After Undercooking a Few Annual Feasts, Theo Epstein Now Bringing Chips to Table

We all have our vices, some more than others, and one of mine is that I’m what is known as a bag killer. Leave a bag of potato chips in my general vicinity and there’s a high degree of likelihood that it’ll be crumpled in the trash not too long after. Not great for the waistline, nor was it a good idea to wolf down an entire tube of fat-free Pringles made with Olestra that one time in college, but there are some things you can’t avoid even when you know better.

In similar fashion, to the point that it may have even caused a little intestinal distress, the Cubs keep indulging in many of the same practices and getting all-too-familiar results come season’s end. Everything starts out smooth and is typically very enjoyable, then you get that sinking feeling that maybe this isn’t a great idea. Before you know it, your greasy fingers are pawing at the bottom of an empty bag wondering what the hell just happened.

We can talk all we want about five postseason appearances in six seasons, a feat no living Cubs fan would have dared dream about prior to 2015, but the fact of the matter is that the last two of those appearances have felt really hollow. Even though the 2017 playoffs ended in a pretty spectacular failure as well, the previous season’s success and promise of more in the future masked most of the disappointment.

All anyone could have ever hoped for was to have a team that competes for a division title and a chance to play in October each year, and we’ve all gotten that. Still, there’s a looming sense that the front office hasn’t completely followed through on a promise from several years ago.

“I was shaking my head at the notion that we should make baseball decisions based on giving our fans cookies,” Epstein told 670 The Score back in March of 2014. “We’re cooking the whole meal. We want to give them an annual feast. The only way to make fans happy is to give them pennant races and October baseball if you can pull it off on an annual basis. Nothing is going to get in the way of that.”

It’s really those last 10 words that define the plan, since leaving them out would soften the tone a bit and ensure that the Cubs have indeed made good on everything the arduous rebuild was supposed to provide. Yet things have gotten in the way of those annual feasts, whether it’s the inability to properly identify and develop pitching prospects or the utter dearth of impact hitters drafted outside the first round.

There’s also the matter of Epstein’s fierce loyalty to his guys, a otherwise admirable trait that has been galvanized and perhaps twisted a bit by circumstance. Whether it’s hanging onto players he’s drafted with the Cubs or seeking to acquire others who’ve been part of his previous organizations, something that extends to non-player personnel, Epstein’s emotional attachments may have stood in the way of making moves that are best for the organization in the long run.

At the same time, he’s rightfully held out to get the most possible value from any potential trades for core players. The fact that the Cubs haven’t pulled the trigger on any of those may be as much a matter of timing as it is Epstein and Co. being unreasonable about what they expect in return. And in spite of the offense that broke back in 2018 and still hasn’t been fixed, there’s an undeniable collection of talent that may merely need to be tweaked rather than overhauled.

“We have a lot going for us as an organization moving forward and a lot of chips to bring to the table,” Epstein said during his end-of-season Zoom call. “We have two of the best starting pitchers in the game on good contracts moving forward. Our most important relief pitcher righted himself after the first three or four outings of the year and pitched at a level of dominance over the last two-thirds of the season that is in line with his career norms.

“Our three most valuable position players this year, by WAR, in Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Willson Contreras, are all under club control for multiple years going forward. We have four really accomplished big bats who are coming off career-worst years who are all entering contract years.”

Already having those chips to bring to the table likely means Epstein is not going to be able to get a marker from Tom Ricketts to bring in more stacks of high society. That’s been made clear in the team’s public statements over the last year and it’d be shocking at this point to see them exceed the competitive balance tax threshold for a third consecutive season. What they do have to spend this winter will likely go toward replacing the pitching they lost, something Epstein discussed during his postmortem presser.

So while roster change is “warranted and necessary,” and with contact hitters like DJ LeMahieu, Tommy La Stella, and Michael Brantley all on the market, it appears as though the Cubs might have to address their needs via the trade market. But the crux of the problem isn’t something that can be reached and corrected with either a big signing or a solid trade. As Sahadev Sharma laid out quite plainly in The Athletic, Cubs hitters need to be willing and able to identify and address their weaknesses at the plate.

That could mean making yet another change at hitting coach, a position that’s become Chicago’s biggest turnstile since Orlando Pace. Even though it’s silly to lay the blame solely at Anthony Iapoce’s feet, he apparently hasn’t been able to get through to his players. That’s the same reason John Mallee and Chili Davis were relieved of their duties, with the latter stating explicitly following his departure that his voice wasn’t being heard.

Having all the right ingredients doesn’t matter if you don’t follow the recipe, something both Sharma and several years of outside observation seem to indicate is an issue on the North Side. Everything looks nice and golden brown on the outside, then you cut into it only to find it’s still raw and inedible. With just one year remaining to get it right and presumably very little additional room in the budget to add from the outside, Epstein had better hope he can microwave next year’s feast.

And hey, if all else fails he can always open up those chips.

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