become. The reality is for a player with less than 300 plate appearances or 250 at bats, whatever it is at Triple-A, the norm, the norm is to get more seasoning. In Kris’ case he just changes people’s perception because he’s so mature, he’s so advanced. He handles things in stride. He comes across like a 30-year old veteran even though he’s only 23. I think that’s gotten people a little bit ahead of themselves. Look, Kris is in camp competing and he’s in camp trying to get better. When we talk about Kris Bryant we don’t talk about service time, not a single conversation. What we talk about is his evolution as a baseball player, his development, his strengths, his weaknesses and how much time we feel he still needs at Triple-A before he’s ready to come up and make an impact in the big leagues. You don’t get that time back if you call someone up prematurely and they struggle sometimes it turns out fine you can send them back and then they come back and no harm, no foul. Other times you can derail a player’s career, a lot depends on the circumstances, his make-up. So we’re just trying to get this one right, do the right thing for our big league club, do the right thing for Kris’ development and those are our decisions. Those are baseball decisions and that’s how we will make them.”
On the statements made by Tony Clark, the president of the MLBPA, in regards to the players association’s plan to monitor Kris Bryant’s service time and was he surprised Clark even commented about it?
“Um, yeah I was a little surprised. I haven’t talked directly to Tony [Clark] about it so I will withhold comment. But I didn’t know we needed Players Association permission to send a player to the minor leagues who is not even on the 40-man roster and has less than 300 plate appearances at Triple-A, that would be a new one to me. I don’t know, I didn’t hear the question directly or the response. It might have been out of context or taken Tony by surprise but certainly these are baseball decisions and baseball decisions are in the purvey of the club and we will continue to make them as such.”
On last July when he was the dumbest guy in America and by December he was a genius, how does he shut out the noise and is he completely immune to the criticism?
“Well, I just took that crash course on luminosity so it made me a lot smarter of about five or six months. [Laughs] No, I don’t know, I didn’t really think it was loud. I mean after being through the Red Sox thing for a decade and every loss was a one-game losing streak and you heard about it insistently, made a lot of bad moves in my time there, hopefully made more good ones, but you end up becoming immune to it, callus to it a little bit. You know the [Bill] Parcells’ line I think is, I forget if it was Parcells or Bobby Knight, but, ‘You listen to the people in the stands, you’ll be sitting with them pretty soon’ and that definitely applies. The whole plan was designed in such a manner is if we executed it we knew we were going to, we were going to have people scratching their heads along the way. Because we knew not a lot of people get excited during a period of young talent acquisition. They want to follow the big league team and they should and that’s their right. We knew we’d have to have thick skin through this whole period and we were just hopeful that if we were transparent along the way that maybe people who paid attention on a little bit deeper level would come along with us. We weren’t sure … we knew one variable we could control was how well we executed because you’re not going to hit on every first round pick. You’re not going to hit on every trade so when you acquire prospects they don’t all pan out. I’m proud of how well we’ve executed. I think we’ve executed, not perfectly, but at an extremely high level over the last three years and we’ve been transparent about it. I think that because of that as these players start to get closer to the big leagues people could see the picture coming together a little bit. For the most part I think I’ve been really pleased with how receptive and understanding and supportive our fan base has been.”
On when he first started thinking about Jon Lester and at what point did the Cubs think there was a realistic shot at signing him?
“You always pay attention to the elite players and future free agent classes and you know what year they are up, what year they have club options, what year they are totally free. But you kind of discount it in your head knowing the best ones are usually re-signed. You know, obviously it was pretty loud out of Boston the previous Spring Training when it got public sort of what the Red Sox initial offer was, the fact that the Lester camp wouldn’t talk to them. It was at that time that he moved, just obviously in our internal discussions, from a guy who was very unlikely to get to free agency to a guy who maybe had a shot at getting there. Through the course of the summer when he remained unsigned we started to do more work on it with our evaluations.”
On the expectations that have been placed on the season, are they almost too big or does he embrace the opportunity?
“The expectations definitely went from 0 to 60 pretty quickly at least from sort of a superficial stance just from the outside looking in with expectations. We didn’t get that gradual ramp-up process where you have a chance to maybe surprise some people and be better than expected or have people see the young players break in and realize ‘Hey, these guys might be good.’ The expectations are probably outsized for where we are in this transition. But I think to the extent that the expectations are that we compete and maybe win a division and do some damage in the playoffs and those are our own expectations, too. Once you decide that you’re going to compete you don’t say, ‘Oh, well we would like to scare second place. We’d like to compete into July and that will be a successful season.’ Once you decide you’re going to compete, you’re in it to win. So our own expectations are to go out and have a great season and win the division and win the World Series. In that way it lines up with outside expectations. I do feel our young players they are going to need the benefit of the doubt despite the expectations. It’s never been harder for young position players to break into the big leagues and succeed. If you look at the Top 100 Prospects last year only three position players out of that group had any shred of success at all. One was [Jose] Abreu, who was an established veteran, 25-26 years old coming over from Cuba. One was George Springer, who was 25 years old so he was already older than Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro at the time. And the other was Mookie Betts, who we drafted in Boston back in 2011 and who is kind of from another planet, he’s just so talented. Three guys had success the rest struggled including a couple of our guys. It speaks to the quality of pitching. It speaks to the quality of advanced reports. It speaks to the quality of bullpens. It speaks to the size of the strike zone. It’s just hard to hit right now. I think our fans don’t have to be patient with us, I think they should hold us accountable and their expectations align with ours, we want to compete and we want to win the division. But specifically to the individual players it’s important to remember Eric Hosmer, who they saw just about single-handedly get the Royals to the doorstep of a World Series last year, he struggled for two and a half years. Mike Moustakas, who was on fire in the playoffs, struggled for three, four years. Both of those guys were optioned. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Some guys do, but that’s the exception, so we’re in for the long haul. There’s going to be lots of ups and downs. They’re young players and our young players are so crucial to our immediate success that’s a big variable so our fans have to be patient with that.”
On if everything goes well and if St. Louis comes back to the pack a little bit, does he have any room in the budget to add players or upgrade positions this summer?
“Yeah, I think we will. I mean for two reasons. One is we didn’t quite spend every last dollar we had available, so there is a little bit of wiggle room just for the fact that we tried to plan ahead and leave some money in. If that happens and things are going really well there is a decent chance that we will outdraw our estimated attendance and things will be going well from a revenue standpoint and that should translate into a few more dollars as well. I think we have some room to do some things mid-season if it’s appropriate.”
On the new pace of play rules, what he thinks about them and is he concerned about the way the changes could impact the game?
“I personally don’t worry about the pace of play because it doesn’t bother me. I love the game the way it is. I love those nuances. But I am concerned about the future of the game. If you look at the demographics baseball is doing incredibly well in terms of raw attendance and in terms of revenue in the game and TV ratings, things of that nature. But we are not doing well with demographics in terms of attracting young fans and there is a pretty compelling case that the pace of play is a deterrent for our young fans. We can attract more young fans if we just move the game along a little bit quicker. MLB I think has made a pretty persuasive case so I’m all in for trying any area that doesn’t disrupt the natural flow of the game, that doesn’t affect the essence of the game that can help shave minutes of dead-time off. I’m also concerned with a lack of offense in the game. I think that deters young fans as well. It’s getting to the point of being historically low with no turnaround in sight. I’m supportive of rules that would address the lack of offense and pace of play such as requiring relievers to face at least two hitters, maybe even three hitters when they come into a game. Having lived through some four- and five-reliever innings, half innings last year, I don’t think that is exactly what the founders of the game had in mind. And we have less fans in the stands after those half innings than we did beforehand. I don’t see any reason why rules like that and shaving the dead-time out of the game wouldn’t benefit the game overall. We just have to really focus on the demographics because you don’t want to, 20 years from now we don’t want to wake up and realize that baseball is all of a sudden the fourth or fifth sport because we lost a whole generation of fans who had shorter attention spans.
On if he will have his players take fewer pitches to shorten the length of a game
“It’s not the amount of pitches thrown in a game; it’s really the sort of rate. The way MLB talks about it is sort of action per minute. So it’s the amount of balls in play per minute. It’s not taking pitches per say, it’s the dead-time, it’s between batters, between innings, stepping out, even though you just took ball one and you step out and redo your whole routine. Maybe there is a way to make that go a little quicker and step out if there are runners on base. If you’re a pitcher, take all the time you want with runners on base. But with nobody on, get the ball and deliver to homeplate. I think it’s just along the margins and you’d be surprised how quickly it adds up.”
Theo Epstein ended the interview by saying he was going to make sure the hyperbaric chamber was fired up.