Flaws in Young Core Chief Among Issues Putting Theo Epstein on Edge

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I had wanted to write about how much I was hearing Theo Epstein was pissed off about a variety of topics, I just thought it might come off as overselling things we already knew from the postmortem presser. But now that Patrick Mooney, one of the best in the biz, has put it out there (subscription required), we might as well dig into it a little more.

Yes, Epstein is pissed. The list of contributing to his foul mood should not come as a surprise by now: Joe Maddon, the coaching staff, Addison Russell, a self-imposed hard cap, players not making adjustments, and an overall perceived lack of motivation have all mentioned as topics of frustration and concern.

One industry type I spoke with was somewhat surprised that Epstein is so edgy about a 95 win team. On the other hand, however, he told me you have to love the edge that drives the Cubs exec to be even better. But how does he plan to get better in light of the odd combination of issues listed above?

If the Cubs are to make any significant additions, they also need to subtract some big dollars, somewhere in the $15-25 million range. Though it is hard to see any takers for Jason Heyward or Tyler Chatwood, the Cubs could try to do exactly that and may include prospects to facilitate the easing of the bottom line.

We all know the Cubs have the cash, yet they have apparently chosen not cross the third tier of the luxury tax with a $246 million payroll. If it’s all a bluff on the front office’s end, it is a good one. Cubs Insider and other industry people I trust are hearing the same info from the right places and it all checks out.

Wanting to keep the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Kris Bryant given their future contract requirements weighs heavily on their decision-making. That’s why Bryce Harper and Manny Machado aren’t likely to help fix the “broken” offense Epstein is so disappointed in. Barring some surprising changes, the current core is going to have to shoulder the burden.

As for some more realistic Cubs targets, here are some names that have been thrown at me: A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, Wilson Ramos, and Zach Britton. Ramos is an interesting one in that he could serve as more than just an occasional backup; the Cubs apparently want to see Willson Contreras get some more action at first base and the outfield. Of course, there’s obvious concern that any or all of those players could get big dollars with larger roles elsewhere on the free agent market.

As for the big rumor du jour, is it really possible the Cubs are putting Bryant out there as a trade target? The chances are at least 99 percent he won’t be moved. Buster Olney is a respected voice in his field and it appears ESPN blew the headline on his recent piece. What Olney was correct about is that it’s far from assured Bryant will be a Cub for life.

And it does seem very reasonable that Bryant was one of the players who wasn’t too enamored of former hitting coach Chili Davis and his anti-launch angle tendencies. Bryant is also repped by Scott Boras and has rebuffed attempts to lock him up with an extension, making the future that much more uncertain. Of course, the Cubs would still love to lock up their fresh face of the franchise if given the chance.

But perhaps the biggest irritant stuck in Epstein’s craw is that he has built this whole thing on a young core that isn’t progressing the way the Cubs thought it would. The young bats were definitely on an accelerated growth curve leading up to the 2016 season, only to see that curve flatten out in a big way of late

Who’s fault is that? Well, this group is now on their third hitting coach. Davis, the perceived “Maddon guy” brought in to move the hitters to the next level, admittedly failed to connect with millennials, and saw his charges regress in nearly every category. Not that everything should be laid at his feet, since the flaws run deeper than a coach alone could ever be responsible for.

This whole thing was built on young bats. Now the Cubs’ shot at another title hinges on some key young players who need to find a way to take those next steps and avoid being labeled underachieving prima donnas. Perception aside, several players do need to show marked improvement if this thing is going to work.

Epstein and his cohorts in the front office aren’t happy about being in this situation, but don’t bet against them fixing it.

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8 Comments

  1. Tom – is this your first C.I. publication, or have I just been sleeping at the keyboard? Either way, nice work – enjoyed the writeup.

    I think that when it all gets down to it, the 3 things that really piss Epstein off is; not putting the work in, not putting the focus/intensity in, and not making the necessary adjustments to succeed – particularly when the information to do so is in hand. He’s definitely pissed off about the last 2.

    This may be sacrilege to say, but I suspect that Chili Davis actually failed because he had it right – but players railed against him because it was counter to their 2 year running belief system/approach. As Theo digs into the why they failed, he’s likely seeing that pitchers modified their approach to his hitters, and his hitters failed to overcome it, maybe with intent or stubbornness. That would piss any leader off for sure.

    1. Tom is actually the original founder of Cubs Insider, all the way back to our days on ChicagoNow alongside Cubs Den and others. I came on board somewhat immediately thereafter and we’ve gone through a few changes since then. Tom still keeps his ear to the ground, so it’s always nice to get a contribution from him now and again.

      I suppose he’s also capable of speaking for himself, but I figured I’m a little more active here and could at least cover the basics.

      As for the Chili Davis stuff, I don’t think he failed because he had it right, per se. While his teachings aren’t wildly counterproductive in and of themselves, I don’t believe he’s got the right disposition to share his knowledge with the players in his charge. Maybe that would be different with another team or a different level, but it didn’t play too well in Boston when they had really good young hitters coming into their own.

      We too often attribute a lot of actual results to the hitting coach when there are so many factors involved. As I pointed out a couple months back, just having an average Kris Bryant would have greatly improved the team’s slugging and overall power numbers. And when you consider that he was hitting at a torrid pace prior to the injury, those differences might have been even bigger.

      What we’re left looking to, then, is how that coach interacts with the players and the comfort level they have with him. This may sound odd, but I truly believe a hitting coach has far more ability to negatively impact hitters with attitude and approach than he does to positively impact them, at least on the whole. The idea is to serve as a tutor or mentor and allow them to become their own hitting coaches.

      While I can’t say for sure how Davis went about that, I got the sense from his comments that he came in with almost as big an ego as the “millennial players” about whom he groused. Perhaps he was as unwilling to change as they were. So I’m not blaming him so much as I believe the situation was not ideally suited to what he brings to the table. As Josh Lifrak told me, there are times when it comes down to the tiniest edge and getting an extra 1% might be what separates you from winning and losing.

      The Cubs didn’t feel as though Davis was able to contribute to that edge and, more accurately, believed he would actually detract from it.

  2. “Underachieving prima donnas”–that’s about right. The Cubs hitters seem like they think they’re too good to alter their approach or their swing if the situation, or how they are being pitched, demands it. I suspect when any coach tries to get them to be more strategic, their response is something like, “Hey, I was on SNL–were you?”….One of the oddities of this offense is that their OBP is pretty good. They can hit when the bases are empty. But they fail when anyone is on base. The Cubs “get ’em on,”, but they don’t “get ’em over,” or “get ’em in.” For long periods last season, having a runner on second with no outs, or first-and-second with no outs,” meant an automatic zero on the board for that inning. No adjustment, no urgency, no guts. And fair-haired boy Bryant was the worst of them all….Big personnel changes are needed or the Cubs will sink fast in their improving division.

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