Looking exactly like a man who’d chased a gut-wrenching loss with a full day of exit interviews, Theo Epstein sat down in front of the mic and invited the assembled media to fire away. Sleep deprivation had left a patina on the the eloquent exec’s silver tongue, but he grew more polished as the presser wore on and he was able to transition into more practiced topics.
Epstein avoided many direct answers with the initial round of questioning, which dealt with the 40-game suspension for Addison Russell that had been announced less than an hour earlier. Not only had he gotten the news only two minutes prior to taking the stage, but it’s unlikely Epstein could really offer many specifics about Russell’s future either way.
He did speak to the need for the Cubs to be more vigilant about similar matters moving forward, saying that prevention is always better than punishment. Just what that entails remains to be seen, but he talked about working with Melisa Reidy, Russell’s ex-wife, to better understand the situation and what the organization might be able to do better.
Questions about the future of the coaching staff were summarily deflected, mainly because their exit interviews had not yet been conducted, though Epstein did address Joe Maddon’s postion.
“Joe’s status remains unchanged, he’s the manager of this team,” Epstein said. “And I’m very happy about that. I know there was a sort of high-profile this morning that was not accurate. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I saw in there that there were some claims that he and I had personal friction.
“Not true at all. We have a terrific working relationship. We don’t agree all the time about baseball issues and that’s the way it should be. I don’t want a yes-man as the manager and I don’t want it working as a yes-man relationship the other way either.
“I think their should be discord and debate in healthy trusting relationships where you can work together to make the organization better and that’s the way it is. I enjoy having Joe around personally and I like having him as the manager of this club and I really like having the most wins in baseball the last four years.
“I don’t like going home the first day of October. That’s not on Joe.”
No, he was not referencing my piece from Tuesday evening about how Maddon’s could have been in jeopardy with a Wild Card loss. Ken Rosenthal had published a similar column Wednesday morning with the same basic premise, so it’s his report Epstein was going after.
Regardless of how prevalent and healthy any friction is between the front office and the staff, or who’s even on the staff next season, it’s obvious that something has to change in terms of performance. The 95 wins were great, a point Epstein made sure to keep circling back to, but being bounced so early from the playoffs was unacceptable.
The whole reason Epstein was making this particular address so much earlier than in the past three seasons was because the Cubs offense disappeared far too frequently. They mustered no more than a single run in 40 of their 164 games, three of which came in the last four games they played. With just one or two more runs one or two of those games, the Cubs would have been hosting or at least playing in the NLDS Thursday.
“Here’s where I am about the offense, and I mean this with no disrespect to any of our players, I respect them all greatly in every way,” Epstein said bluntly. “And our coaches and our front office, everybody involved, there’s no disrespect. But I think part of getting better is facing the problem.
“And our offense…broke somewhere along the lines. And so of course there’s gonna to be a thorough examination and of course we’re gonna spend all our energy trying to fix it and fixing it.”
How exactly they go about course-correcting is going to be the front office’s primary task this winter. More than just how they attack free agency, they’re going to need to assess the players who are currently on the roster.
“It has to be more about production than talent going forward,” Epstein admitted. “And beyond that, it’s also trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players.
“It’s our job not just to assemble a talented group, but to unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Are we doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys?”
It’s also a matter of the players having a sense of urgency from the get-go. Epstein acknowledged the humanity of his players, noting that no one can be perfectly on point every single day. At the same time, though, they were able to maintain that constant drive throughout the 2016 season.
This most recent campaign saw the Cubs punching cruise control and chilling in the right lane of the interstate. And when it came time to put their foot to the gas to get around that big rig, it seemed as though they were missing a spark plug.
“I think that if we’re being totally honest, and this is a theme that’s come up a little bit with some of the players as we talked to them and that we felt through the course of the year, there was a lot to grind through,” Epstein said. “And there was a lot to be proud of.”
“But we could have done more from Day 1 through 162 as far as a complete sense of urgency every day. Being completely on mission every day. Showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day to win.
“Sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run or you don’t get it in. Or they’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you went 4-3, you needed to go 5-2.
“Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you’ve already won two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct as a team.”
Getting back to that, finding that edge and drive, is imperative when it comes to avoiding a fate similar to the one they just suffered. To paraphrase Jon Lester after Tuesday’s game, perhaps getting their dicks knocked in the dirt will end up being a good thing.
“Maybe that feeling in the clubhouse last night, which was a whole lot of pissed off, and disappointed, and frustrated will be our rallying cry for next year,” Epstein offered.
Another potential blessing in disguise is the extended offseason, something the Cubs now have for the first time since 2014. Not that they want the extra rest, mind you, but it’ll give a beleaguered group that much more time to lick their wounds while also stewing a bit over they fact that they’re having to watch the playoffs rather than participating in them.
This break offers time to relax and to gear up, to retool the roster and rekindle the spark that may have guttered at times this past season. But when all is said and done, it’s the core group of players who are going to have to come together again to push the Cubs forward. And that’s exactly what Epstein is counting on.
“I would never bet against the heart of this team.”