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Theo Epstein 'Gets It': Notes From The Cubs' STH Event

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Al and I both attended the first "On Deck" event hosted by the Cubs. Sure it was a pep rally, but there was a lot of worthwhile nuggets to share with you. Here's my take.

Al Yellon

Al did an excellent summary of Friday's "On Deck" event. So my take is meant to be a supplement and my perspective.

You may well file this under "tl:dr," so I'm going to try and organize this into main sections. There's the pretext (background info), notes from Crane, notes from Theo, and my overall takeaway.

Pretext

Al has seen a couple of these events. This was my first. It was my first chance to hear Crane and Theo speak for extended periods of time, rather than in soundbites. I found this enlightening and to provide a lot more context into who these men are and what they stand for.

I feel Al's take is a bit more -- justifiably -- skeptical, because he's heard these speeches before. These men also weren't exactly breaking a lot of news - we've heard most of these messages before. So I was listening as much for how things were said as much as to what was said.

A collection of notes from Crane

For this, and the next, section, I'm just going to bullet point the notes from each speaker. Quotes should be pretty close but should be considered paraphrased, since I didn't have a recorder.

  • Crane's portion was explicitly scripted and rather robotically read off a teleprompter. That said, he tried to be a little self-deprecating, which I appreciated.
  • Following discussions about accolades for the farm, he emphatically stated "we haven't accomplished anything yet. Not until we're in the playoffs." This was delivered with feeling, even from Crane. Theo emphasized the same.
  • They have doubled the full-time staff (front office, scouts, etc.) since 2012.
  • Said the Mayor will be announcing the "1060 Project," which will be an expansion project that "Builds on Tradition." Play will continue at Wrigley with work during offseasons.
  • The current expansion project: starts in earnest this offseason with work on the concourse, bleachers, and addition of seven new outfield signs. The goal is to maintain charm while upgrading.
  • Excavation of the entertainment plaza will continue through 2015. The new clubhouse will be done for 2016. The full new plaza will be done some time in 2016. The O.A.R. concert this season was an example of what they want the plaza to be. It will be marketed as "Extra Innings at Wrigley Field."
  • He described the market for television rights as "robust." He said they will be thorough and not "short-arm" any negotiations. He is "very confident in a good outcome in the tv deal." The TV deal for the ~70 "available" games for next season could extend past 2019 when the CSN deal runs out. My take: this was a little hint that they may be working on a deal that runs past 2019, meaning whoever buys the currently available games will be the broadcaster for the full package of games starting in 2019 (presumably squeezing out CSN).

A collection of notes from Theo

  • His portion was also scripted, but more in note form, as if an outline from a Word document was pasted into the teleprompter. There were several portions where Theo went off script and/or elaborated to speak extemporaneously beyond what was in the prompter.
  • His tone was at times restrained, but enthusiasm bubbled up throughout. He is very genuinely excited about what is happening and the matter-of-fact tone at times is to temper that.
  • He mentioned several times the team is now at a transition point, ready to move away from only focusing on talent acquisition. "We are ready to compete."
  • He talked about having a winning record over a ~100 game sample down the stretch. But he followed that by very emphatically stating "We haven't done anything yet. Two months is a small sample and doesn't mean anything."
  • "We are ready to compete and our goal is to win the division." He followed that with: "It feels good to say that."
  • "2015 is not the end of the road, but we will compete."
  • On Anthony Rizzo: "He shows real leadership," "he became a man this year," and "oh yeah, he's really good."
  • On Starlin Castro: "We take Starlin for granted." And, as Al noted, he gave credit to Jim Hendry.
  • On Jorge Soler: He's just super excited about Soler. His tone was jovial and he relayed an anecdote about talking to Tom Ricketts about the money to sign Soler. "Tom didn't blink at $30M."
  • On Javier Baez: He's aware of the needed adjustments and is already hard at work. More props to Hendry and his staff.
  • On Arismendy Alcantara: He also needs adjustments, but has a great group of tools.
  • On Kris Bryant: He can impact 2015. He did couch that with "he can spend the majority of 2015 in the bigs." This is another hint that it is unlikely Bryant will start the year with the Cubs. My take: None of us "like" that this is the case. But everyone needs to understand how important that extra year of control is. From a business perspective, this is a no-question trade-off for leaving Bryant in Iowa another month.
  • On Addison Russell: He'll start in Triple-A.
  • Overall work to do: need more OBP, need more contact, need more consistency.
  • "In an era starved for offense, we have a lot of bats coming."
  • He was amazed by Jake Arrieta. He noted those are the trades they want to make, but fully acknowledged that part of that trade is luck.
  • The top end arms for the rotation on the farm are at the lower levels.
  • On Kyle Hendricks: "All he does is get guys out."
  • The year wasn't all rosy, specifically mentioning Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson. On Jackson, my take isn't that Jackson was being "called out" - Theo was simply stating the obvious: that signing hasn't worked out. I don't think clarifying that the signing was a mistake is anything but being real. It's not "throwing Jackson under the bus," since he's still on the roster. Theo simply is stating the obvious: the signing hasn't worked out and in hindsight he wouldn't do it again. It's honesty. Isn't that what we want?
  • "We have room for an impactful starter or two." "We need to add impactful pitching over the next 15 months."
  • He didn't mentions Tsuyoshi Wada, so I think that ship has probably sailed.
  • On Hector Rondon: As a Rule 5 pick, he's been the best-case scenario, again acknowledging the luck aspect.
  • They have more power arms coming for the bullpen behind the "big four."
  • He noted they had the second most valuable staff (by WAR) in the NL, without household names. He credits their pitching infrastructure (Bosio and other coaches), which he is rather excited about.
  • "We've done five to six years worth of work in three seasons."
  • "We'll compete while developing."
  • Talking about some of the young players struggling (Baez & Alcantara), development is not linear. He noted examples like Santo, Rizzo, and Sandberg, while also emphatically stating he wasn't "comparing" the players.
  • The two biggest currencies in baseball are talented young players and payroll flexibility. The Cubs are "flush with both."
  • He's not going to "sell out" for 2015, but he "wouldn't trade the Cubs' future for anyone's."
  • As Al noted, players are driving their own development and holding each other accountable.
  • John Arguello had a nice summary of this, but Theo talked about how the Cubs' youngsters have a far different take of what is "Cub" compared to the national conversation.
  • He felt Rick Renteria had an outstanding "rookie" season.
  • On Kyle Schwarber : He's a legit 3-hole hitter and will go into next season as a full-time catcher. What caught my ear a little is that he will start in Double-A or High-A (meaning starting in Tennessee is not a certainty).

The overall takeaway

Contrary to everything I've seen and read up to this point, Crane Kenney seemed almost human. He's still somewhat of a "stuffed suit," but hearing him gave me a little different perspective on his thoughts. I think he still makes too many mistakes and doesn't oversee his staff well enough, leading to some gaffes ("Cake Gate", the Santo memorabilia, etc.).

However, I do get a better sense that he really wants to be thorough in negotiations. Where sometimes fans and media perceive that as incompetence or bumbling because something is "taking too long," Crane believes he is just trying to give the Cubs the best chance at a favorable deal. I still question his capabilities and file more of it under "show me," but I do have a little better feeling for Crane.

As for Theo: He gets it. That's the title of this post. Al mentioned this to me on our way out, that: "he gets it now." I guess where we would quibble is the "now" part. I think that, by and large, Theo has always "gotten it." But his speech patterns and analysis can be perceived as cold and calculated. This has given some a sense that Theo is disconnected and is treating the Cubs (and, by proxy, their fans) as some sort of experiment. I just flat disagree with that take. Theo is going about this in what he considers to be the best plan possible. He's had several missteps (Edwin, Baker, Stewart, et al.), which have been well documented. Those of us who are trying to recognize all the things that are going in the right direction aren't at all ignoring the mistakes. Nor are we unaware that this is a bottom-line business.

And Theo gets that. He said as much. Repeatedly and in a heart-felt fashion.

Further, some have opined that Theo is arrogant and gives off a "I'm the smartest guy in the room" vibe. I've got to again disagree with that. His presentation was, at times, a little detached. But other parts were extremely heart-felt and genuine. He acknowledges -- repeatedly -- that he doesn't have all the answers. He acknowledged the role luck has played in some of their successes (not stated, but deduced, is that "bad luck" should also be considered a factor when some things don't work out). He thanked the crowd multiple times for their collective patience.

He didn't have to acknowledge any of those things. He could've given a "rah-rah" speech without those portions. He could've talked about being pointed in the right direction while sweeping the short-comings under the rug. But he didn't. He owned them. Why? Because he gets it.

The entire event was slickly produced. A big tip o' the hat to the Cubs' video production crew for a number of rather well-put-together montages. Thanks to all the Cubs' staff, who were outgoing and nice, repeatedly thanking guests. Thanks to the Cubs for the cool take-home of a Wrigley Field 100th anniversary baseball. Surely I was pretty bummed at being next up at a microphone to ask a question, but such is life.

A very big thank you to Al for the ticket. It was a very nice experience that I wouldn't otherwise have access to. Even though we disagree at times, Al's as true a Cubs fan as you can imagine.

So after over 1,800 words, here's your summary: Good things are coming for the Cubs. Crane may be human. Theo gets it. Al gets it. And I can't wait to see what's "On Deck" in 2015.