Matching Theo Epstein’s Words and Actions Isn’t Easy, Still Part of Offseason Fun

For lots of baseball fans, myself included, the offseason can be every bit as fun as watching a game itself. Independent of the final outcome, I find pleasure in simply watching it unfurl, trying to discern the Cubs’ final direction by studying their interim moves.

Each offseason is a competition. And I don’t mean in the traditional sense of “winning.” After all, few teams crowned offseason winners actually carry that through to the World Series. Consider the Yankees (Giancarlo Stanton trade) and Angels (Shohei Ohtani signing) last year; the Red Sox in 2016-17 (Chris Sale trade); the Braves in 2015-16 (separately trading Shelby Miller and Andrelton Simmons for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Sean Newcombe); and the Cubs after 2014 (Joe Maddon, Jon Lester signings).

Rather, I mean watching the clash of front-office philosophies for constructing rosters, managing budgets, and valuing talent. From that perspective, the Theo Epstein era in Chicago has been a joy to observe, both in its unique tactics and philosophical transparency. But starting last offseason, matching Epstein’s words to his actions has become more challenging.

After 2017, Epstein diagnosed some pretty clear priority areas for the Cubs: Replace two departing starters, address the bullpen’s league-worst non-intentional walk rate, and fix the lineup’s failures against elite playoff pitchers. Signing Yu Darvish was a sound move at the time to address Jake Arrieta’s departure. But after that, the decision-making became sketchier.

Epstein overpayed for a roll-of-the-dice fifth starter in Tyler Chatwood, and he didn’t so much as upgrade the bullpen as just replace Wade Davis and Hector Rondon with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. And no offensive changes were made save for Chili Davis as hitting coach and swapping out Victor Caratini for Alex Avila at backup catcher. This left two of three of Epstein’s stated offseason priority areas unaddressed.

Flash forward to the start of the 2018 offseason. At Epstein’s end-of-season press conference he mentioned an absent sense of urgency and how the offense broke in the second half. The Cubs would no longer tolerate mere talent over production. I liked what I heard; however, I can’t presently dismiss that it may have been more psychological pyrotechnics than true gauntlet-dropping.

Recall Epstein never stated exactly when he would start prioritizing performance over promise. I assumed he meant this offseason and that some young bats would be moved. But if the payroll limitations we keep hearing about are indeed real, subtracting his least expensive roster assets won’t open up many options to bring in better performers. So then is he just trying to light a fire under the young players he’s got?

I also can’t completely resolve those payroll reports – which certainly came from front office source(s) – with regard to two specific decisions. One is last year’s trade for Brandon Kintzler (and his $5 million player option) and then this month picking up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option. If the payroll limitations are real, doesn’t Epstein’s commitment of $25 million to an ineffective reliever and a 35-year-old starter have a rather Chatwood-esque feel to it?

Not that I don’t see value in Hamels. He’s a cool dude with a cool name, and his surprise August saved not only his season but also the Cubs’ playoff chances. But if picking up his extension precludes the Cubs from addressing the offense the way Chatwood’s signing did last year, it would seem a very foolish move.

Plus, consider that the Cubs traded Drew Smyly and his $5 million luxury tax hit, but are stuck with Kintzler for the same amount. Which pitcher would you want for 2019? Yes, I am on record suspecting the PTBNL they’ll receive back from the Rangers in the Smyly deal will be a quality young reliever. But if they don’t receive this and do have payroll constraints, then how does Epstein justify making that Kintzler deal?

Thus, if their payroll limitations are real, the Cubs are largely limited to executing NBA-style trades in which like-sized contracts are exchanged. Or maybe they can unload part of the payroll hit of Jason Heyward’s deal to free up money a big free agent. But even this would seem like dancing in place since they’d be subtracting one of the team’s lone quality bats against elite power arms to replace it with (maybe) one other. That leaves the lineup largely the same as when they struggled in the 2017 NLCS against the Dodgers and in the second half of 2018.

But I concede (and hope) a bigger plan exists behind Epstein’s words and early offseason actions. Like most executives, Epstein likes obscuring his true intentions as much as possible for negotiating purposes. So the payroll issue could be a big smokescreen. Then again, I give equal odds that, like last season, most of the roster will remain the same.

In addition, as Michael Cantor rightly noted today this isn’t an all-is-lost situation. The Cubs as currently constructed remain a playoff team. But we must admit a significant caliber of difference exists between the title-winning 2016 team and the playoff teams of 2015, 2017 and 2018. This is why the possibility of staying pat with the same exact lineup of 2017 and 2018 and again hoping for that “non-linear” leap in development of the young bats seems way too hopeful.

But head-scratching aside, didn’t I say I find the offseason fun regardless of its outcome? This remains completely true. Even though we may all be disappointed by the outcome of this offseason – and for wildly different reasons – it still is awful fun to watch and try to discern the method behind Epstein’s light madness of late.

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Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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