You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, and Theo Epstein most certainly survived the bender that followed the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016. So after being celebrated as a baseball genius lauded as one of the world’s great leaders, Epstein has become the same goat he worked so hard to slay. And while not everyone considers him persona non grata, there’s no denying that the Cubs president is being viewed in a different light these days.
Ed. note: This isn’t the shortest piece ever and Brett Taylor already covered the topic over at Bleacher Nation, so I’ve provided a tl;dr version for you if you scroll down to the bottom past the break.
That tends to happen when a big-market team that displayed such obvious shortcomings by stumbling late in consecutive seasons can’t even scrape together the money to sign an impact free agent. Not only that, but the Cubs remain unable to extend their own stars. Then there’s the departure of Joe Maddon, which, even as much as it made sense to a lot of people, represented a paradigm shift in organizational philosophy.
“Things change,” Epstein recently told Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald. “Just like your manager can be the perfect guy at one moment in time, and then become not the right guy for another moment in time, you know going into an offseason — or a period of the CBA — that you’re going to be really aggressive, that you’re going to acquire through trade or free agency some big-name players, and you’re going to be lauded, hopefully, not just in the offseason, but when your team wins.”
Okay, that’s all pretty obvious. So is the opposite side, which Epstein also acknowledged.
“There’s going to be times when you have to get rid of guys maybe a year before people think you have to,” Epstein continued, “or you’re gonna have to reset the roster, or you’re going to run out of financial flexibility and be less active for a couple seasons, and you know you’re not going to be as well thought of.
The real key to all this, something that explains a lot about the Cubs’ abject lack of activity this winter, is that they knew this was coming years ago. That’s not exactly the right way to put it, since nothing can be predicted with certainty two or three years into the future, but Epstein’s prognostication has proven unfortunately accurate. Let’s take a look at how the Cubs saw this thing playing out and we’ll circle back in a moment.
“We knew once this CBA came out, there would be some real challenges toward the end of it for big market teams that had developed a lot of good players getting more expensive through arbitration, had added free agents on top and had won,” Epstein explained. If you look at the three teams that won in ’16, ’17, ’18 (Chicago, Houston and Boston), it hasn’t been a real active winter for any of us in terms of adding players.
“Part of that is the reality of the CBA. We knew it would be challenging and ultimately there would be a choice between maximizing the moment in ’20 and ’21 or taking a longer-term view and trading out of that position a little bit while still trying to win.”
We should note that this stuff isn’t entirely revelatory in and of itself, though Epstein is now speaking of the present instead of the future. As such, he’s lending a little more credence to the idea that there was no explicit mandate from ownership to remain under the competitive balance tax threshold this season. That’s a very nuanced topic and one that we could probably debate in a wholly separate forum, but it makes sense that the front office may have known more about eventual restrictions than we’d previously been led to believe.
It’s also possible that Epstein is playing the role of diplomat and taking more personal responsibility rather than dousing any bridges with gasoline and setting them on fire. Perhaps he learned a little something from his Red Sox tenure, or maybe it’s a matter of simply being more mature as an executive and person.
That runs contrary to what we had had previously believed, which is that the financial rug was sort of pulled out from underneath the front office last offseason. Again, there’s too much depth to this situation to thrown out a simple idiom and expect it to adequately explain things, but it’s interesting that Epstein specifically mentioned this season and next as the trouble spots. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were blindsided by the inability to legitimately pursue Bryce Harper or another big target, but it’s likely they’d figured on getting more than Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach.
Many have blamed the payroll restrictions on a Wrigley renovation project that ran at least double original estimates, though Tom Ricketts has said ownership financed the entire effort to avoid any effect on baseball ops. It’s not as easy to dismiss a Marquee launch that hasn’t been quite as seamless as the business operations team would have liked and still lacks Comcast carriage less than two weeks from taking to the airwaves. Even so, Epstein himself admitted last year that Marquee money wouldn’t really affect the budget right away.
As easy as it would be to place a lion’s share of the blame on ownership and a biz ops team that isn’t necessarily beloved, it’s become increasing more difficult to deny how the front office has fumbled the ball. Epstein told Rozner the Cubs knew back in 2017 that people would be “scratching their heads because we wouldn’t be able to squeeze any other talent onto this roster” by 2020 and ‘21, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. It’s not untrue at all, it’s just maybe a tad disingenuous.
By that I mean that the goal all along was absolutely to have a team so stocked with young talent that adding from the outside would be very difficult. Not because the team had no money to spend, but because the players they’d promoted from within were playing integral roles and making big acquisitions harder to justify. That’s what the Cubs were banking on, particularly when it came to pitching, and that’s where they’ve fallen woefully short.
The winner’s trap Epstein talked about in October served to create an imbalance in which the cost for pitchers and position players alike continued to rise. Had things gone according to plan, the Cubs would have a young pitcher or two occupying rotation spots and offsetting the arbitration costs of core position players. That might have also made José Quintana and/or Tyler Chatwood expendable, thereby eliminating talk of trading off a more integral hitter in order to avoid another CBT overage.
The admission that the Cubs were fully aware that their current budget crunch was inevitable casts further doubt on the decision to pick up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option last season. Or not, since that money is off the books and isn’t impacting this season. It might actually make more sense given what we now know, which only reinforces the belief at the time that the Cubs saw Hamels as the best investment of their limited remaining funds. He certainly looked the part prior to an oblique injury, and the abbreviated nature of his financial obligation fits the window Epstein has discussed.
The real problem, then, is why the Cubs found it necessary to pick up the aging lefty’s option in the first place. It clearly wasn’t a matter of being nice to the Rangers, who would have (or “would of” if you speak Twitter) been on the hook for Hamels’ $6 million buyout, since the Cubs likely had zero intention of bringing Hamels back after last year. No, the need to pay him was a direct result of having no one in the system to replace him. And in case you hadn’t noticed, that remains true this season.
So when Epstein says the Cubs knew three years ago that they’d struggle to add talent this season and next, he’s absolutely telling the truth. But the plan at that time called for them to have young pitching in place to make up for the escalating salaries of the hitters that fueled the culmination of the rebuild. They wouldn’t be able to add because they wouldn’t need to. Instead, they aren’t able to add because they can’t “afford” to. That is a function of a CBA aimed at limiting big spenders at the top of the market through more than just the threat of tax penalties.
To be sure, this is not simply a front office problem. It’s not solely a development problem, nor is this to be laid wholly at ownership’s feet. All parties bear some measure of blame, including the players and coaching staff. All that said, the Cubs could be in a far worse position. I mean, would you rather they were the Pirates or Orioles? Or how about the Mets, huh? What a shitshow.
The fact of the matter is that the Cubs have known all along that the present situation was a possibility, one they thought they could avoid. That they have thus far been unable to do so is an indictment of the strategy they’d employed and it’s why they’ve made sweeping changes behind the scenes. Epstein says they’re still trying to win in spite of their limitations, which creates quite a predicament when you look at all the moves they haven’t been able to make.
The good news is that things should get a lot easier if the Cubs are able to navigate this season and get under the CBT limit. With full understanding that any spending limits are constructs being imposed internally by choice, the penalties are both real and avoidable. What’s more, the money coming off the books after this season combined with a reset of the Cubs’ penalty status and the maturation of Marquee’s revenue streams could put them in position to be really splashy next season.
Seems like even more reason to hold onto any core players for now and give those extension talks one more run next winter, though that requires a little faith. Still, you’d think the front office could make something happen with a little extra room under the CBT and a lot of extra room from expiring salaries. That’s all predicated on finally promoting some pitching prospects, since replacing at least two rotation spots with high-priced free agents would just be a repeat of what got them here in the first place.
Feeling good yet? Awesome, glad to hear it. In all seriousness, you can’t be blamed whether you feel hopeful or angry or anything in between. This stuff is legitimately frustrating and it can feel even more so when you consider that the Cubs were aware that this would be the case and you’re only finding out about it now. But hey, everything starts fresh in a few days.
Tl;dr: Theo Epstein said the Cubs knew from the time the current CBA came out that they’d be in a pinch this year and next. The problem is they probably figured they’d have some pitching prospects up and would have extended some position players, so the inability to add free agents would be a good thing. As it is, they’re sitting here with no money to fill gaps in the roster. Place the blame where you see fit, but knowing what the problems would be and still running into them head-on isn’t a great look.