Theo Epstein’s Criticism Points to Shortcomings of Cubs Front Office

Theo Epstein talked for 20 minutes on 670 The Score Saturday morning on a variety of topics. As Evan Altman noted, Epstein sounded at first like he maybe just woke up. Either that or he has tired of stating the same key messages he’s probably underscored dozens of times both internally and externally this offseason.

This included repeating his usual lines about urgency and internal answers, along with clichés about hunkering down and unturned stones. Also evident was his typical management-speak that some mistake for unique insight. For example, he referenced “manifesting talent” (playing to one’s ability), having “more structure for the players” (telling them what to do), and not telling fans “how to consume the offseason” (less “structure” for fans).

Not that Epstein doesn’t “manifest” wisdom. He does, especially when you examine his words from a broader baseball-ops perspective. This can be hard to do as the work of front office personnel largely takes place in unseen offices and cubicles. But it’s not hard for Epstein, and it’s rewarding to view at least some of his comments as directed toward his front office people.

Sometimes Epstein is more direct about this, such as Saturday when he said, “We just have to do a better job with our decision-making off the field, with making sure we give ourselves every competitive advantage on the field.”

The mention of competitive advantages reminded me of Epstein’s standing charge to each member of his baseball ops team: Beat every person with the same job on the other 29 teams. It also reminded how all of Epstein’s championships benefited from leveraging key competitive innovations or insights. Some of these included draft slotting, offsetting high offensive strikeout totals with high OPS, and multiplying player assets by flipping rehabbing free agent pitchers (Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel).

In this light, it’s natural to see how Epstein could partly blame his front office’s inability to find its next-generation advantage for the organization’s failure to go deep in the last two postseasons. This doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, but it does mean the Cubs’ baseball ops guys aren’t beating their competition.

This is most apparent in terms of the draft. The Cubs hit big with two of their high picks (Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber) contributing big in the 2015 and ’16 postseasons. But the Cubs have largely whiffed outside high first-round picks. By comparison, the highest the Dodgers have drafted since 2006 (when they took Clayton Kershaw seventh overall) has been 15th. And yet, their playoff rosters are filled with later-round contributors like Cody Bellinger (fourth round), Joc Pederson (11th round), the recently traded Matt Kemp (sixth round), and Ross Stripling (fifth round).

The Dodgers even hit with later first-round picks like Corey Seager (18th overall, 2012) and Walker Buehler (24th overall, 2015). Now that counts as a consistent talent pipeline, one that year after year has well outperformed its Cubs counterparts.

Also consider the Red Sox. Epstein may have been the first GM to leverage OPS to mitigate high offensive Ks, but Boston has evolved his strategy even further since he left. In winning the 2018 World Series, they not only led the majors in OPS, but also finished third in stolen bases and with the fifth-fewest offensive Ks. Meanwhile, Epstein continues to say having a speedy, contact-hitting leadoff hitter is a “luxury.”

So clearly in the last two years, other teams have out-innovated the Cubs’ baseball-ops group. This isn’t to say the Cubs haven’t tried. Since 2014, the front office has tried to import pitching depth at the Triple-A level. This has been a volume play to buy low on a lot of upper-minor leaguers who had fallen short elsewhere. It sprang from necessity with the Cubs’ system lacking quality upper-level arms, and the goal was to find surprise rebounds, much like Jake Arrieta’s more advanced arm did at the major league level following his 2013 acquisition.

So throughout 2014, the Cubs bought low to acquire minor-league sixth starters Jacob Turner, Dan Straily, and Felix Doubront in hopes at least one might pay out as a fifth starter. None did. Once the rotation settled with free-agent acquisitions John Lackey and Jason Hammel, Epstein applied this volume depth approach to the bullpen by creating the annual Iowa Shuttle. As of yet, this lightning-in-a-bottle approach has yet to produce a surprise bolt worth handling high-leverage playoff innings.

It was low risk and low cost, so it can’t be labeled a worthless endeavor. Plus, ferreting out competitive advantages is a volume business in and of itself. You must throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall to find the one or two tactics that result in tangible, leverage-able value. So when Epstein talks about needing to work harder, I’m sure more than half of his intended audience is in his front office.

Hints of this was seen in his curious Saturday comment that “we all [must] set up our lives in a way that leaves nothing undone.” On one hand, you could take this as advice to many of his young Cubs who have recently married. But most probably it was one of many reminders to his direct reports to outwork and outperform their counterparts on other teams. Make that extra scouting visit or pull that extra all-nighter to crunch numbers on a new hypothesis. Just bring him more innovations to test.

Does this mean the baseball ops group rested on their laurels after 2016 or lightened up on their accelerator? Hard to say given how out-of-sight their work is. But Epstein did notably segment his tenure.

“If you look at our time here in two chunks, the first five years was really a rebuild, an ascent to contention and then a championship,” he said. “So it went as well as we could have scripted it.

“Then In the two years since…I don’t think there is anyone in the organization that is super proud of the totality of the work the last two years. That’s not where we want to be. We want to make sure we are putting our absolute best foot forward. You only get one crack at this, and it is not easy.”

So you wonder how much of that unseen work is being re-evaluated. Certainly the medical team is under a microscope after apparently missing two stress reactions in Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow and setting their recuperation back.

And what about on the analytics side? Joe Maddon has frequently noted his use of proprietary team stats to determine his mix-and-match lineups. Something may be off there given the 201 plate appearances Maddon gave Ian Happ the last two years against power pitchers despite a .191 average and 48 percent K-rate. Most surprising, Happ got more PA’s against these pitchers than either Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr., both of whom have excelled against power arms in those two years by hitting .294 and .312, respectively.

An early offseason trade between Seattle and Tampa featured two key players who could have filled Cubs’ needs: speedy leadoff hitter Mallex Smith and excellent defensive catcher Mike Zunino. Had the Cubs put a phone call in beforehand on either player? Could they have outbid either team or even put together a creative three-way trade that netted the Cubs both Zunino and Smith?

Maybe, maybe not, but something like this could be what Epstein meant when he talked about leaving no stone unturned. All we can do is speculate given the opaque nature of baseball ops work. But that part of the organization appears to have fallen short just as much as the players on the field. Epstein’s interview Saturday reminded us that winning another title must be about more than just making the most visible signing or biggest blockbuster trade.

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