Buster Olney Interview, Part 2: Urgency, and looking ahead to the trade deadline, playoffs and beyond

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The Cubs are in sole possession of 1st place after their victory over the Brewers on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. I spoke with Buster Olney in the lead up to the series, and shared the first half of my interview with him yesterday (Part 1).

 

Michael: Urgency has been a big buzzword swirling around the Cubs this season, from the offseason into spring training, and then as the season started. Have you noticed a difference in their approach from the past two years?

Buster: It was an interesting word because typically that is the sort of thing writers sort of start that, [...] but the word really came from the front office. Theo was the one who sort of drove that conversation.

I think that you can definitely feel it with the changes they made, where you change your hitting coach after one year, you change your pitching coach after one year, but also it feels like [..] the hall passes that maybe some players had, some of the young core are not necessarily there anymore. Edwards was so good, and you know he gets sent to the Minor Leagues. And Kris Bryant sort of had a preeminent place... [...] Kyle Schwarber has sort of always had favored nation status over the years and now some days he doesn't play because he is not hitting as well.

I do notice a difference in sort of how they are going about their business, and even Joe, when we talked to him [...] about how the front office encouraged him to get more involved, get down in the dirt and do more instruction, because that is part of what makes you great. Joe talked about how re-energized he is by that whole thing. Because at heart that's what Joe is, is a teacher.

Michael: I'm wondering what your take is on just how many and the type of impact we've been seeing over the last couple of years across Major League baseball of the young players that are coming in so young and so prepared. In my 30 years of watching baseball I can't remember a time when we've had so many 25-and-under, and even 22-and-under superstars in the game at one time. Can you point to any specific trends or reasons why that might be happening in the game? And is it something that you feel is sustainable?

It's about information. From a very practical standpoint [...] not having as many PEDs in the sport means that the game has gotten younger. So that's on thing. It's clear that information is playing a huge role in the development of players.

Now, if you're 15, 16-years old you can do what Max Fried did and go back to watch footage of Sandy Koufax. You can go to a place like Driveline out in Seattle, and you can focus on spin rate and learn how to train your body to throw harder and by the time you get to 20-years old... last year talking to the Nationals people about Juan Soto, and his unbelievable regimen, and his understanding of his swing and his drills [...] it's like he's got ten years in. Having access to information through the internet made a huge difference for young players.

Michael: I expect [the Cubs] to be aggressive in trying to address pitching concerns. With the new rules surrounding the trade deadline, do you have a sense of how that will play out? Do you anticipate teams maybe making earlier deals? Or are we still going to see the majority of the stuff at the deadline?

Buster: I think there will be a ton of stuff at the deadline because teams know they won't have the August safety net the way they've had in the past. I think there is a chance that we see two layers of deals. One in the [...] two to three weeks leading up to the July 31st trade deadline but I've heard from a number of executives that they also believe that there's gonna be stuff in late May/early June where teams that are sort of on the fence might say [...] let's give ourselves the best chance to declare ourselves a contender before July 31st and if it doesn't work out then we'll still have time to go back and turn in the other direction.

The best example of the last few years was the Twins, they added Jaime Garcia, and then they lost some games, and then they wound up being sellers, then in August wound up being buyers. That sort of cycle now has to play out between the middle of May and July 31st. So, I think you are going to see earlier stuff and I think you are going to see more stuff, and a lot of layers to it.

Michael: Turning to the front office a little bit, this is a question from a friend of mine came up with that we discussed, but I thought it would be interesting to get your take on it. How long do you see Theo Epstein remaining in his current position and given what he's accomplished, and any insight you might have into his future goals, what do you [...] see him pursuing in the future? And if he stays in baseball would a chance to run, perhaps with an ownership stake, one of the potential expansion teams out there in the coming years?

Buster: It's a great and interesting question, and it's funny because I actually had a conversation about this with a friend of Theo Epstein. Theo generally speaking has talked about how ten years in one place is probably long enough and we're coming up on that, right? We're probably three years, two years away from that, and let's face it he can pretty much do what he wants to do. He can pretty write his own ticket. The expansion team, he could get involved in that, if he wanted to. He could stay with the Cubs.

He's in a different place in his life and I can't speak for Theo but just knowing the age of his boys and wanting to keep them in a consistent place and having that be a factor, you wonder how that's going to weigh in to a decision [...] if the Ricketts family says we want to extend you.

In the back of my mind, just because he's a New Englander, I've always wondered whenever John Henry decides to sell the Red Sox, would a group led by Sam Kennedy who is the team President and a childhood friend of Theo, would Theo get involved in that? Would it be sort of a bookend to this career where he grew up in the Boston area, and you're a Red Sox fan, and you wind up being a part owner of the Red Sox.

And of course, just because he's so smart and because he's so well versed at some point would he say [...] "I want a different type of challenge." Because if he went back to Massachusetts and wanted to get involved in politics... he'd kill it! He'd absolutely have no problem [...] getting elected because he's got such great name recognition and such great success.

Michael: I had asked you about Theo and his future, what do you see going on with Joe Maddon. You mentioned he seems re-energized a little bit, obviously he is in the last year of his contract and there has been a lot of speculation but at least from my perspective everything seems to be going exactly how [...] the front office envisioned things so far. Do you see that as a relationship that can keep going?

Buster: It could. I also think, let's face it, it's probably also strongly based in results. They're playing great now. I think you can make an argument they are the best team in the National League and if they make it to the World Series, then yeah, I can see him coming back.

And on the other hand if, say they suffer a series of injuries and they fail to make the playoffs, then you do wonder how that will frame the [...] conversation that they're going to have. I think if they have a good year then I think they'll figure out a way to come back.

Now, I am going to be fascinated if he does end up coming back how they handle the situation with his salary. That sort of money for a manager in Major League Baseball in 2019... that's a whole lot more than teams are paying these days. That'll be an interesting part of the conversation that goes on.

Since Joe signed that contract with the Cubs [...] the market prices for managers has come down so much. The Nationals are notoriously cheap in terms of how they pay managers [...] but they had an agreement with Bud Black but then they didn't follow through because they didn't want to pay him. Girardi [...] his deal runs out with the Yankees and they move on from him. Aaron Boone, Alex Cora, a lot of first time managers are getting less money, but just generally speaking there's been a shift in thought [...] where 20 years ago the most important person in the front office structure within an organization was always the manager. Now, it's the general manager. Theo is the preeminent guy, it's not the field general, the Earl Weaver, the Billy Martin, that guy is not the guy anymore, it's the head of baseball ops. That probably has contributed to the reduction in what now managers are being paid.

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.

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  • Michael........thanks for setting up the interview. It was very enjoyable.

    33 games in 34 days from 5/15 - 6/16. That's a tough stretch that will test this team and depth. I expect the depth group of bullpen arms to go up and down to keep them fresh. I wouldn't be surprised to see a planned AAA starter with Montgomery or Chatwood as the piggyback somewhere in this mix. Montgomery may be planned as the piggyback to Darvish for the next 6-7 starts as well.

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    You're welcome TCF. It was enjoyable to do. I hadn't interviewed anyone in over 20 years, but Buster was as nice as he seems on the ESPN broadcasts and he made it easy.

    That is going to be a tough stretch. I do think we'll see some bench players shuttled up and down. The Cubs don't really have flexibility with their bullpen, unless they want to send down Edwards again (which I doubt). I do think you will see at least one start by Monty or Chatwood mixed in. They are both relatively stretched out right now so this is as good a time as any to take advantage.

  • Hopefully Theo wants to stay in Chicago so not to move his boys around much while they are in school. It would be great to have Theo run the team for a very long time. IMO he is the best at running an organization.

  • In reply to John57:

    That would certainly benefit the Cubs. I could see him staying a bit beyond his10-year threshold, but I doubt he is here for the long haul.

  • Great job Michael i really enjoyed the 2 part interview. Nice to get an outside take on the organization.

  • In reply to CubFanStuckInStl:

    Thank you. It was good to get another perspective with someone that is plugged in across the league.

  • Michael, Fantastic job on both Olney interviews!
    I'm a long term reader....rare commenter….I want to thank you for keeping this Blog going since John passed!!!

  • In reply to PaulS1954:

    Thank you, Paul. And you are welcome as well.

    It is a lot of work, and I don't have the passion for the MLB side of things that John did, but thankfully we still get some folks willing to chip in on that side of things, which allows me to concentrate on the prospects for the most part.

  • Loved reading the 2 part interviews Michael...

    If you don't mind, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on this team after a great homestand, as we are now almost 1/4 of the way through the season...

    The offense is for real. KB, Rizzo, Baez, and Contreras are big producers in this lineup. Just because Contreras actually has a much higher OPS (due to OBP) compared to Baez, I'd almost like to see how this lineup would produce if KB was leadoff, Rizzo second, Contreras 3rd, and Baez as cleanup. Having their respective .400, .379, and .417 OBPs in front of Javy would be a really tough way for any opposing pitcher to have to start a game. I also feel like a top of the order lineup like that would facilitate moving the pitcher back to the 8th spot, and using Heyward's .361 OBP in the 9th spot, especially since his hitting has tapered of, even though he's giving good at bats still. Hoping that whatever the FO sees in Schwarber starts to materialize at some point. The revelations of Baez and Contreras with Bryzzo in the middle of our lineup buys him some extra time, but he's gotta start producing.

    Starting pitching: Lester proving he still belongs in the conversation as one of the best starters in the league; he's a bulldog! Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana stepping up big and delivering just what the Cubs need. What do we even say about Kyle Hendricks? Well I fully expect his 3.19 ERA to get down lower than his career 3.07 ERA in no time, and continue to pull his career ERA below the 3.00 mark. Yu Darvish has been provided the time to adjust and get comfortable in Chicago and start pitching like we know he can, even if that means he can just pitch to about a 4.00 ERA going forward, but just give us at least 5 IP every time out, maybe even a 6th inning every once in a while.

    Relief pitching: Morrow and Strop being out sure does hurt, but... The no name guys with little track record have filled in admirably. Of course Cishek looks good lately, and Kintzler is back to who he was a couple years ago, which is huge. I still think Chatwood will really grow into his bullpen role and be a HUGE strength to our pen by the end of the season. This may sound crazy, but I think he can be our Andrew Miller (talking about the good Andrew Miller). CJ Edwards is the wildcard. He's looked really good since returning. Let him build more confidence. If he keeps attacking hitters like he has, he might end up being our closer by the all-star break. What can we get from Dillon Maples if he improves his control a little. He can be helpful later in the season if he's on the mark. Hopefully our guys keep this up so Strop doesn't need to rush back and can get that hammy fully healed. If Morrow is able to contribute to this team by August and September, and stay healthy, we know he can be ridden hard in October. No reason to pick up his 2020 option. Just hope he gives us that $12M value come October, and I'd say that's a win for the Cubs.

    Defense: They've been pretty solid, but there's been lapses by all as well. I will say, they have a lot of talent around the diamond, and the highs are higher than the lows are low. Just tighten it up and stay consistent is all I ask. And please, no more mental errors...

    Kyle Schwarber: A lot of fans have given up on him, and many baseball fans think he's a bust. I wonder what all those people thought of David Ortiz and JD Martinez as they started their careers and took until they were through their age 26 seasons to really develop?

    Ortiz (age 21-26): 1693 PA, 108 2B, 58 HR, 238 RBI, 186 BB, 339 K
    .266/.348/.461/.809 108 OPS+

    Martinez (age 23-26): 1455 PA, 74 2B, 47 HR, 202 RBI, 93 BB, 352 K
    .272/.319/.442/.761 109 OPS+

    Schwarbs (age 22-26): 1404 PA, 40 2B, 76 HR, 173 RBI, 193 BB, 402 K
    .228/.340/.461/.801. 110 OPS+

    If Schwarbs doesn't start turning the corner this year, I have the patience to see what he does next season still, as it was in both JD's and Papi's age 27 seasons that the light went on and they started garnering MVP votes. If he can even pull off .250/.380/.560 with 30HR batting behind the big 4 we have, he would also probably get 100 RBI's as well...

  • In reply to Cubber Lang:

    Great stuff, Cubber

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I've taught him well. :)

  • In reply to Cubber Lang:

    I would be more than happy if CJ is a lights out 7th inning guy. It would be great if someone can be the closer but getting 3 outs in the 7th inning goes a long way towards winning a game.

    Assuming Morrow does not return, 3 out of 5 of Edwards-Kintzler-Brach-Cishek-Strop in the 7-8-9th innings can get 9 outs. Throw in any of Ryan-Cedeno-Webster and they can take a 6th inning if needed. The reality is if we play .600 ball, we will really only need a closer 4-5 games out of every 10 games.

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    Maples is improving a little every year. He might provide some value too by the end of the year.

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