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.
Filed under: Interviews