Theo Epstein joined David Kaplan (Kap & Co.) on ESPN 1000 before the finale of the Brewers series as Jake Arrieta was set to follow up his no-hitter. Epstein talked to Kaplan about Arrieta and the accusations being made about him by the uninformed media.
Theo Epstein also discussed the way the Cubs have played out of the gate, the decision not to call-up Willson Contreras, the importance of having a deep roster and Kyle Schwarber.
Three years to the day Arrieta threw his second no-hitter against the Reds, the Orioles optioned him to Triple-A. On when the Cubs scouted Jake Arrieta and then traded for him, you couldn’t have envisioned this. Did you see the tremendous upside or were the Cubs just adding arms?
“No. We did not envision him having the historic run that he’s had and become arguably the best pitcher in baseball. But he clearly had top of the rotation potential. His stuff was elite. It was just really raw and he couldn’t command it. He was going through some pretty severe mechanical issues trying to get online to the plate and getting away from some things he naturally does that makes him good. I think every scouting report on Jake from the time he was on the field at TCU to the time we traded for him probably referenced that if this guy can put it all together he could be potential top of the rotation type guy. Our scouts did a good job recognizing that and it made sense from the analytics standpoint he was someone that we identified well before the trade. Then when [Scott] Feldman got off to the good start to the season and Baltimore was looking heavily for starting pitching it was a natural match.”
On the Jake Arrieta steroid accusations, what is your take on this whole thing from your seat as President of the team?
“Actually, I saw the clip of essentially an accusation on ESPN, on the morning show. I found it to be completely reckless. It’s someone who has never met Jake. As far as I know he’s never been in our clubhouse. I don’t know if he’s ever watched him pitch. Would make that type of accusation without talking to anyone who knows Jake and anyone who understands his work ethic and the changes that he’s made. And this is not someone who used to throw 88 mph and all of a sudden is throwing 95. Jake’s stuff is essentially exactly the same as it was when he was in Baltimore and struggling. He’s just tweaked his delivery, added a lot of deception and added a lot of life because of the delivery changes, and now he can command the baseball which he couldn’t do previously. This TV personality started to question Jake’s endurance which is directly tied to Jake’s workout regime which is the most aggressive in baseball. Jake works harder than anyone else in baseball. That’s a fact. And everyone who is around Jake and everyone who knows Jake understands that. Maybe he should come try to do Jake’s workout routine for a week before he questions his integrity, questions his livelihood essentially. I just found it to be completely reckless and an unfortunate reflection of certain elements of the media age in we live in where it’s more important to attract attention and attract ratings than it is to be intellectually honest. I thought it was ridiculous.”
On if he goes to Jake Arrieta when he hears stuff being said from others like Stephen A. Smith, do you tell him you will handle it? Or don’t even bother with it because it’s just so foolish?
“On the day he’s pitching, he was supposed to pitch yesterday. He’s pitching today. We traditionally leave him alone when he’s pitching. He handled himself the way he always does as a real professional and standup guy. Jake was aggressive in dealing with it head-on via Twitter and via interviews and the way anyone would is that’s basically falsely accused. He handled himself well, but yeah it’s my job. That’s why I just said what I said and it’s Joe’s [Joe Maddon] job, it’s everyone in the organization’s job, everyone who knows Jake’s job to defend him because all you have to do is spend one day around Jake Arrieta to know why he is good and you know he would be the last person in the world to ever do something like this personality accused him of.”
On the Cubs getting off to a good start to the season, has anything surprised you? Or is this pretty much how you thought the Cubs would play?
“We’ve been really focused, locked in and our offensive approach has shown up just about every night. Our starting pitching has been really, really consistent. Our bullpen has been locked in. Our defense has been good. Our baserunning has been good. It’s really just that we’ve been … our players have been able to apply intense focus on that night’s game day after day after day and put their best foot forward that consistently. That’s surprising. You normally don’t come out of the gate like that. It’s something you tend to grow toward over the course of the season. You saw last year we really found it toward the end of July and then we were locked in all through August. But to come out of the gates like that I think it shows the type of guys that we have and their awareness of the opportunity that we have. I know there was a storyline in Spring Training that, were we sort of complacent? Were we too fat and happy because on paper we looked good? We weren’t worried about it because our players are so … such professionals, such gamers and so appreciative of the opportunity to go out and earn something and to do something special. They translated that into this hyper-focus on each night’s game. I recognized on Opening Day, we played such a great game on Opening Night in Anaheim and then the vibe in the clubhouse afterwards was, ‘Hey, that was really fun. Look what we can do when we’re focused. Look how we can grind the opposing starting pitcher. Let’s get some sleep, show up tomorrow, let’s do this 162 times.’ That was the vibe. That I think has been the mood around the club and how they operate. It’s not going to happen all the time. It’s baseball. We are going to lose 60 games no matter what happens. But they are showing up every single day ready to play and ready to win. It’s impressive.”
On placing Miguel Montero on the disabled list and not bringing up Willson Contreras, what was the thought process behind that decision?
“Just player development. We want our guys to have as close to a full year as they possibly can in Triple-A before they come up, especially at the catcher position. There are so many nuances that you have to learn. Relationships with the pitchers, pitch calling, keeping a slow heartbeat as things speed up in the course of a game. Willson Contreras is talented enough to come up here and I think thrive in Major League Baseball and help us win. He’s just not all the way ready yet and our plan going into the season was for Willson to develop at Triple-A and towards the end of the year if things went really well. Maybe at some point in the second half of the season if there is a need he will be ready to help us. We signed Tim Federowicz as a minor league free agent. We felt fortunate to do so. We did it with the purpose in mind if a need happened, a shorter-term need in the first half of the season then he would come up because he’s a perfect guy to make a seamless transition and step up in Miggy’s [Miguel Montero] absence. He understands how to run a Major League game. He can translate a scouting report right into a game. He knows National League hitters from his time starting in the Dodgers and the Padres. He’ll fit right in. Willson Contreras is going to be a special player. He’s having a phenomenal year. There are folks pounding the table for him right now, but this is the best long-term move. If you rush somebody you never get a chance to break them in the right way again. He’s benefited from every day he’s at the Triple-A level doing a great job.”
On if Kyle Schwarber was healthy, would he be catching more or would he still be spending most of his time in the outfield?
“I’m sure he would have caught more games during the 15-day DL stint that Miggy. Yeah, he was doing a real nice job behind the plate.”
On if there will be trades later in the season to replace Kyle Schwarber, do you look at things in a different prism? Or no, we will just determine later in the year what we think our need is?
“We’re not looking at anything differently now. Obviously our pool of players is different now because of the injuries. It might effect when we get to that time of year when we are going to do things when we see the pool of available players it might affect how we look at things a little differently. Nothing right now is going to change our long-term focus or anything like that. Obviously it changes the depth situation in the outfield. It changes our left-right balance a little bit. It changes the third catcher dynamic. And depth wise it just affects how many impact bats we have on the roster. It will affect it, but not right now it’s premature.”
On the importance and benefits of creating depth instead of trying to create a super-team, after the Kyle Schwarber injury the Cubs probably have the depth to absorb the loss especially after re-signing Dexter Fowler
“Depth is everything in modern baseball. You look at the grind of the schedule. 162 games in 183 days and players just don’t hold up to a whole year anymore. At some point they are going to get hurt, spend their time on the DL or their performance is going to waiver due to fatigue and endurance issues. It’s really, really tough to grind through an entire season at the peak of your game. The best teams are the deepest teams, there’s no way around it especially when you have your eyes set on a World Series and you’re working backwards of what can go wrong. You need to create redundancy. You need to create quality depth. Every roster spot on a 25-man roster, every spot on a 40-man roster, every decision you make as an organization there’s an opportunity to properly prepare yourself for the grind of a season. I hate it at the end of the year when teams fall short and they sit up there and talk about injuries. Well, injuries aren’t a variable. Injuries are constant. You just don’t know exactly who and you don’t know for how long and you don’t know what. It’s horrible what happened to Kyle Schwarber. It still makes me sick thinking about it. But if we had put ourselves in a situation where that alone was going to sink our season then we wouldn’t have done our jobs. We are a different team without him. We are never going to be the same this year without him but I think we have the pieces in place to withstand it, be a little bit different, but still be good in other ways.”
On the possibility of Kyle Schwarber returning for the playoffs, he’s out for the season and playoffs isn’t he?
“Yeah. Multiple ligaments that needed repair which puts him out for the entire season including the playoffs.”