Theo Epstein covered a lot of topics during his end of season press conference. As has been the case for the last four years, Epstein was transparent when talking about his team, the season that was and the plans for the off-season and immediate future.
“We need to be deep. We need to be redundant. We need to get better but I love the foundation that we are working with.”
“Finding a way to win 90-plus games year in and year out and get to October as often as you can is still the tried and true best way to win a World Series,” Epstein said. “This post-season showed that for us. It just emphasized why it is so important to get there year after year.”
There are so many uncontrollable variables in the post-season that is why it is important to play in October as often as possible.
“You want to get there as often as you possibly can. The way we are going to win the World Series is just by getting to October again and again and again, hopefully just again and winning it next year. We want to get there as often as possible.”
The Cubs fell short of their ultimate goal and winning the ultimate prize.
“Nothing is promised in this game. Nothing is promised in life. Teams that think they have these sure fire five-year windows have often seen them slammed shut in front of them through bad luck or bad performance or bad decision making,” Epstein said. “We don’t take anything for granted. We have to work our tails off to get back to the position where we have another shot at October. We are looking really forward to that.”
Theo Epstein started his end of season gathering with prepared comments before spending the better part of the next hour answering questions about a team that he said he could talk about all day.
“First, I want to congratulate the Mets whole organization, the players, Sandy Alderson in particular. They did a great job, unbelievable playoff performance, certainly earned it and very deserving to represent the National League in the World Series where we wish them the best of luck.”
“Secondly, I want to thank our fans just for the incredible support they provided all season long. That tip of the cap from our team last night was genuine, it was heartfelt and it was well-deserved on behalf of the fans. They were incredibly patient with us for three years during the rebuild and stuck with us and then when it was time to fall in love with the team and show up and get loud second half of the season and through the playoffs they did that incredibly well. Helped us get through the Cardinals series, games three and four with their support. Fans mean the world to us. Really, really incredible connection I thought with this year’s team and the fan base. Look forward to that continuing for years to come.”
“Last, I want to thank and congratulate our players, our manager Joe Maddon, our coaching staff, support staff, the behind the scenes guys in scouting, player development and the front office on what I thought was a magical year in a lot of ways. Could not be more proud of this group. We had a toast last night after the series concluded and I just thanked them for the journey that they took us on. If you think back to where we were on Opening Day. Many members of this team were in the minor leagues in Double-A and Triple-A. If you looked out in the bleachers we had plywood covering all of the stands out there. We lost to the Cardinals on a cold and dreary night. Then you fast forward seven months later and look where we were with a young, dynamic, magical team at the Major League level. The bleachers filled with fans going crazy in support of the team and beating the Cardinals in a playoff series. It’s just amazing how far the organization came this year. And again, I could not be more proud of everybody. Everyone I’ve listed, players, manager, coaching staff, front office support staff, ownership, business side all cogs in the wheel that made this season possible. Obviously it’s difficult to reconcile the disappointment of the NLCS with the dream of a season that we had up to that point, but that’s baseball and that’s life. I think that as time fades the memories that will hold closest will be the memories of all the accomplishments: the 97 wins, the 13 walk-offs, the Wild Card Game, the Cardinals series. And maybe the memory that will force to the forefront of our mind this winter to make us even hungrier and keep us motivated will be the memory of the NLCS and how it ended and that will help us comeback even stronger in pursuit of our ultimate goal. Incredible experience for all of our young players. Incredible learning occurred all season long and during the post-season. I know I speak on behalf of our players, our ownership, our front office, our whole organization when I say we can’t get to Opening Day fast enough and chance to go back and finished what we started.”
The Cubs will continue to put a priority on player versatility, having interchangeable parts and redundancy in the position player group. Epstein thinks it is one of the strengths of the organization. The Cubs have a lot of impact depth with the position players and those players can play multiple positions. Player versatility allows the team to withstand injury or underperformance for one or two players.
Theo Epstein views it as a strength and something the Cubs would like to preserve.
Cubs 2016 Budget
Theo Epstein does not know the final budget for the 2016 season. Epstein pointed out the Cubs just finished playing the night before and has not had a chance to sit down and talk about it.
The way the big league team played and the run they went on helps the bottom line. In the short-term the Cubs will receive a bump in revenues from the run in the playoffs and in the increased interest in the team in the second half.
Epstein thinks the renewed interest in the team will help future revenues and with the future TV deal.
“I think there is a lot of interest in seeing this team play at Wrigley Field or on TV,” Epstein said. “That can only help with the TV deal down the line.”
“We just don’t know what those numbers are yet. We hope to get a better idea as we all sit down together as an organization. Obviously the 2016 payroll is not going to be as big as the 2020 payroll as we look at it because of the TV deal and everything else.”
“But what the team accomplished this year should help and I know that we all have an aggressive mindset and we are even hungrier now after getting close but not all the way there,” Epstein said. “So whether it’s Tom [Ricketts] or the business side guys or us in the baseball front office, we want to do everything that we can to improve the club. We just have to sit down and look at what the numbers are, be strategic about it because we are going to have more resources looking forward a few years than we necessarily have right now.”
The Front Office
Theo Epstein is really proud of the front office and the job the entire group has done to get the organization to this point. Epstein talked about the sacrifices and long hours put in by front office personnel.
“It is really meaningful to be able to celebrate a playoff series win with those guys. And they are getting recognized across the industry, deservingly, and I think it’s a sign of a healthy organization when other organizations come along and are willing to promote and hire some of your guys. And when that happens we will embrace it.”
“We wish them well. We are proud of them,” Epstein said. “And if we’ve done our job we have another wave behind them of front office guys, scouts, development guys who have learned on the job and are ready to be promoted and can step in and continue further The Cubs Way on the field and in the front office.”
Epstein thinks the Cubs have some depth in the front office with guys that are ready to step in.
Team chemistry was a really important component to the success of the 2015 Cubs and it is not something Epstein takes for granted.
“The organization as a whole from ownership to the business side to the front office to Joe and his coaching staff, all 25 players, even the guys who were not on the roster that came up from the minor leagues, all the way down to the minor league system, it was the most connected, selfless, team-first organization that I’ve seen in a long time.”
“No one was trying to grab any credit or reflect any blame,” Epstein said. “We all supported one another and I think in the end the whole was greater than the sum of the parts because of that. And that’s magical and to be coveted and appreciated. The problem is you can’t bottle it. So even if you don’t change personnel the nature of the mix changes year to year because guys are in different places in their careers.”
Epstein feels the bonds that were created this season will continue moving forward. And the core group will not change. Epstein thinks the chemistry of the core group of players will only be enhanced over time.
“We will be mindful of not screwing it up,” Epstein said. “And trying to add to it as things change. You can’t try to stay in one place forever with your chemistry. It does evolve. You just have to try to manicure it as best you can.”
Epstein thinks the Cubs have a head start at the Major League level with the culture that Maddon and his coaching staff have established in the clubhouse.
The Cubs have an excellent group of players that are not selfish or me-first-type players. Epstein pointed out they care about being Cubs and care about each other.
“Our veteran players embraced the younger players, the rookies as they came up to allow them to be comfortable. The rookies earned that kind of embrace because they put the organization first,” Epstein said. “They understood they were here just to help win. Not to just break in or serve their own interests. That stuff really matters and we are mindful of that and looking forward to having that mix, that type of connected core for years to come.”
Theo Epstein’s Contract and Future with the Cubs
Epstein answered questions about his contract and the status of a possible extension.
“Honestly, that’s the first time I’ve thought about it since the last time you guys asked me about it. Anyone’s individual concerns are not nearly as important as the organization as a whole, the team on the field and what we are trying to do.”
“That is not anywhere near the top of the list of priorities this winter,” Epstein said. “I’m sure this winter, at some point, we will sit down and talk. Talk just not about me but about a lot of the guys in the front office who contribute behind the scenes about making sure this group can stay together for a while and finish what we’ve started. But it’s not something that is top of mind.”
Four Rookies in the Lineup
It is very rare to see a team have success at the big league level with at least four rookies in the everyday lineup. Epstein did not have the exact numbers Thursday. Epstein thinks historically the Cubs are one of the few teams to get as far as they did this year receiving contributions from key players that were 23 years old or younger.
“It almost reached a point where we took it for granted. Oh, here is another playoff game and there are another two homers by rookies,” Epstein said. “Game-changing home runs by rookies. Let’s go on to the next game. And that stuff just doesn’t happen. It’s really amazing the contributions we had from rookies and from players 23 and under and even counting [Anthony] Rizzo and [Starlin] Castro from 25-, 26- and under. I don’t know that we will see that again for a really long time.”
The rookies came in prepared, not in awe and asked what they could do to help the team win. The attitudes of the younger players and rookies helped them and allowed veterans like David Ross, Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jason Motte to embrace them “and show them the right way.”
It is important to recognize what Joe Maddon and his coaching staff did to create an environment that allowed the young players to relax, be themselves and thrive.
Learning Experience for the Players
Epstein called the playoff run an invaluable experience for the players. The Cubs talked about it a lot going into the Wild Card Game against the Pirates that the team wanted to win the game so badly for all of the obvious reasons because it was the gateway to the rest of the post-season. And the Cubs really wanted the fans to be able to experience playoff baseball at Wrigley.
“We also wanted another series or two or three for our young players to experience because it’s an incredible time of growth for them and learning for them that you just can’t replicate with anything else.”
The players were able to see and experience firsthand that they have to raise their game to a different level in the post-season. The Cubs were able to see the type of pitching they will face in the playoffs and how much different it is and the adjustments that must be made quicker than in the regular season.
“Kris Bryant, in the Mets series, guy doesn’t have many weaknesses but they attacked him a lot with right-on-right changeups. The numbers show that maybe he hasn’t adjusted to this pitch and they got him out a few times with it. He made a great adjustment and by his last at bat of the 2015 season he took a right-on-right changeup and hit it 410 feet for a home run. That’s an incredible learning experience for him going into next year.”
The Cubs would have liked for the players to make adjustments earlier in the NLCS, but as Epstein pointed out it doesn’t always happen that way.
The Cubs will be picking at the bottom of the first round and that is where teams want to pick according to Epstein. “You want to pick 30th if you can.”
The pick at the bottom of the first round is not nearly as valuable as toward the top of the draft like the 11th or 12th pick in the country. Epstein was quick to point out that if they lose their first round draft pick by signing a free agent that those picks can be recovered.
If teams sign a free agent who requires a qualifying offer to a one-year deal and he “makes a really significant contribution you get that pick back when he leaves as a free agent.”
With where the Cubs are as an organization and where they would like to stay, the draft is just as important has it always has been but protecting the first round pick isn’t quite as big a factor moving forward.
Theo Epstein thinks the Cubs can improve on the amount of strikeouts with coaching and to some degree with just natural maturation, especially with players “that experienced a spike in their strikeout rate in the big leagues versus what their track record demonstrated in the minor leagues.” With experience in the majors, players have a tendency to revert back to what they were at the minor league level.
“We have a number of hitters that will strikeout a lot as a natural byproduct of their approach at the plate and trying to cut out the strikeouts might be cutting off your hand to spite your face because it will take away from the things they do really well as hitters.”
“We are going to have to live with some strikeouts,” Epstein said. “That is why it is so important for us to improve on the margins where we can again with maturation with some emphasis and also being mindful of our acquisitions. It probably doesn’t make sense, a lot of sense for us to go out right now and add a boom or bust, high-strikeout, high-power right-handed hitter to our mix right now. It would probably make more sense to go the other way and find a player who has a lot of his value wrapped up in being able to put the ball in play on a consistent basis, being able to get on base in front of the middle of our lineup. If we do make moves with our position players you want to see someone who can really compliment the group that we already have in place.”
A better contact rate does help in the post-season. Epstein cautioned about taking too much out of a performance in the post-season. The narrative can be rather dangerous. Everyone has a tendency to overact from what is seen in the post-season, Epstein admitted he has.
The way Starlin Castro dealt with so much adversity this season showed how much he loves being part of the organization. Castro embraced the move to second base and worked hard to bounce back from this low point in his career. Castro became an important contributor to the team down the stretch and in the post-season.
“Of all the players we can be proud of this season, and there are many, he might be the one most deserving of that pride because of everything he went through off the field and how easy it would have been for him to quit or to put his own interest in front of the interest of the team,” Epstein said. “He really rose above that on a personal level and on a professional level and set a wonderful tone that I know his teammates and his front office really appreciated.”
The Cubs look forward to great things from Starlin Castro in years to come.
The National League
The Cubs realize how tough the National League is and especially the NL Central. Epstein pointed out there are many great teams, not good, but great teams in the National League. And other teams that have a chance to be great. The Cardinals are not going anywhere or going away. They have been good for 100 years, won 100 games and have a good young core.
The Pirates have had three outstanding seasons and the blocks in place to be good for a really long time. The Giants are three-time World Series Champions and Epstein is sure they will add a number of key pieces this winter. The Dodgers are talented and extremely rich. The Nationals window is still open. And if the Mets can keep their rotation healthy and the way it is performing now they “will be as dangerous as they can be for a long time.”
“It’s an incredibly competitive landscape in the National League and that motivates us,” Epstein said.
In order to compete with teams in the National League and in the division the Cubs have to “put themselves into a position to be great.” Epstein talked about the importance of putting themselves in a position to win the division each year in order to avoid the Wild Card Game.
“We need to raise the bar as far as the type of team we want to build and the path to being a great club, not just a good club.”
Kyle Hendricks has a chance to get better. Epstein explained that Hendricks spent more time this year “searching and adjusting” than he or the Cubs anticipated. The expectations might have not been fair because it was his first full year in the big leagues. Epstein gave him credit for not giving up and “for continuing to find a way while going through adversity at the big league level.”
Theo Epstein thought with all things considered that Hendricks had a pretty good season.
Reports have already been posted about Joe Maddon and the coaching staff, the status of the pitching in the organization and on the Cubs focus to add at least one quality starting pitcher this off-season. Additional reports with information on Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler, free agents, salary arbitration, Miguel Montero and Jake Arrieta will be posted throughout the weekend.