Theo Epstein breaks down Cubs' challenges in quest for World Series repeat

Theo Epstein breaks down Cubs' challenges in quest for World Series repeat

Whether it’s building a perennial contender or defending a World Series title, Theo Epstein takes the same clear-eyed view of the situation. Whether it’s remodeling the Boston Red Sox or taking a sledgehammer to baseball operations at Wrigley Field, Epstein cuts through the clutter.

“The primary reason why it’s hard to repeat is just because it’s really difficult to win the World Series,” Epstein said. “In any given year, if you’re any old team, you have a 3-percent chance. If you’re the best team, you might have, you know, a 10- or 12-percent chance. So it’s just hard to do. But there are things that get in the way.”

If the rebuild didn’t obsess over curses, antiquated facilities, too many day games and Chicago’s nightlife temptations — or whatever other theories tried to explain the 108-year drought — then the next phase won’t be consumed with worrying about hangovers or players not being quite as hungry or motivated.

But Epstein’s three-dimensional worldview — his ability to blend scouting and analytics, his people skills balanced against a ruthless streak — won’t completely dismiss those concerns, either. The Cubs will experience their new normal on Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona, trying to become Major League Baseball’s first franchise to repeat since the New York Yankees won it all in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

“When you win, you get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Epstein said. “There can be a tendency — at some point, no matter how high the character — to start thinking about yourself a little bit more.

“You have to work really hard — we all do — to avoid any kind of organizational arrogance. (Or) any sense of entitlement to really understand that of all the great things that happened last year, the most special aspect is that we all got to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

“So it’s important to like opt back into that mindset, to buy back into being a team player, to being a team-centric organization.”

After a short offseason where they were celebrated in front of millions at the championship parade/Grant Park rally, on “Saturday Night Live,” all over the late-night talk shows, at Disney World and in the White House, the Cubs will go back to the grind next week. It begins with a camp lengthened by the World Baseball Classic, followed by 38 exhibitions, the 162-game marathon and what they hope will be three more playoff rounds.

“I don’t worry about our group,” Epstein said. “But with some teams after winning it, other things creep in and get in the way of that bonding.”

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These Cubs have clearly earned the benefit of the doubt so far, from the way they’ve handled the big-market spotlight and shrugged off the weight of franchise history. Instead of coasting, Kris Bryant followed up a Rookie of the Year campaign with an MVP season. After taking the security of a long-term deal, Anthony Rizzo matured into a team ambassador and an All-Star first baseman.

Addison Russell (23), Javier Baez (24), Kyle Schwarber (24 in March), Willson Contreras (25 in May) and Albert Almora Jr. (23 in April) should have so much of their careers in front of them and the carrot of a big contract. Jake Arrieta — who is positioned to become a free agent after this season — is pitching for his Boras Corp.-negotiated megadeal.

Maybe the rotation will finally break down and the Cubs won’t have five pitchers make at least 29 starts, the way they did last season, leading the majors with a 2.96 ERA. Maybe Wade Davis, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon have trouble staying healthy and manager Joe Maddon gets roasted again for his bullpen decisions. Maybe the playoff matchups won’t be so favorable this year, either.

The San Francisco Giants reacted to their bullpen meltdowns by giving Mark Melancon a record contract (at the time) for a closer ($62 million over four years). The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t really seem to trust anyone on their pitching staff beyond Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen. The Cleveland Indians made it to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 without Carlos Carrasco or a full-strength Danny Salazar.

Even if there are elements of luck and randomness, you still have to recognize the muscle memory and give credit to the mental toughness that it took to: eliminate a Giants franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010; recover from back-to-back shutouts in the National League Championship Series; and storm back from a 3-1 deficit in the Fall Classic.

“We took another step forward,” Epstein said. “You gain an inner confidence, a default belief that you and your teammates know how to win. And through hard times, you just have a faith in getting back to what got you there, knowing that you’re good enough not only to compete, but to win and to win the whole thing.

“That kind of confidence is hard to create. That’s why you see teams kind of gradually do better and better and better the more times they’re in the postseason.”

Amid the raucous celebration at Progressive Field — at the beginning of his bender — Epstein compared being part of championships teams to having kids: “You cherish both of them. Different origins, different personalities, but they’re both things you treasure for your lifetime.”

After reversing the curse, the 2005 Red Sox got swept by Ozzie Guillen’s White Sox in the divisional round. The 2008 Red Sox lost an American League Championship Series Game 7 to Maddon’s upstart Tampa Bay Rays.

“Generally speaking,” Epstein said, “I think teams that win it all sometimes face unique challenges where a lot of things come up that pull everyone associated with the organization in different directions. So locking back into a team-first, competitive, connected mindset is really important.

“But that’s where having such great character guys is important. And I really trust our group to get locked back in again.”

David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

David Ross indicates no Cubs players have tested positive for COVID-19

The Cubs appear to be in better position than some teams as they start Summer Camp.

When asked Friday if he feels any anxiety being back at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager David Ross indicated the club has had no players test positive for COVID-19 during intake testing this week. 

Ross told reporters in Friday's Zoom session he didn't see any additional anxiety in the players initially either when it comes to the strangeness of the new protocols.

“And I think it's comforting to know that everybody's clear and, you know, has tested negative.”

Most Cubs players took their tests on Wednesday, but the club is following MLB guidelines and has not confirmed or denied any results. Because it’s not considered a work-related injury, teams cannot announce if a player tests positive for the coronavirus without consent.

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Later in the press conference, Ross was asked if he expects any players not to be at camp Friday, outside of the injured José Quintana.

“We’re not supposed to comment I guess — I think you guys have heard all that — on testing positive or negative or any of that stuff, and so I don't wanna lead into that,” he said. “But I definitely expect everybody to be here. I haven't heard anybody's not going to be here.”

Ross was then asked to clarify if every player is cleared.

“Report times are spread out, so not everybody is actually here,” he said. “But I haven’t heard of anybody from [Cubs head athletic trainer PJ Mainville] that is not gonna be showing up today.”

MLB intends to release broad league-wide testing results as early as Friday — the number of tests conducted and how many came back positive. We've already seen several COVID-related announcements from other teams this week.

Wednesday, the Phillies quietly placed four players on the 10-day injured list. Friday, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti announced outfielder Delino DeShields has tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing minor symptoms.

Former Cubs and current Angels manager Joe Maddon said Friday 9-10 players would not be participating in workouts and did not disclose why, suggesting that at least several of them have tested positive.


What Jose Quintana's injury says about precarious nature of this MLB season

What Jose Quintana's injury says about precarious nature of this MLB season

One more injury or a positive COVID-19 test within the starting rotation, and the Cubs will be in trouble.

Jose Quintana’s thumb injury, which is expected to keep him from throwing for two weeks, called to attention just how precarious the future of every team is this season.

"We had some concerns about our starting pitching depth,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday. “A freak injury further challenges us in that area, and we have to respond."


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Starting pitching is a particularly vulnerable area in general. COVID-19 can affect anyone, even a team’s ace. More reports of positive COVID-19 tests are bound to trickle out now that teams are beginning workouts Friday. And with a three-week Summer Camp expediting the ramp-up process, risk of soft-tissue injury becomes a concern for pitchers in particular.

Add into the mix a microscopic surgery on a lacerated nerve in Quintana’s left thumb – the Cubs announced on Thursday that he suffered the injury while washing dishes – and the Cubs are beginning Summer Camp already shorthanded.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” Epstein said. “This this is a bump in the road that we just have to overcome.”

The baseball season could be cancelled for any number of reasons, safety as judged by the league and government officials being the most important. But MLB also has the power to suspend or cancel the season if the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.

What that means isn’t for Epstein to decide, but he declined to give an opinion on the topic Thursday.

“My understanding of what the standards would be don’t necessarily matter,” Epstein said. “It’s a question for the league. I hope we never get in that situation.”

Injuries always have the power to alter a season. But that’s even more so the case during a 60-game season. At best, Quintana’s injury could delay him a several weeks. At worst, even just a three-month recovery time would wipe out his entire season.

For now, the plan is to replace Quintana with someone like Alec Mills. Assuming Mills does win the starting job, that takes him out of his role as a middle reliever, a bullpen spot Cubs manager David Ross emphasized earlier in the week.

“It’ll be really unrealistic to expect guys to get to maybe 100 or so pitches right out of the shoot,” Ross said on Monday. “That may be a bit of a challenge. … The real important areas for me right now is that swingman, your Alec Mills-types that can give you two or three innings ang get to the back end of the bullpen. Those middle innings if guys aren’t stretched out enough are going to be vitally important.”

The ripple effects from Quintana’s injury aren’t nearly enough to undermine the competitive integrity of the season. But what if several teams have their starting pitching depth dramatically affected by COVID-19? What if those teams include the Dodgers and the Yankees?

Now that MLB has started ramping up for the 2020 season, it’s incentivized to keep the season running. But as the Cubs learned this week, just one dish-washing accident can alter a team’s 2020 outlook.