Emotions of the season’s disappointing conclusion roiling in his gut and an apparent lack of rest clouding his face, Theo Epstein cut loose and displayed even more candor than usual during his postmortem presser. He talked about how the offense “broke somewhere along the lines.” He talked about a lack of urgency among players and staff. He claimed the organization’s meritocracy would be based more on production than talent.
Perhaps more notable than all those things, though, was what followed the part about the broken offense.
“And so of course there’s gonna to be a thorough examination,” Epstein said, “And of course we’re gonna spend all our energy trying to fix it and fixing it.”we’re gonna spend all our energy trying to fix it and fixing it.”
Bryce Harper to the Cubs, confirmed.
Or so it seemed at the time. Then again, “energy” and “money” aren’t exactly the same thing, and it’s been made painfully obvious over the last few months that Epstein has a lot more of one than the other to spend. Whether it’s a matter of their not-quite-nascent TV venture, buying out the Tribune’s remaining ownership and reducing debt payments, or just being wary of big deals, the Cubs’ massive revenues aren’t fueling an insane payroll.
As such, Epstein and his cadre of front office stone-turners have been spent the winter lifting heavy metaphorical objects in search of more economical solutions. Their efforts haven’t yielded much of consequence, at least not on the outside, so the whole “improvement from within” thing is as much necessity as tagline.
“I promise fans this is the hardest I’ve ever worked in an offseason,” Epstein said during Cubs Convention. “The results in terms of adding players aren’t there, but I think we’ve done a lot of good work behind the scenes to get better and to put our best foot forward.”
That behind-the-scenes work he’s talking about has come mainly in the form of the coaching staff, and not just the most visible roles. Sure, bringing in Anthony Iapoce and promoting Tommy Hottovy represent significant departures from their counterparts. But the Cubs also created a new Director of High Performance position when they hired Adam Beard away from the Cleveland Browns. They even added Aaron Sele as a scout, though that one probably isn’t an impact move.
And even though it’s not necessarily new, the Cubs’ philosophical adjustment with drafting and developing pitchers should be felt in Chicago this season. Let’s be honest, though, no one’s really concerned about whether Dakota Mekkes will being able to deceive big-league hitters like he has farmhands over the past couple seasons. Or whether Nico Hoerner will be fast-tracked to Chicago.
I mean, yeah, fans want to see prospects succeed. But the team’s success in 2019 isn’t going to be dependent upon one of those guys coming up. What the Cubs need is for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, et al. to return to the form that made them either MVP winners or hopefuls.
“Talking specifically about the position player group, because so much of the angst has been sort of directed at those guys, and for good reason — because of the way we hit in the second half — but I’ve always really believed in this group and by the time they all hit their strides and their primes we’re going to be a dominant offense,” Epstein told Jon Greenberg ($) of The Athletic.
“And that’s the core of this team and that’s how we built this organization around these group of guys. So when I sit there and say I think we’re really going to learn from last year and the offense isn’t going to be permanently broken or damaged, I think we’re going to see a lot of guys emerge and continue to grow and put it all together, I fully believe that.”
That’s a decidedly different message from what he had shared earlier, much more positive. Everything has has a sunnier disposition of late, and it’s not just a matter of being forced into a Pollyanna attitude. Well, that’s probably part of it. But as Epstein put it, there’s a specific strategy to what he says and when he says it.
“In the winter, after the season, you can say some things that are pointed and true,” Epstein admitted. As you move closer to the season, you have to just be smart about the way you present things. You don’t want to lie or hide the ball at all, but you also want to present the positive, because the messages get relayed out there to players and you’re moving into a more competitive mindset where you’re focused on togetherness and hard work.”
That all makes sense, it really does. Underpinning his whole concept is the idea that the Cubs aren’t going to be landing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, at least according to their repeated claims, so the focus has to be on the current players. Even though the desire for an additional star isn’t an indictment of the current roster, it can feel that way if presented with enough, uh, urgency.
And when you consider how much talent the Cubs already have, it’s perfectly understandable for Epstein to express confidence in his team. At the same time, we can turn that right back around and say that he’s admitted to a lack of production from that talent. It’s all just a matter of things working out the way they should, or at least how they can.
If you have the time and the subscription, you really should read Greenberg’s whole Q&A with Epstein. It’s very candid and covers a range of topics away from Cubs baseball ops, with the talk about Jed Hoyer being a media mole standing out as particularly awesome. And even though I felt attacked by the section that seemed to denigrate bloggers who don’t have the same credentialed access as more traditional media outlets, I managed to get past it.
I’ve got a feeling many more people will similarly get past their angst over the lack of moves the Cubs have made this winter.