From the Pages of Vine Line: Part 2 of our Q&A with Theo Epstein

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

For the January issue of Vine Line, we talked to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein about the state of the organization. In part one of the interview, Epstein talked about his first year with the team and instituting the Cubs Way throughout the system. In part two, we cover the need for veteran leadership and the Cubs’ desire to add pitching at all levels. We’ll post part three on the blog next week. To read the entire interview, pick up the January issue or subscribe to Vine Line today.

Vine Line:  What’s your philosophy on the ideal mix of star players and role players on a team?

Theo Epstein: There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next. One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time. Those teams that have a bunch of players going from 23 and 24 years old, when they’re first breaking into the big leagues, to 26 and 27, 27 being the start of a player’s prime in baseball, those teams get better in a hurry.

At some point in the future, if we have a bunch of those players who are entering their prime and improving together and we supplement that with some impact signings from outside the organization, we could really see a lot of improvement in a hurry.

VL:  After losing so many veterans at the trade deadline last season, who will fill the leadership void this year?

TE: We felt like we did get in a position where we traded some solid veteran leaders last year, but we also had some remaining. Alfonso Soriano doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but he sets a tremendous example with his work ethic and his preparation. David DeJesus, as an example, is another great leader. He took Anthony Rizzo under his wing and gave him his daily workout routine and pregame prep. The two of them started working out together and getting ready for games together. That gave Anthony the confidence that he was going to be ready every game. Now he relies on that routine as part of his own mental preparation to be able to play at a high level.

So I do think we have some veterans remaining, but that’s certainly something we take into consideration as we put the team together. We don’t want to have a team that’s young and without the proper kind of veteran guidance in the clubhouse to help them adjust and become true pros and good teammates.

VL: It seems like the system is in a much better position in the infield and outfield, but is still lacking the pitching to compete consistently.

TE: To be blunt, I think you’re right. We simply don’t have enough talent yet. We have some really interesting arms down low—we have some guys who are going to be big leaguers—but we really need to focus on acquiring impact young pitching. No matter what we do with our position player corps, we’re not going to go anywhere unless we have the arms to match. So we made it a priority in just about every deal we made to get at least one arm back. After we took Albert Almora in the draft with our first pick, I think we took eight consecutive pitchers. And we’re going to continue to hammer away at acquiring young pitching. You have to do a lot of it through volume because of the amount of attrition involved in young pitching.

VL: What about the bullpen? James Russell really grabbed that Sean Marshall spot, and Carlos Marmol not only got his old stuff back but seems to have found his fastball. Were you happy with what you saw?

TE:  Overall, I wasn’t happy with the bullpen. It was disappointing as a whole, but there certainly were some bright spots. I think James Russell did a very admirable job continuing the progress he made toward the end of 2011, and really pitched even better when he was used deeper in the games, in more meaningful spots. He got left- and right-handed hitters out and showed a very consistent pitch mix, showed tremendous poise, and was a very reliable executor of pitches, even on the big stage. That was a big step forward for him. We see him as a guy who’s going to be in the ’pen for a long time.

And then Marmol did turn his season around. He got off to a really difficult start. I know it’s hard to look past that, but he worked really hard at following [pitching coach] Chris Bosio’s request to throw his fastball more, and all of a sudden his velocity crept up. He got some of that swing-and-miss quality back to his slider. And for the last three or four months of the season, he was a pretty good relief pitcher for us and closed games fairly consistently when we did give him that opportunity. So there were bright spots. … We just need to be more consistent from day one next year.

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