With ESPN in the midst of three consecutive Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts featuring the Chicago Cubs, Buster Olney was gracious enough to give me over 30 minutes of his time on Friday. He provided so many thoughtful responses I decided to create two segments from the interview. The second half, taking a back at the offseason and a look ahead at the trade deadline, the playoffs and beyond, will be published Monday night. Today's installment will focus on his thoughts from the Cardinals series last weekend, the Brewers series this weekend, the NL Central as a whole, and some insights on several of the Cubs core players.
Michael: You were in town last weekend for the Cardinals series, and will be covering the next two [weekend] series coming up, is there anything that stood out to you the most from the Cardinals series?
Buster: The fact that Bryant is putting it back together. I got to believe that even for him, it has been so long since he had gone on an extended run, that he was probably starting to [think] "okay, what's going on here."
Before the game on Sunday Night we met with Joe Maddon and he told us [...] "I think something is coming with Kris Bryant." Joe talked about very specific things with his hitting mechanics and how he felt like Bryant was quieting his swing, and putting himself in a better position to do things.
To see Bryant that night hit a grand slam late in the game, to have better swings, and then what he's done since then, that's been remarkable.
Michael: As someone that floats in and out of the atmosphere here during the course of the season, have you noticed a gradual drift, or maybe a dramatic shift towards the idea that the Cubs are now "Javy's team?"
Buster: "They're not necessarily his team but I think two or three years ago [...] the core guys you're going to build around are Bryant and Rizzo and now I think that Baez is in that core.
On a daily basis he probably impacts games, and gives an opportunity to win in a way that very few players do. His standing in the organization is really changed. If you look at the way he is being used on defense with Russell coming back, he is still being used at shortstop, and where he is hitting in the lineup because he has become so consistent."
I had a really unusual experience that I related to executives with other teams since then, and their reaction was just "Wow!"
He hits the game-winning home run on Saturday, and that game ends you know 6:00 or so local time, and then the next morning I was doing SportsCenter at the hotel where we were staying [...] and I got done with that at 7:45 in the morning and the last thing I talked about was Baez [...] hitting the ball the other way... and I walked out of that room at 7:45 and looked down the the hallway and headed up toward the elevators and there's Javy Baez. At 7:45 in the morning and he was going in to work out. Following an evening game [...] and leading up to a night game and I [...] said to him, "Dude, I just got done talking about you on SportsCenter, what are you doing here?" and he goes "this is where my trainer is staying and so I came over here."
I related that to folks with other teams and their like "Man, that's unbelievable. That [Baez] would have that kind of work ethic."
I mentioned it to Maddon before the game on Sunday Night and he just looked at me and shook his head, and he said, "You know, that's the stuff we don't hear about."
Michael: Jon Lester is going to be starting Sunday Night. He just seems so eternal and consistent. Do you find it difficult to continue building new story lines around a guy that continues to perform the way he does?
Buster: One of our researchers sent us these great notes [...] [Lester] has statistically the most consistent delivery among all pitchers in baseball. And this is basically year after year after year his release point stays the most consistent. They talk about your ability to repeat a delivery, and to be able to do that where his average variance [...] is no more than a range of about one and a quarter inches, that's pretty incredible.
A lot of times when teams sign pitchers to long-term deals, it feels like about 90% of the time its well... that didn't work out. Jon Lester is certainly going to be an outlier. This is year five of a six-year deal and the Cubs have gotten even more than they bargained for in terms of return because of the consistency. The guy [wa]s basically brought there to help to drive the team upward, and not only do they ascend to make the playoffs, but they win the World Series and he's been terrific throughout the run of the contract.
Michael: The Cubs haven't faced the Brewers since early in the season when the team was struggling, especially the bullpen, so I'm not sure the fans really got a rational sense of how good the Brewers might stack up against the Cubs this year. In your estimation is their team any different this year than it was last year? Should Cubs fans expect anything different from the Brewers in a competitive sense this year?
Buster: A lot of times these rivalries, the head-to-head stuff, they go through ebbs and flows on like a level of confidence. And it definitely feels like toward the end of last season and through the one game playoff that right now the Brewers have like a mental edge going against the Cubs. You can tell, the Brewers think "hey, we'll figure it out, we'll find a way to beat the Cubs." That makes them dangerous. The other thing too, is obviously that lineup is stacked, especially with Yelich building off what he did last year.
I say this though, [...] their pitching problems are serious and acute. It will be interesting to see how they change. The one thing about David Stearns since he's taken over the Brewers is that it is pretty clear he's got a belief that he'll find solutions. He knows that the team that he has in the second weekend in May is not the team that he is going to finish with and so [...] through the course of the year they'll try different things to find pitching solutions, but man do they need'em. Their pitching has been a mess so far this year. That's been shown and we are already starting to see them make some adjustments.
Michael: In the NL Central, with the standings so compressed, you have four teams that are .500 or above, and even the Reds are still within striking distance. Do you anticipate all five of those teams remaining competitive throughout the year, and would it be fair to say the NL Central is the most competitive, if not the best, division in baseball?
Buster: Yeah. I don't think there is any question it is the most competitive division.
There's not a Washingaton Generals team in the National League Central in the way there is in each of the other divisions. There's not a team the other teams are going to beat up on. The Reds, they really felt like they needed to make some progress, and I know it doesn't necessarily reflect in the standings but they've gotten better, and you can see it in the pitching. On a day-to-day basis they are more competitive. The Pirates, I think whether or not they stay in it [...] probably is going to have a lot to do with how healthy their pitchers are. Having Taillon and Archer have some issues early doesn't bode well for them, but it's a young team. I do think all year it'll be [...] the steel cage match of all the divisions in baseball.
Be sure to catch Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) on the Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts, the Baseball Tonight Podcast, and check out his writing at ESPN.com.
Filed under: Interviews