Cubs

Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

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Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4

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.    

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”       

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

The Cubs will never go with a set lineup, but it's time to accept the reality of this offense

There is no quick fix for what ails the Cubs offense.

Manny Machado would certainly help. That much is certain.

But dropping one of the game's elite hitters into any lineup would help boost that team's offensive profile. The only question is: Would the long-term cost be worth it for a short-term gain?

Because Machado wouldn't cure everything with this Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense.

After hammering Reds pitching in Cincinnati last weekend, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run against the Indians in 18 innings and they didn't even have to face Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.

They went a combined 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

It was also the 42nd different lineup the Cubs have rolled out this season in 46 games.

That's been a point of contention for many, many fans wishing Joe Maddon would stick with one set lineup from 1-through-8 in the order. 

But that will never happen. 

For starters, this way does work. The 2016 Cubs boasted 130 different lineups throughout the course of the season and we all know how that year finished.

A set lineup also won't work because this isn't 1970 and some players are better than others for different matchups against opposing starting pitchers (like Albert Almora Jr. vs. left-handed pitchers and Jason Heyward vs. right-handed pitcher). Also, players need rest to ensure they'll be fresh for the stretch run in August and September and the postseason after that.

"It's such a non-sophisticated conversation," Maddon said. "I don't know how it begins. I've heard it from old baseball dudes — I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It's like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift; it just gets passed along.

"I try not to comment on it, because really, it's such a poor discussion. There's no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn't belong in today's game and actually it never belonged in anybody's game."

So what can the Cubs do to find more consistency on offense?

Honestly, not much beyond just continuing to develop. Remember, this is still a very, very young and inexperienced core of position players and growing pains are inevitable.

It's also the nature of the game right now with strikeouts way up and basehits down. 

Offense is naturally an ebb-and-flow, up-and-down kind of thing. Words like "feel" and "confidence" are thrown around so often because they matter.

But with the way baseball has gone, the peaks and valleys have become as prevalent as ever. Try to point to other teams right now that have had no trouble scoring runs on a consistent basis this season.

The Yankees are close, but that's one team. The Braves and Red Sox are the next two closest, but they're not without flaws.

Atlanta has scored just 3 runs in their last 3 games as they dropped a series to Jake Arrieta and the Phillies this week. The Red Sox haven't score more than 6 runs in a game since April 30.

It may seem like the Cubs are on a roller coaster all on their own, but that may just be because of HOW they go through valleys. 

The Cubs still struggle with runners in scoring position, ranking 26th in baseball in that area (.222 AVG). They rank 24th with runners in scoring position and 2 outs (.194 AVG).

But delve deeper and you'll see the Cubs actually rank near the top of baseball in RUNS in such situations. 

With guys in scoring position, they sit 5th in MLB wiith 168 runs. With guys in scoring position and 2 outs, they rank 6th in runs, ahead of the Yankees.

So they're giving themselves plenty of opportunity by getting guys on base and in scoring position often.

Another elite hitter would help things, sure. You could say that for any team in baseball.

But the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs are 4th in MLB in runs scored, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in OPS and 5th in SLG.

They do feast on poor teams and have trouble scoring against better opponents, but every team has that issue to some degree.

Getting Anthony Rizzo — whose 2018 OPS (.661) is almost 200 points below his career mark (.842) — back to his standard MVP-candidate level would certainly help matters, too.

The Cubs are on the right path — trying to use the whole field, hit the ball on a line more, make more contact — but it's not something that will become consistent parts of their respective offensive profiles overnight.

Maddon was actually OK with where his team was at before being shut out Wednesday night.

"I think a lot of guys are doing pretty well right now," Maddon said ahead of the Cubs' 1-0 loss. "...Overall, I kinda like what I'm seeing on the offensive side. I just think that OK, are we doing a better job of not chasing? I think so.

"Are we utilizing the opposite gap a little better? I think so. Strikeouts, I don't think anybody's overtly striking out too much right now. So I kinda like what we're doing with the bats. I kinda do. ... I think a lot of guys are starting to get it."

But there is still one area Maddon will never be satisfied with — getting runners home from third base with less than 2 outs.

"Of course," Maddon laughed, "I'm gonna talk about that for the next 10 years and I'm not gonna like it, probably."

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein on Manny Machado rumors: 'It's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at'

Despite the MLB trade deadline being two months away, rumors of the Cubs potentially acquiring Orioles' shortstop Manny Machado have intensifed recently. Regardless, Cubs president Theo Epstein made his point on the rumor frenzy quite clear Thursday.

"I can say with regards to this particular spasm of media frenzy, it is outrageously outsized when you compare it to the reality of the situation," Epstein said Thursday on 670 The Score.

Machado is having an unbelievable season with the Orioles, hitting .328 with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs entering Thursday. If traded, he would undoubtedly provide a boost to any ballclub, but that is a big "if."

Of course, the MLB season is not even two months old yet, which Epstein pointed out as being a big factor in the situation.

"It's May," he said. "We're still figuring out who we are as a team this year. We're still figuring out our place in the division.

"There's an atypical amount of trade discussion in May this year, which is essentially nil."

Rumors of the Cubs being a potential player in acquiring Machado make sense. At 15-34, the Orioles have the worst winning percentage (.306) in the MLB. With their current positioning, trading Machado could start a rebuild that the Orioles might just need. The Cubs have a 24-year-old shortstop in Addison Russell that the Orioles could acquire to a) replace Machado and b) use as the face of their rebuild.

Be that as it may, Epstein said the rumors are something that the Cubs are "just rolling our eyes at."

"I understand it's natural for people to connect the dots and there to be this kind of frenzy from time to time, but it's honestly something we're looking at and just rolling our eyes at," he said. "It's not like July, where every now and then there's lots of coverage on deals that are actually being discussed or actually might happen.

"This one is just out there in fantasy land at this point."