The Cubs were one of the four teams still standing in October when a New York writer asked Theo Epstein about the best blueprint for winning in the playoffs.
The president of baseball operations had helped build two championship teams in Boston and oversaw the massive rebuilding job at Wrigley Field, where at that point the Cubs were down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series.
“The only thing I know for sure,” Epstein said, “is that whatever team wins the World Series, their particular style of play will be completely in vogue and trumpeted from the rooftops by the media all offseason — and in front offices — as the way to win.
“So if we win the World Series, it’s going to be a necessity for every team to develop their own core of young homegrown position players. If the Mets win, it will be required that you have four ridiculous young starting pitchers on the same staff.
“If the Royals win, you need to have speed and athleticism and contact up and down your lineup. If the Blue Jays win, you need to fill your lineup full of right-handed epic mashers and make a huge trade at the deadline.
“I think that’s the only thing I can say with certainty. This game is too nuanced and too complicated for there to be any one way.”
The Cubs will need all of the above to live up to Bovada’s Monday morning projection as the World Series favorite (11-to-1 odds), hours after Kansas City won its first championship in 30 years.
The Cubs have a lineup that should wear teams out for years to come, assuming Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber stay healthy, hungry and productive. Stay tuned to see if Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and/or Jorge Soler will be traded for pitching this winter, or if an uber-talented group of young hitters stays intact.
The pitching-rich Mets looked unbeatable during that NLCS sweep — and then unraveled across five games in the World Series — which again shows you shouldn’t overreact to small sample sizes in the postseason.
But the Cubs should try to find a way to add two big-time starters — David Price is very much interested in coming to Chicago — at a time when they don’t appear to have big-market spending power.
Kyle Hendricks would be a great No. 5 starter on a contending team, but he shouldn’t be starting Game 3 in a playoff rotation. Jason Hammel’s up-and-down season and salary commitment ($11 million guaranteed) could again make him a flip-able asset that clears the way for a bigger deal.
The Cubs aren’t going to bring back ex-manager Dale Sveum, whose offensive philosophy factored into his firing after the 2013 season — and helped him shape a relentless lineup as Kansas City’s hitting coach.
But the Cubs will need to get better at situational hitting and making contact after batting .236 with runners in scoring position (or 18 points below the league average) and leading the majors with 1,518 strikeouts.
Leading up to the July 31 trade deadline next summer, Epstein will insist those deals almost always favor the sellers, downplaying the potential impact for buyers. (After all, that arbitrage system helped the Cubs restock their farm system and grow into a World Series contender within four years.)
Epstein doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Alex Anthopoulos, who acquired Price and Troy Tulowitzki in late July as finishing pieces to Toronto’s first playoff team since the back-to-back champions in 1992 and 1993 — and then walked away from a dream job rather than work for incoming Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro.
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Still, Epstein’s front office will need to do more at the deadline than delivering a fifth starter on the verge of retirement (Dan Haren) and an extra reliever who didn’t make any of the three playoff rosters (Tommy Hunter).
The Royals needed Johnny Cueto to win an elimination game against the Astros in the divisional round and then watched him throw nine innings in a Game 2 World Series victory over the Mets. Ben Zobrist — a Joe Maddon favorite and the super-utility guy the Cubs tried to acquire from Tampa Bay and Oakland within the last year — finished with an .880 postseason OPS. Both rental players are now free agents.
The Cubs can try to copy Kansas City’s late-game blueprint with all those power arms, but they already planned on rebuilding their bullpen with Hunter, Trevor Cahill, Jason Motte and Fernando Rodney among the 139 players eligible to negotiate and sign with any team starting at midnight on Saturday, the beginning of the free-agent frenzy.
Of course, it’s also easier to get Schwarber to work on his outfield defense — and hope Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta can control the running game — than find a potential 40-homer left-handed hitter and two frontline starters within one offseason.
“We need to get better,” Epstein said, “but I love the foundation that we’re working with.”