Cubs

Theo Epstein speaks for all Cubs fans as he sums up the frustrating season to date

Theo Epstein speaks for all Cubs fans as he sums up the frustrating season to date

If you were listening to 670 The Score Thursday morning, nobody would blame you if you confused Theo Epstein for a random Cubs fan.

But that wasn't Bob from Berwyn chatting with David Haugh and Mike Mulligan about the infuriating 2019 season the Cubs have played to date — it was the president of baseball operations for the club, who told it like it is and pulled no punches.

Like usual, Epstein was measured in his response, but his frustration was palpable, as he explained how there are simply no excuses for the way the Cubs have played this year and especially lately. 

He did not point to the recent string of injuries as a reason or use any other potential excuse in the books to explain away the fact that this team woke up Thursday morning tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the second Wild-Card spot. 

When asked which area of the Cubs' game has been inconsistent, Epstein offered his take:

"I just think our failure to play up to our ability, play up to our potential," Epstein said. "We just lost two games in a row to a team that I think we're more talented than (we have a 150-run differential better than), we were just caught from behind by a team that our run differential is over 100 runs better than. But they're playing better ball — the Brewers. And they just beat us five out of seven in huge games and we put them back in the race. 

"It's just the inability to show up and play winning baseball, for the whole to be as good as the sum of the parts. It's not right now. I think our guys said it [Wednesday] night — we're not playing good baseball. We're playing bad baseball. We [have the] second-most errors in the league, most outs on the bases in the league — those things chip away at your margin for error. When you do those things, you can't just roll out and have your talent win games and that's the reality of where we are at this point. Those are some of the attributes that have marked our play this year. 

"The only good news is we are very fortunate that we have a chance with a few weeks left to change that script. If we finally start playing good baseball on a consistent basis and show up every night and win a bunch of games, we can change the script of what the 2019 Cubs will be known for. That's an opportunity that should not be taken lightly because at this point in the season, I don't think any of us associated with this team are going to be proud of what our identity is here for the 2019 Cubs, what we're going for — those things we just talked about. 

"We're the only ones who can get ourselves out of this. All we have to do is play really good baseball for a couple weeks, so we should relish that opportunity to change the script here."

After the Cubs closed the gap in the division to only a 4-game deficit with a win Monday night in Nico Hoerner's debut against the Padres, the Cardinals lost back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday night. Yet the Cubs couldn't draw any closer, losing a pair of games to a Padres team that has been well out of the playoff race for weeks. 

Meanwhile, the Brewers lost Christian Yelich for the season, yet they won both games Tuesday and Wednesday night, moving into a tie with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the NL. This is the same Brewers team that looked to be falling out of it as the calendar moved into September, but — as Epstein said — the Cubs let them back into it with subpar showings on back-to-back weekends.

This season, the Cubs have essentially had just one good stretch, where they went 22-6 from mid-April to mid-May. But since then, they've gone 52-54 and that includes the addition of Nicholas Castellanos and Craig Kimbrel:

Epstein's 19-minute interview was jam-packed with interesting tidbits from the leader of the Cubs baseball department, but the overall point was apparent — he is frustrated by the way this team has underachieved for over a calendar year now. 

Even in talking about Jason McLeod and his lateral move from overseeing player development and amateur scouting to senior vice president of player personnel, Epstein drove the same point home:

"Really, this is about the organization and getting some fresh perspective and some change," Epstein said. "Clearly, for over a year now, we haven't been getting the most out of our talent. We haven't been getting the most out of our big-league roster. So there's gotta be some small things that we can tweak, adjust, do a little bit differently short-term, medium-term, long-term to try to get more out of that. 

"Jason's a great baseball guy; he's a fresh set of eyes. If he's around the team more, it gives a new perspective that maybe he'll say something that helps a player or helps the front office or helps Joe [Maddon] or a coach just with a new set of eyes.

"We're taking a fresh look at every aspect of the organization."

That sounds like a man looking to make some major shake-ups with the Cubs this winter if they can't turn things around over the next two-and-a-half weeks.

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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