Don’t look now, but Len Kasper is entering his eleventh season as the television voice of the Cubs. For those of us who appreciate an analytical take on the game as well as the occasional deviation from the action, Len possesses great mix of baseball nerddom and artistic sensibilities. He was nice enough to set down his Replacements albums for a few minutes and talk a little baseball with us.
CI: Obviously there’s a lot of reasonable optimism entering 2015, but a lot of things would have to go right for the Cubs to leapfrog every team in the division. Theo Epstein himself said “the offense has a long way to go.” Do you see this season as more of a stepping stone while things coalesce for 2016 and beyond? Or should fans expect to see October baseball?
LK: I will start this answer with a somewhat trite, but true, phrase: it’s baseball. I have learned over the years that the more I think I know, the less I actually do know, which makes me treat predictions like the plague! In all sincerity, it’s clear this team should be much-improved. You not only have a very young roster that has another year under its collective belt, but also the additions of an ace in Jon Lester, a solid mid-rotation arm in Jason Hammel, a proven veteran catching tandem in Miguel Montero and David Ross and an everyday centerfielder/leadoff hitter in Dexter Fowler. And that’s just to name a few of the new guys.
It’s almost impossible for me to think this team won’t make some pretty drastic improvements under new manager Joe Maddon. Having said that, I agree with Theo’s assessment that in order to truly compete for October baseball, the offense has to score a lot more runs. I am not overly concerned about the pitching at this point. Let’s put it this way, if most everything goes right, they will be right there at the end.
CI: Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are often very transparent with their thoughts, but can sometimes be (understandably) understated in their beliefs or expectations. Do you get the sense that privately they believe a little more in the 2015 product than maybe publicly they’re letting on?
LK: I can’t speak for them of course, but my guess is that the answer is somewhat in your question. I do think they’re pretty honest in their assessment of where the team is, but it is pretty easy to look at what’s going on and get excited about even the short-term possibilities. The one thing I have learned in this game is that even the brightest people within it only know so much in terms of what actually will happen. And Theo and Jed are fully aware that seasons can go in a million different directions. But again, it’s pretty difficult to not at least expect a pretty nice improvement over last year.
CI: Every time I remember that Joe Maddon is now leading this team, I find myself feeling happy and warm. Aside from wins and losses and quirky clubhouse behavior, what do you think we’ll see immediately from Maddon that will be an identifiable change from Rick Renteria?
LK: That’s a great question and one I can’t really answer. I have gotten to know Joe just a little bit since he took over and his confidence and curiosity stand out a lot. I think he will be flexible, almost to the point of unpredictability, which I love. The routine of the season can sometimes take a little of the edge off those in and around the grind every day but Joe seems to like to go against the grain when appropriate and I can’t wait to watch him push buttons. I know this — he won’t be unprepared or let the moment get too big for him.
CI: Javy Baez’s struggles from last year are well documented and he seems to have some awareness about how ugly it got. What’s the most important thing for him to be doing this offseason? Is it watching himself on film? Continuing to play winter ball as he has? What’s most valuable in an offseason to a player with that much talent who looked so lost at the major league level?
LK: I know he’s lost some weight, so I would expect him to come to spring training in the proverbial “best shape of his life.” But most importantly, I just hope he hasn’t lost any confidence because that’s what got him here. Yes, it was ugly to watch at times as he struck out 2, 3, 4 times a day late last year, but those growing pains were somewhat expected. He has an all-or-nothing thing going on that I believe will smooth out over time. Having said that, there is a little extra pressure on him going into the season because this team is built to win now and he will have to earn his playing time at this level from here on out. Would I count him out this early? Not a chance.
CI: Because of his dominance in the minors, not many people seem to allow for the possibility that Kris Bryant could struggle when he reaches the majors. In fact, many are assuming he’ll be a huge boost to the offense when he comes up. What do you think is reasonable and can you think of any precedent for a power hitter that looked so polished before his first big league at-bat?
LK: Again, a great question that can only be answered by Kris when he gets here. Whatever the short-term results are, he looks like a high-floor, high-ceiling guy in the long-term to me. There aren’t too many guys we can say that about coming out of the minor leagues. Obviously, his defensive position is still maybe somewhat a question mark, although he no doubt believes he can play third base in the big leagues. I’m not worried about that so much. I just know he can hit and that bat will play anywhere.
CI: With the Dexter Fowler acquisition, Arismendy Alcantara becomes more Zobristy than ever. You have the Chris (Coghlan/Denorfia) platoon in left, La Stella and Baez both playing second, and probably 20 or so games to fill at third until Bryant arrives, assuming he doesn’t move to a corner outfield spot. We know Joe Maddon loves his flexibility. Is this something that will probably stay fluid all season, or do you think he’ll take 50-60 games to figure it out and then we’ll at least see a somewhat regular lineup?
LK: Again, it’s something to watch this season. I don’t think Joe will mix up the lineup on a daily basis just because. But I do think he is a “maximize the matchup” type manager so my hunch is that he will set the precedent early that it’s best not to get too settled in one spot. Some things are pretty obvious — Fowler generally will lead off, Rizzo fits in the three or four spot — but I generally believe guys are what they are no matter where they hit and it’s Joe’s job to figure out where to hit all nine (including the pitcher) on a daily basis.
Sounds like a whole lot of hurry up and wait for Cubs fans, but it’s looking more and more like 2015 could actually be worth it for the first time in years.