Theo Epstein: “You Can’t Rush Young Players”

April 9, 2013 – 10:45 am by Chris Fedor

In 2011, Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago. He came with the Boston glow on him and was looked at as one of the top, young front-office people in the game of baseball.

Epstein was given a difficult task. It was his job to turn the franchise around and do it with a long-term vision. It hasn’t been easy. He’s had to remove the dead weight from the roster, try to get rid of some of the bad contracts that were on the team when he arrived and focus on the draft as opposed to spending money in free agency. It will take time; it will take patience. Losses will pile up while the rebuild is ongoing. They already have.

The Cubs won just 61 games last season and they are off to a slow start again this year. But this is the plan. With Epstein calling the shots for the Cubs, the team is on the right path even though it may be tough to see right now.

Theo Epstein joined WSCR in Chicago with Mully and Hanley to talk about whether he keeps an eye on the rebuilding of Wrigley Field, how much say he had in removing Carlos Marmol from the closer’s role, how tough it is for him to be patient and what his projection is for this year’s team.

Whether he keeps a close eye on the rebuild of Wrigley Field:

“Yeah I do. I kind of look at it as I look at a lot of other important issues that we have … that may not impact us on the baseball side immediately but are very important for a couple of years down the line. Draft day for example. You hit on your first-rounder versus miss on your first-rounder, that can impact the organization a few years down the line. We need to hit on this, get a deal that makes sense for the club and for the city and not really change the revenue position that we’re in for years down the line, which obviously impacts our baseball picture. Stay involved with it and we talk several times a week, but I’m not at all directly involved in the negotiation.”

How much say he had in the decision to take Carlos Marmol out of the closer role:

“That issue, Carlos’ potential trade value, I’ve heard a lot about that in the media, but that literally has not come up in discussions with Dale (Sveum) and Bos (Chris Bosio). We talk all the time about how to put the players in the best position to succeed and maximizing our chances to win in the short term, but yeah, we talk about big-picture issues too — usually in relation to a player’s development. … I’m trying to think if I’ve ever talked to Dale since I’ve been here besides maybe right before the trading deadline and a player’s starting-pitching schedule. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to them about doing something to enhance a player’s trade value. It’s hard to manage the club when you have somebody leaning over your shoulder telling them how to use players and how not to use players. And heaven forbid, what to do to maximize a player’s value versus winning games, so this was a baseball decision. You people have to realize we are three appearances into the season for him and he went through this last year where he struggled, ended up going on the DL, fixing himself and was pretty effective for the second half of last season. Veteran players don’t lose their jobs based on a tough week at the end of spring training. That’s a sign of a poorly run organization. … We couldn’t put the team in that position where they work hard to win a game and then have so much uncertainty going into the ninth inning. I thought it was certainly appropriate to start the year with Carlos in that role and I thought this move was very appropriate now, to give him a chance to fix himself in low-leverage situations and give our team a better chance to win late in the game.”

How tough it is for him to be patient with this club:

“It’s always tough to be patient for me. I’m extremely competitive and I hate losing a single game, let alone having an unsuccessful season, but the one thing I’ve learned over two decades in baseball now is you simply can’t rush young players. You can, but you run a significant risk of jeopardizing their development and their future. Young players literally get ruined by rushing them through the minor-league system and then forcing them to break onto the big-league club before they’re ready. Besides disrupting their development, it can traumatize them as well and often times be something they don’t recover form. I wish this were the NBA or the NFL where you could draft players and all of a sudden they make an impact the next year. It just doesn’t work that way. Look, as an example, Will Middlebrooks, another high-school player we drafted in Boston, and Jackie Bradley is on that team through the draft. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia is on that team through the draft, you get into the (Jon) Lester’s the (Clay) Buchholz’ and everyone else so it can be done. It just takes time.”

On preparing for the future:

“I started out this past road trip in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, but I also flew around the country and saw four kids who are probably going to go in the top 10 picks in the draft. There’s a chance we take one of them, so we are doing everything we can to win as many games as we can right now, but we also have our eye on the big picture and we have to understand that draft picks that we make on draft day this year, they’re not going to effect the 2013 club. They’re probably not going to effect the 2014 club, maybe 2015. But there will be a day when you’re interviewing me five or six years down the line and say, ‘Hey, isn’t it nice to start Opening Day with a solid core of homegrown players, being picked right on top of your division, having the payroll flexibility because those players aren’t making much money and you’ve gone out and added this big-time free agent? Doesn’t this feel good?’ I will say, ‘Yeah, it feels a heck of a lot better than it did in 2013 when we had this conversation.”

Whether he has a prediction on a number of wins for the Cubs this year:

“These days you can try to predict anything. Whether you are accurate or not remains to be seen, but the amount of information with pretty accurate player projections you can take it to the next level and do some really accurate team projections. Actually, over the last 10 years we have developed it so we were on a stretch there for eight years where we were within one and a half wins of our projection every year with the Red Sox. It’s a little more complicated now because there’s more fluctuation when you are dealing with young players and we are dealing with a lot of ‘buy-low’ players that we brought in and we’re still in the process of finding our own projections here. I think every team in baseball will run projections. It’s pretty important to see where you project, at least statistically, on paper. Obviously the human element will define everything and the game is played by people, not by stat lines but I think it is important to get an understanding of just what your talent projects to, where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are so you make decisions in proper context.”

Listen to Theo Epstein on WSCR in Chicago here

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