If asked for a single word to encapsulate the Cubs’ offseason, “urgency” would undoubtedly top the list. After falling short of their fourth straight NLCS appearance last year, Theo Epstein declared that the entire organization would undergo an extensive re-evaluation. What eventually transpired was the perception that the Cubs lacked urgency and needed to regain their edge.
Talent was not enough, Epstein told the Chicago media while still clearing the cobwebs from the season’s final gut punch. It sounded like an open challenge to Joe Maddon, who would publicly announce changes to his managerial style. Between spending more time on the field before games to setting lineups further in advance, promoting a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 was critical for success.
So far in the young season, the efforts to ignite a greater spark seem to have backfired in disastrous fashion. Jon Lester explained that the team has been pressing too much because there is such a strong desire to get off to a good start. Carrying such an urgent mindset for all 162 games is nearly impossible, Lester suggested.
Jon Lester: "Everybody’s trying to come in – whether it be a hitting situation or a pitching situation – and be the guy. That’s hard to do over 162 games. We put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start that I think it’s kind of hanging over our heads a little bit."
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) April 4, 2019
This of course raises many questions, not the least of which is: How on earth did a managed by one of the most player-friendly skippers in the game get to a point that they are simply overwhelmed in the first week of April? The answer is multi-faceted.
Perhaps everyone overreacted to last year’s disappointing finish outcome. After all, the team did go 15-12 in September even though their offense had obvious problems. If not for Christian Yelich turning into Barry Bonds, the Cubs would’ve hosted a playoff series rather than a Wild Card game. Nevertheless, there is no denying that changes needed to be made. But while their intention to implement those changes was justified, the ongoing execution might be faulty.
And maybe forcing Maddon’s hand wasn’t the best idea. He has been lauded as a guy who gets the most out of his team by promoting a loose, easy-going environment in which players are not scared to fail. Accepting failure is part of a baseball player’s very nature, but being scared of failure can be deleterious to production. And Cubs players pressing too much, as Lester indicated, is antithetical to Maddon’s philosophy of never allowing the pressure to exceed the pleasure.
Trying to balance urgency with a relaxed environment is sort of an oxymoron and can lead to swings in the wrong direction. Showing up focused, confident, not afraid to fail, and aware of the marathon season ahead were pillars of the 2016 team, and Maddon did a phenomenal job of consistently promoting that mindset.
As for right now, though, Lester’s thoughts about the team pressing too much present a very different picture. That sense of urgency Lester said is “hanging over our heads” is gaining mass by the day and it feels like I’m watching a team that is being forced to be something it’s not.
No one can be blamed for overreacting a little to what we’ve seen from the Cubs so far. At the same time, though, you have to recognize that their potential remains astronomical. The most encouraging aspect to the start of this season is that Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber are seeing pitches extremely well at the plate. So despite the 1-4 start and the bullpen imploding, there is still reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead.