I think the thing I’ll miss most about Theo Epstein, whenever he decides to stop and wait around for his Hall of Fame induction, is just how open and clear most things are with him. At least when it comes to strictly baseball matters. And to be fair to him, he’s tried to make up for his initial missteps in the Addison Russell mishegas.
Theo held his exit press conference on Wednesday, and there’s everything in there that you need. It’s not all good news of course, and he’s not perfect, and there are things he’s going to have to correct. But it certainly doesn’t lack for information.
77 minutes worth of comments doesn’t lend itself to just one headline or theme, so there’s a couple I want to tackle. To me, the one in blinking lights was evaluating “production over talent,” and I think that’s been a theme over the past two years. And I don’t know that it was wrong necessarily, but I also think it makes for an interesting comparison with the Dodgers, as they are the other half of the NL’s duopoly the past three seasons. And the Cubs and Dodgers could do the dance again next year quite easily.
At the top, it’s important to remember the Dodgers don’t have the ring the Cubs have the in the back pocket, which changes the perspective and urgency for everyone. So that’s out of the way.
When talking about “production over talent,” it’s clear that Theo is referencing turning jobs over to young players from the system instead of acquiring veterans to replace those that have departed. The obvious one is Albert Almora, and eventually Ian Happ, to take over for Dexter Fowler. Kyle Schwarber in left field is another, because when he was given that job full-time last year he only had half of a season under his belt. You could argue that Willson Contreras fits this mold behind the plate, though that worked out better than the others last year. But not this year. The middle of the infield is another spot, with Addison Russell and Javier Báez given most of the playing time, forcing Ben Zobrist to move around more than he might have guessed. We can toss Carl Edwards Jr. onto this list as well.
Russell and Báez, before last season at least, had really only proven to be great defensive players and only had potential with a bat. And as of now, only Báez has come through on the offensive side and Russell is hopefully headed to a pool full of wolverines.
What can’t be argued is the collection of talent these players have. And I don’t think it was the wrong call to give them the platform to become effective major leaguers. That was the whole point of the rebuild, after all. It wasn’t just to trade all that you produced for older players.
And again, when the playoffs start for real and you’re sitting at home, it’s easy to declare this a failure. But I’ll keep screaming this into the void until I’m hoarse and my soul has simply waved the white flag. They won 95 games. It can’t really be a failure, even though the ultimate goal wasn’t achieved.
Let’s reverse the season. Let’s say that Strop and Morrow and Bryant all miss April and May. And the young players struggle immediately out of the gate. And then everything clicks in the middle of July and the Cubs close September with something resembling what the Brewers did. What’s the outlook then? And maybe they get one more game and we’re preparing for Game 2 this afternoon with a team with momentum. Didn’t happen though, but the outlook is different.
Still, I think Theo is talking specifically about Happ and Almora here, because they’ve basically been given two years. He would have been talking about Russell if it was just baseball, who would have been given four. I don’t know that you can complain that much about Schwarber’s season when he had a 115 wRC+ and a .343 wOBA. At least he’s trending in the right direction, but that also might just be who he is.
It’s easy to look back and say the Cubs should have made more of a push for Lorenzo Cain or Yelich or a couple others. But at the time, most everyone agreed to keep the powder dry because there was nothing that you wanted to tie up that much money that would cost you a run at Bryce Harper or Manny Machado this coming winter. That’s clearly what Theo is hinting at here.
The flip side of these two seasons though, and running it back as you did the last one, is the lack of urgency Theo said the Cubs had this season. That instead of getting the sweep they settled for two of three too much. And I could see that.
This is where the contrast with the Dodgers to me is starkest (again though, the Dodgers don’t have a previous parade to bank on). Whereas the Cubs had to live and die with the struggles of young players who maybe weren’t quite up for it last year, the Dodgers had Cody Bellinger come in and force Adrian Gonzalez into retirement. Whatever lab they have underneath Dodger stadium finished its work and unveiled Chris Taylor, which made Joc Pederson, a former Rookie Of The Year candidate, a part-time player.
And then this year Max Muncy punted Bellinger into the outfield a lot of the time, and Matt Kemp apparently is made stronger by fog, making for more competition around the diamond.
As far as just numbers, or amount of players coming through the system to the major league lineup, the Dodgers and Cubs are about the same. But the effects of those players have not been the same. And everyone on the Dodgers knows they won’t hesitate to move people around or to the bench if they feel that someone better is going to do the job.
You feel like that hasn’t been the case with the Cubs, even as much as they rotate guys. Then again, there wasn’t another option to turn to, either. Jason Heyward and Almora may not have hit for most of the season, but Happ didn’t really either. If someone had done better than the 3.0-WAR season Schwarber produced, we would have seen them, but they weren’t there.
That urgency, or lack of it, is easy to throw at Joe Maddon, but I don’t think that’s what Theo was getting at either. The atmosphere that Maddon creates is a big reason the Cubs win. They don’t get worked up about losses or wins. They never panic, which came in awfully handy when down 2-1 to the Dodgers or 3-1 to Cleveland, didn’t it?
But that state of tranquilo is only a half-step away from becoming a state of inertia or inattentiveness. Sure, the Brewers are approaching fast and we’re not quite winning enough, but we’ll take care of it. Until you don’t.
But that’s an easy fix. It’s a half or quarter-turn of the dial. And I think everyone at Wrigley realizes this.
What’s clear is that Theo isn’t going to let anyone except Rizzo, Bryant, Báez, and Contreras have a guaranteed job next season. Whether they’re supplemented by Harper or Machado or something a little more down the rack, I don’t know. But clearly someone with something to prove, or two or three of those guys, are going to be brought in. Everyone’s going to earn it this time.
There’s no guarantee it works. But running with what you have didn’t either, and you’d rather give them just short of enough racetrack than too much to find it. Now everyone will know the clock is ticking.
Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter