Theo Epstein joined Jim Bowden and Craig Mish on SiriusXM’s Fantasy Baseball channel and talked about his team in great detail, along with a little Fantasy Baseball, Wednesday afternoon for close to 20 minutes.
Theo Epstein provided excellent insight on Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras. Epstein discussed the deal with the A’s for Addison Russell and what he sees from his shortstop moving forward. And he explained how the signing of Jason Heyward came together.
On putting together the plan to build the Cubs, did you ever imagine you would be able to execute it as precisely as you have?
“Um, well I appreciate that. We’ve certainly made our mistakes along the way as will happen in baseball. But we’ve been generally really, really happy with the way things have turned out. It starts with good people and then building good processes and then you never know how the outcomes are going to go. There’s the draft pick, the trade and signing or a team coming together and you just hope that with the right people and with the right processes more things go right than go wrong. We’ve had, like I said, a lot of talented people making good decisions and we’ve had our share of luck too. It’s helped us have things, more or less, probably go a little quicker than we imagined. We saw last year as a more of a transition year and really earmarked this year as the year when we started to be competitive at the highest level. So, I think some good scouting, good development and good fortune put us in a position for things to go well maybe a year early.”
On 2015 being a hugely successful year and coupling that with the off-season the Cubs had by adding Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and some other pieces, when did you actually know that signing Jason Heyward would come to fruition?
“Well as Jim [Bowden] knows there’s always a point in the negotiation where it transitions from offer-counteroffer back and forth and you start to get just a better vibe from the agent that maybe this thing’s close. You start going over smaller details like the contract language and other elements of the contract that maybe aren’t quite as significant and then you get a … the mood of the talks improves and you get a feel like it may really happen before they actually, technically say yes. Coming out of the meetings we had a couple of good calls the next morning. Jason [Heyward] slept on things and I just got feel that with all the offers that he had that he really wanted to end up as a Cub and had given that directive to his agent. We really wanted him so it was on us to find a way to make it work and we did. It was a great moment. It’s been a theme of our acquisitions this winter. Every player has really wanted to be here and has taken a little bit less money to make it happen. That says a lot about the culture that our players and Joe Maddon have created and the tone that our ownership has set. Certainly if you look back a year and a half, two, three, four years ago this was not a destination for any player mainly because we weren’t competitive but it was sort of the old clubhouse and it just wasn’t … we didn’t have enough things going for us. And now I think someone like Jason who got to see us play from across the field and got to experience the great atmosphere at Wrigley during the post-season, the fact that he wanted to be here and to be with players who are similarly aged forming a nucleus of a team we hope will thrive at the highest level for years to come that says a lot and meant a lot to us.”
On the young players on the roster, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber playing in the outfield with Jason Heyward along with Javier Baez also getting playing time in the outfield, what are your expectations of Soler, Schwarber and Baez this year?
“They are all at different points in their careers and they all have their own individual strengths and weaknesses so we will take them one at a time.”
“[Jorge] Soler, really interesting case in that coming over from Cuba he hadn’t played a ton of baseball. Hadn’t played the long season before and then his minor league development was interrupted a couple of times due to injuries. He still hasn’t had that season where he has to go out and play every day for a 150 games. I think there’s still untapped potential in there. All you have to do is really watch the post-season last year to understand what type of offensive force he can be. He’s got tremendous raw power, hits the ball as hard as anyone but he’s not just a slugger, a power hitter. He really can work an at-bat. He really can recognize pitches. He really can adjust his swing. You saw he reached base nine straight times in the post-season against the best pitching the league has to offer. It was a glimpse into what he can be when he reaches his potential. Continued development as a right fielder is important for him too. He has an extremely strong arm and continuing to work on his reads, it will be important. He did slim down a bit this winter, got a little bit more athletic, a little bit leaner in order to make himself a better right fielder. So, we are excited about that.”
“[Kyle] Schwarber, another really short development path. Easy guy to scout as a hitter in college. Probably one of the best college hitters that I’ve ever seen. We knew his bat would come quickly, maybe not as quickly as it did, but we knew it would come quickly. The issue for him was always going to be position and would we have the patience to allow him to develop as a catcher when the bat was so good and so Major League ready would he transition full-time to the outfield to get his bat in the lineup every day? We’ve ended up taking a hybrid approach with him where he’s come into camp he’s going to play a lot of left field but we’re not giving up behind the plate because he’s working extremely hard there and shows some signs of being able to develop, even if it’s at the big league level, which is a tough place to develop as a catcher. Just unbelievable makeup kid. A team first player who’s got special, special recognition skills in the box, special rhythm and sense of timing in the box, barrel to ball skills are incredible and tremendous power not just to the pull side but all over the ballpark. And really quickly established himself for a kid who was in college the year before he came up and all the sudden earns the respect of his veterans and is putting huge swings on the ball in the middle of playoff games on National TV. It was a testament to what this kid can handle not only physically and fundamentally but also mentally.”
“And then Javier Baez is somebody who has had a longer development path drafted out of high school. He had a year last year where he faced a lot of adversity. He lost his sister at the end of Spring Training, who he was very close to. He came back and started playing really well primarily at shortstop in Triple-A and was about to be promoted and ended up breaking his finger stealing second base and that set him back. So, by the time … he then came back from that and ended up accomplishing one of our development goals for him which was to really calm down in the batter’s box. Not try to hit every ball a mile and just be as instinctive and under control in the batter’s box as he is when he’s in the field and on the basepaths. He really accomplished that. I thought made some strides as a hitter last year at Triple-A. Came up, really helped us out playing a number of positions. Looked like Brooks Robinson when we put him at third base right away. And then low and behold when Addison Russell got hurt in the post-season, he became our starting … Javy became our starting shortstop in the playoffs and hit a huge game-changing, series-changing home run off John Lackey, opposite field three-run home run that really helped us win the series. And then backed that up by going to Winter Ball, embracing center field just to give him some more versatility and looked really instinctive and natural out in center field. He’s a very instinctive baseball player overall despite some of the wild swings you see him take from time to time. We think he’ll thrive getting his at bats all around the diamond. He’ll be our backup shortstop, our backup third baseman, our backup second baseman. He’ll be one of our backup outfielders. I think he’s going to see a lot of time this year.”
On growing up in a fantasy baseball-type era where baseball became a lot more about the numbers and analytics, did you play Fantasy Baseball?
“[Laughs] I did play a little bit of, back then we called it Rotisserie Baseball, in high school with my buddies. Was pretty good at it I thought anyway. And before that played, when I was a real young kid, played this computer game called MicroLeague Baseball. It had this General Manager function if you bought the special floppy disk. It allowed you to put teams together. I spent a ton of time on that actually, which is if you look back on it, it was kind of pretty good training, then got out of it. I’ve been in organized baseball since I was 18. That was my first year with the Orioles. So, once you get in organized ball you tend to stop playing fantasy baseball. But I picked up my Fantasy GM credentials as a football GM when I got to the Red Sox and we had the league there every year. As it turned out both years that we won The World Series in Boston were also years that I won the Front Office Fantasy Football title. So, trust me I was insufferable during those years just walking around the office picking at myself like Rickey Henderson, like I could do no wrong. But it didn’t hold true because I won the Cubs Front Office Fantasy League a couple of years ago and I thought that meant we were going to win it all, but it didn’t happen.”
On the Addison Russell deal with Oakland, Jim Bowden and Theo Epstein are good friends with Billy Beane. Bowden feels Epstein “pummeled” Beane when he acquired Addison Russell along with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane does not want or like losing a deal. When you talk to Billy do you even get a little embarrassed about the deal that was made?
“No. I don’t think it’s fair to say we pummeled him because at the time I give Billy credit for making the deal. At the time of the deal he knew that he was going to have [Jeff] Samardzija for a year and a half and [Jason] Hammel for half a season but that was what was important to him. He sensed, I think rightly, that they had a legitimate chance to win The World Series. Their starting pitching, he knew before anyone else knew that their starting pitching was starting to crumble. There were a couple of guys that were hurt. It wasn’t out yet, but there were a couple of guys who was reaching innings limits, a couple of guys who were not throwing the ball quite as well. He needed to go out and get starting pitching and here was an opportunity from one deal for him to get 40 percent of the starting rotation that he could just plug in and really increase their chances of winning the whole thing. Obviously a deal like that comes with at a cost, but there aren’t too many GMs that would make a deal in which you know going in that there is going to be seven years of Addison Russell on the other side and that you’re going to have to read about it and hear about it. But that was the only way for him to make that deal. The 40 percent of a starting rotation that he was buying was more important at the time. You have to understand where you are in the success cycle and so I give Billy a lot of credit for having the intestinal fortitude to make a deal like that which you don’t see … it’s not commonplace around the game these days. And for us it made sense because we were in a mode where we could trade 40 percent of our starting rotation and not worry about it because we were so far away from being competitive. It turned out that deal really marked the turning point for us. It was the last deal that we would make where we’d give away big league players in order for a better payoff in the future. Addison was, you know, a special talent. He’s not a guy that’s really hard to scout as long as he’s healthy and on the field. How quick his feet are and the way his hands work and the calmness in which he plays the game and the bat speed and the explosiveness in the batter’s box. Everyone has known he’s going to be a really good big league shortstop for a long time including Billy. So, it wasn’t like I snookered him from a scouting standpoint in the deal it was just matched up that way.”
On Addison Russell batting ninth this year, what kind of numbers do you think he puts up this season?
“Well I don’t know where he’s going to hit in the order but there’s a lot of untapped power in there. This is a kid with a lightning-quick bat who at 21 years old last year saw big league pitching for the first time and made really quick adjustments. I think power is going to be his sort of underappreciated aspect of his game. We don’t want him to focus on that. It’s going to be a byproduct of having good at bats and getting good pitches to hit. I’m not even going to give you a number because I don’t want that to be the headline and hang that on him and has to reach that. But we think he’s going to run into a lot more home runs over his career than he people think and be a pretty dynamic offensive player as well as what he can do defensively.”
On putting the General Manager’s disk from MicroLeague Baseball in the Commodore 64, Theo said he had an Apple IIc, and give one player in the organization this year for those that play Fantasy Baseball that you would recommend taking in a RotoDraft?
“So is it like a keeper league where it counts down the line? Or it’s got to be big league impact this year?”
Craig Mish: “I’m going to leave it completely up to you. Most people do play in keeper leagues in our format, but again a lot of people want to win this year Theo. So, it’s kind of like a 50-50 type deal. You make the call.”
Theo Epstein: “I’ll give you two guys who are close to the big leagues and play positions for us where down the line there should be openings for them in the big leagues. That’s Willson Contreras, a catcher from Venezuela, and Albert Almora Jr., our first pick back in 2012. Contreras put together an unbelievable all-around season in Double-A last year. We think he’s ready for Triple-A. Great blocker, really strong throwing arm, has a chance to be a force defensively. This kid is a really underrated athlete. Has power to all fields, is going to work the gaps, is going to be, I think, a really productive offensive catcher to go along with his throwing arm. Obviously catching development takes time and you need your opportunity. But the way offense is at that position I think he has a chance to be most importantly a real asset for us, but also an asset from a fantasy standpoint for your listeners down the line. Albert Almora Jr. is in an organization that right now doesn’t have, like a real traditional answer at center field. He’s someone we think is also Triple-A ready. Really came on strong the last two months of last season. He’s just starting to figure out his approach. Added a lot, the right kind of muscle this winter. I just saw him taking BP yesterday and was mishitting balls out of the ballpark and smoking balls all over the field. The ball is coming off his bat a little bit differently than it has in previous years. He’s a tremendous defensive player in the middle of the field. Great makeup, great contact ability which should allow him to survive against Major League pitching and probably fill up some categories for your listeners. He’s someone who is a big part of our future. He’s gotten a little bit overlooked with some of the other young outfielders that we have but we certainly haven’t forgotten or given up on Albert in the least.”