Theo Epstein (Maybe?) Confirms Eight-Man Bullpen to Open Season

When it comes to the 162-game marathon of the MLB regular season, the only certainty is that there’s no such thing as certainty. As such, the roster the Cubs break camp with is going to be different from the one we see in May is going to be different from the one we see in July is going to be different from the one we see in late (fingers crossed while forking the evil eye to ward off bad juju from Sports Illustrated) October.

But that won’t stop us from speculating on the team’s makeup as they ready to flee Mesa. Many will scoff at such projections as inconsequential given the transient nature of the back end of the roster, but there are significant implications to some of the individual players involved. Take Neil Ramirez and Matt Szczur, two out-of-options players fighting for what figures to be a single available roster spot.

If the Cubs carry five bench players, Szczur may yet get to play out his salad days in Chicago. If, however, the organization opts for eight relievers, Neil may not have to bow out just yet. Because of the fickle nature of bullpens, and because I believe Ramirez presents a greater degree of potential —  impact to the team, I have been saying all spring that I think the Cubs will take the latter path and stockpile an extra arm.

Appearing on air with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies Saturday, Theo Epstein seemed to confirm those thoughts. Well, sort of. Len asked about the makeup of the roster, particularly the bullpen, heading into the season and Epstein laid out his view of things.

“It won’t stay the same way the whole year,” The Cubs president explained. “I think a little too much is made of the Opening Day roster. We might start with eight relievers but there’ll be…and we might start with seven. But even if we start with eight I’m sure we’ll have opportunities when guys are healthy and in a good rhythm to go with seven and get that extra bench piece, which will be really effective.

“Yeah, it’s always tricky just because it’s so unpredictable. Individual performance, and therefore collective bullpen performance, tends to vary year-to-year so much. So, yeah, you’re always looking for ways to guarantee good performance in the pen and that’s just hard because you’re dealing with small sample sizes, you’re dealing with failed starters, you’re dealing with guys with maybe two pitches in their arsenal and one thing goes wrong with the grip or it takes a while to get a feel for a certain pitch or one really bad outing can really submarine a whole season.”

“I don’t believe in spending a ton of resources in the pen because of that,” Epstein continued. “Because I think you can find really effective relievers without committing longer-term deals and big guaranteed dollars but there’s definitely a place for it.”

Epstein went on to detail the various low-risk methods by which they’ve acquired the members of their bullpen — Hector Rondon was a Rule 5 pick, Pedro Strop was a throw-in to the Scott Feldman/Jake Arrieta deal, Trevor Cahill had been released, Clayton Richard was purchased for $1 (which makes me think of RoboCop).

I know he didn’t mean it as a knock on any individual pitchers, but the “failed starter” part made me wince just a little. Not that it’s a novel concept or particularly untoward, just that the unvarnished candor was a little bit surprising.

If you know anything about Theo Epstein, it’s that he always means what he says even though he doesn’t always say exactly what he means. Though he wasn’t quite as transparent about numbers, I thought it was pretty clear that his intention is to start with eight men in the pen. He led with that idea and then seemed to sort of backtrack on it by saying they “might start with seven.” Then there’s the qualifier that how they start won’t necessarily be how they finish.

This certainly isn’t earth-shattering news — heck, it’s not even really “news” at all, merely speculation I drew from an analysis of Epstein’s interview — but it does give us further confirmation of the Cubs’ general views on roster construction. I don’t think anyone doubts they’ve assembled a formidable lineup on the North Side, one replete with redundancy both offensively and defensively. There are really no big questions as far as the lineup is concerned.

But as Epstein mentioned, bullpens have no such relative certainty and require a good bit more insulation against regression and/or poor overall performance. As such, the likely plan is to open with a larger pen and then reevaluate based on performance and necessity. For instance, an injury to a position player could combine with a couple relievers finding a good rhythm to bring about a shift in the future. The possibilities really are endless.

Check out the video below for more of the Cubs exec’s thoughts on the generalities of putting a roster together and the specifics of piecing together his own in Chicago (h/t to Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation for sharing this first).

Apropos of nothing, it’s nice to hear Epstein sounding so at ease with everything. Not that he usually comes across as uptight, but this felt less like a rehearsed bit of rhetoric and more of friend offering a look at the new house he’s just putting the finishing touches on. It’s like MTV cribs minus the fly whips. I’m really looking forward to the next segment, in which the Cubs show us where the magic happens.

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