Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein stood in the middle of the team’s Mesa complex, surveying the back fields and watching anonymous Cubs prospects play in the Arizona sunshine.
Epstein listened to a question about whether or not he felt true ownership of this team in a way he couldn’t while the Cubs wrote off three big-league seasons, losing 286 games and playing for a future that may or may not come.
The implication being the president of baseball operations would begin to feel the heat in Year 4.
Most of the assets from the Jim Hendry administration had already been auctioned off. The Cubs wouldn’t go into the 2015 season preparing to be sellers at the July 31 trade deadline.
Epstein had already fired two handpicked managers (Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria) and one he inherited (Mike Quade), lucking into the perfect front-and-center leader for this market (Joe Maddon).
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Handing Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a full-no-trade clause signaled the team would be relevant this year. Cubs fans and the Chicago media wouldn’t be as obsessed with what was happening at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa or which college hitter would get drafted with the ninth overall pick.
Epstein would actually be responsible for, you know, the on-field product.
“That’s a silly thing,” Epstein said. “Like I don’t have ownership before or whatever? Or I’m the only one to contribute? No, we are a team. As a front office, as a baseball operation, we’re all in this together.
“We take responsibility for the things that go well – and the things that don’t go well. Everyone’s been all-in and having each other’s back from Day 1. And I think the organization’s gotten healthier and healthier and it’s going to continue (that way).
“This isn’t going to be our best team. We know that. So we’ll just continue to grow it the right way and compete. And hopefully the standings make us happy in the end.”
Well, the Cubs finished in third place – with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball – not a bad way for Epstein to enter the final year of his contract and begin discussions about a long-term extension with chairman Tom Ricketts.
The Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game and won the first playoff series ever against the St. Louis Cardinals in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892. The Cubs also never had a lead in the National League Championship Series, getting exposed and swept out by the New York Mets.
Four years ago this week, Epstein won his “Baseball is Better” press conference, the Cubs putting his name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and buying his brand while the franchise slashed major-league payroll, operated like a small- or mid-market team and tried to build a long-term contender.
The Cubs engineered 10 major trades during those first three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control.
Anthony Rizzo forced his way into the MVP conversation with a 31-homer, 101-RBI season. Jake Arrieta blossomed into a potential Cy Young Award winner by going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Addison Russell eventually took over at shortstop and put up 13 homers and 29 doubles during his age-21 season.
Kris Bryant – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft – became an All-Star third baseman and should be a unanimous Rookie of the Year winner. Kyle Schwarber – the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft – is the first player in major-league history to hit five postseason home runs before his 23rd birthday.
“Managing success can be really difficult,” Epstein said during last week’s year-end review inside a Wrigley Field storage room that had been converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. “You have to be really careful that you don’t have an organizational arrogance that takes hold or a sense of entitlement or a sense of complacency.
“But I don’t even think we’re there yet. We’ll deal with that after we win a World Series. We are not there yet. All we did was finally get to October, knock off the Pirates and win a series at home against the Cardinals. But we fell short of our ultimate goal.
“There’s so much that we have to do to just maintain the level that we accomplished this year, let alone improve upon it and then win the ultimate prize.”
The Cubs created an identity and started to play more like Epstein’s old Boston Red Sox teams, leading the majors by seeing 3.97 pitches per plate appearance (and striking out 1,518 times, or 126 more than the next team). The Cubs finished second in the majors in walks (567) and relentlessly attacked, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.
The Cubs have an American League-style lineup now, but through four draft classes the Epstein administration has used 80 picks on pitchers and none of those arms are close to contributing on Opening Day 2016 (and even Opening Day 2017 might be a stretch).
With about $5 million in financial flexibility at the July 31 trade deadline – and a stockpile of young hitters to deal from – the Cubs made smaller moves that sort of stabilized the back end of the rotation (Dan Haren) and didn’t really boost the bullpen (Tommy Hunter).
After watching New York’s young power pitchers knock the Cubs off-balance with off-speed stuff and blow away a young lineup, Epstein knows it’s time to spend big in free agency and/or trade away some of those hitters to address the team’s biggest weakness.
“We need more pitching,” Epstein said. “That’s obvious. But it’s important to put in perspective because sometimes the last data point is always sort of the freshest in people’s minds. And sometimes coming out of the playoffs you lose the big picture of the whole season.
“There are 30 major-league clubs. We were third in ERA as a starting staff (3.36), third in ERA (3.36) as a pitching staff.
“If you want to get all nerdy, get all geeky on it, we were first in FIP (3.26) and first in WAR (19.3) among starting pitchers, first in FIP (3.30), first in WAR (24.3) as a pitching staff.
“So I don’t want to take away from the accomplishments of our pitching staff and our pitching infrastructure this year.”
Without question, Epstein’s fingerprints are all over the Cubs now. And now the hard part begins.
“Nothing is promised in this game,” Epstein said. “Nothing is promised in life. There are teams that think they have these surefire five-year windows (and) have often seen them slam shut in front of them through bad luck or bad performance or bad decision-making.
“We don’t take anything for granted. We have to work our tails off to get back to a position where we have another shot at October.”