From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with Theo Epstein (Part 1)

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

It’s safe to say when President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was brought into the Cubs organization in the fall of 2011, expectations were running a little high. A lot of pressure comes with being labeled the “boy genius of baseball” and capturing two World Series titles in Boston before the age of 34. In fact, a certain Chicago paper may or may not have run a picture of him walking on water in the past year.

But when Epstein signed on with the Cubs, he knew he and his team had significant work to do. He had no illusions about hefting the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2012 or shocking the baseball world with a lightning-quick turnaround. That’s not how Epstein did things in Boston, and it was even more unlikely in Chicago. The organization he inherited was trapped under the weight of big-money, long-term contracts with aging veterans and had a minor league system that was short on top-tier talent.

In Boston, he succeeded by developing waves of good, young players in the system and acquiring veteran free agents when the team was poised for a breakthrough. Since taking the reins, Epstein and his front office mates have significantly improved the lower levels of the Cubs minor league system by acquiring high-ceiling prospects like Albert Almora, Arodys Vizcaino and Jorge Soler. There has also been an influx of young standouts at the major league level with the rise of Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.

Though the Cubs struggled last year, people throughout the game see them as an organization on the upswing. At the winter meetings in early December, Epstein commented on how players were talking about Chicago as a desirable destination because of the solid clubhouse culture and dedication to building the organization the right way. You don’t often hear about players clamoring to join 101-loss teams.

For the January issue of Vine Line, we listened in on a conference call Epstein held with Cubs season-ticket holders to talk about the past year and where the team is headed in the near future. We’ll post some of the quotes here on the blog in the next few weeks. To read the entire interview, pick up the January issue or subscribe to Vine Line today.

Vine Line: How do you feel about the direction of the team after your first calendar year with the Cubs?

Theo Epstein: My first year was terrific. I really got to know a lot about the organization, and all the players and all the systems and all the personnel we have. I feel like while it was a tough year at the big league level, we made a lot of progress behind the scenes in establishing exactly what it is we’re trying to accomplish—getting people to buy in and make some changes that are going to provide us a really solid foundation going forward. So I’m going to continue to work really hard day and night until we get there. But one year in, I actually really do like the direction we’re headed.

VL: When you were hired last fall, you talked about establishing a Cubs way of playing baseball. Do you feel the organization has made strides toward that? 

TE: We did meet last winter and define what it is that we’re going to stand for, how we’re going to play the game, how we’re going to run the bases, what type of offensive approach we want. It exists on paper, but I think it takes a while to really take hold. You almost need a generation of players to come up through the minor league system, learning the game that way, before you can feel confident that it’s going to be represented day in and day out on the field. But I did see glimpses. I think Dale [Sveum] and his staff set a pretty high standard for how players were going to prepare, and how hard they were going to hustle.

VL: A lot of payroll came off the books last year. Will that help you put a more competitive squad on the field this season? 

TE: One thing to keep in mind, in previous years, the payroll had been artificially high, where there was sort of a habit of signing players like Carlos Peña and deferring a lot of the money into future years’ payrolls. Last year, for example, we were paying a lot of Carlos Peña’s money, even though he was playing for the Rays. And when [the Cubs] signed draft picks a lot of times, a good portion of that money was pushed off into future years’ budgets. Next year, we’re going to be paying for drafts from a year or so ago. So we’re really trying not to continue that practice. We’re trying to be very transparent about where we are, addressing our issues in the current year and planning for a better future. But there’s certainly going to be no shortage of investment in this team as we continue to try to build toward a foundation that’ll provide playoff teams year in and year out.

VL:  There was a strong emphasis on fundamentals starting in Spring Training, but there were an alarming number of mental mistakes this year. How do you address that going forward?

TE:  I think there are certain elements of fundamentals that we did do well. I thought we caught the ball extremely well in the outfield. I think we had great defensive positioning from the first game of the season to the last. But especially with the baserunning—it’s some absent-minded baserunning. That’s something we really need to improve. I think it just goes to show that simply emphasizing it isn’t enough. We have to continue to hammer it year in and year out so it becomes part of our culture, and continue to focus on players who have the right kind of instincts and the right kind of game awareness so those mistakes are very much the exception, not the rule.

VL: Does that make developing through your system doubly important because it allows you to teach the same philosophy from rookie ball all the way up to the big leagues?

TE: Absolutely. I think it also eliminates excuses. When you have a player who’s new to the organization and, let’s say, he makes the third out of the inning at third base or tries to steal third base with two outs, you can ask him what he was thinking, and he’ll always have an explanation. There’s not much you can do about it except say, “Don’t let it happen again.” When a player comes through the Cubs system, if he hasn’t figured that out by the time he’s out of rookie ball, then we’re doing something wrong.

We did spend a lot of time this winter codifying the Cubs way of playing the game, which addresses everything, including all the fundamentals defensively and baserunning, and our players are immersed in that in the minor leagues. Really, they should know it backward and forward by the time they get to Double-A. [When] they’re starting to approach the big league radar screen, they have no excuses.

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