Won’t Stop Believing: Theo Epstein confident ‘we’re the right group’ to fix Cubs — but is he right?
Almost everything went spectacularly right — including some admitted luck — during the Epstein regime’s five-year rebuild to the 2016 title. But farm-system problems from the beginning and poor decisions in an effort to sustain the success leave plenty of room for doubt.
Minutes before Cubs president Theo Epstein’s annual postmortem, whispers among reporters rose in the Wrigley Field interview room as a media-relations executive from the business operation and recently reassigned baseball executive Jason McLeod entered the room and waited against a wall.
Could bigger changes than manager Joe Maddon’s firing be afoot? What about McLeod, whose scouting and player-development departments sputtered and stalled for the last eight years? Where was general manager Jed Hoyer? Could a change even involve Epstein himself?
Then Epstein walked in from another door, set some notes near the microphone and answered more than 60 questions from reporters about the 2019 season and what might come next.
It turned out it was business as usual — even as Epstein spent much of those 81 minutes talking about the “real change” coming throughout the organization and of “starting anew.”
But the big question left unanswered and lingering long after Epstein finished was how much “real change” can there be when the same management team responsible for many of the mistakes that led them to this point is in charge of fixing them?
“You asked what are we doing differently,” Epstein said toward the end of his Q&A session. “It’s adjust our approaches a little bit but stay aggressive and know that we’re the right group to build the next Cubs championship team.”
How does he know that? How do any of us know that?
Didn’t the team’s three-year decline happen on his watch, with his front office overvaluing some of the core, failing to backfill from the farm system and spending poorly on free agents?
And the manager is the top guy in the organization to lose his job?
Admittedly, Epstein said the mistakes and failure of the team to make the playoffs with the second-highest payroll in the game “is my responsibility as the leader of the baseball operation.”
He also has a track record that includes three World Series championships in two cities — including the two most famous slump-busting titles in history — that will undoubtedly lead him into the Hall of Fame.
But to “know that we’re the right group” to fix what that group broke is easy for him to say and anything but a certainty.
And some of his legacy is sure to be measured against how the next, scrutinized chapter of his career is penned.
“I’m up for everything that comes with this role,” Epstein said. “I’m up for the high expectations.”
Whatever the expectations, the heat certainly is on like he has never experienced in 17 seasons as the top baseball executive in Boston and Chicago.
The last time he had a late-season crash-and-burn playoff miss like this year’s 2-10 finish was in Boston in 2011, when the Red Sox blew the largest September lead in history as pitchers such as John Lackey and Jon Lester ate chicken and drank beer in the clubhouse during games when they weren’t pitching.
The Cubs provided the perfect-timing escape hatch for Epstein to leave Boston with a year left on his contract and start fresh with a new curse to bust and an ownership family and fan base that welcomed him with a generous honeymoon period to get it done.
That also was the last time he undertook a rebuilding effort, which in that case included navigating new amateur-acquisition restrictions and franchise-debt-related spending limits he wasn’t fully apprised of before taking the job.
This one won’t require the same level of top-to-bottom overhaul. But Epstein nonetheless promises top-to-bottom examination and change — at least from the bottom to just below his inner circle.
McLeod, for instance, has been the club’s top amateur-acquisition and development executive since the Theo Trio (also Hoyer) took over. But his operation hasn’t developed a full-season big-league pitcher in those eight years, and the development of hitters has been only marginally better.
Last month, McLeod was shifted to the big-league side of the operation in a “lateral move” ahead of big changes to player development that Epstein said will include the hiring of pitching and hitting directors. That means somebody like Kyle Boddy, the tech-savvy, pitch-design whiz from the state-of-the-art Driveline Baseball training facility near Seattle. The Cubs made a run at Boddy before the Reds hired him to oversee their minor-league pitching operation.
“We’re not blowing anything up, per se,” Epstein said. “That’s not the goal, but we’re likely to see real change, real adjustments at various levels, most levels, of our baseball operation in some form or another.”
Except, obviously, at the highest levels.
To be fair, Epstein has an innovative spirit and a cutthroat drive to win that has served him well and clearly is behind the dissatisfaction with 95- and 84-win seasons the last two years — and the “horrible” feeling of missing the playoffs.
He’s also a hands-on exec who promised a player-development “machine” when he came through the door that failed to materialize, then spent the team into a payroll bind to chase sustained success with his chosen core — $138 million of this year’s payroll tied up in pitching alone.
The Cubs had a higher payroll than every team in the playoffs this year.
“I’ve made decisions to pour a lot of resources — every available dollar we’ve poured into plugging holes with this group, trying to find pitching for this group, trying to elevate this group,” he said. “A lot of young players who were blocked by players in this group we’ve traded, out of belief in this group.”
The man who once traded Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston to seek a championship hasn’t been afraid to trade prospects to win, including sending 19-year-old Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman to win big in 2016 — an unassailable move at the time and even now as Torres has become a star.
But one of the themes of Epstein’s postmortem and rationales for promised change is the “winner’s trap” he said many in the organization, from the players all the way up to his office, fell into by looking back on past success and methods of the club’s young core and assuming continued World Series success.
“If you want to say we were stubborn with this group, I think that’s fair,” he said. “We had a real belief in this group.
“That’s an area where I need to do a better job as a leader, letting go of the past and focusing on the future.”
Epstein admits that while many of their moves to build the original Cubs winner and some of the moves to sustain it were done “really artfully,” there also “are times we’ve done it in a really clumsy fashion or just been dead wrong on guys.
“There are times we’ve given up too much in deals and more importantly not gotten back what we were looking for,” he added of moves that included the 2017 Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox (for Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease). “There have certainly been deals we could have been in on as well.”
That appeared to be a reference to then-Detroit ace Justin Verlander, who in 2017 wanted to go to the Cubs but instead reluctantly agreed to waive his no-trade rights for a deal to Houston after the Cubs — unsure how to best evaluate a recent performance decline — balked at the prospect cost and remaining money on his contract.
Verlander led the Astros to the 2017 championship, won a Cy Young Award the next year and is a co-favorite for this year’s award as the Astros made the playoffs again.
“We just need to do a better job,” Epstein said. “We just need to be right. Not more or less aggressive. We just need to get these right.”
Epstein, 45, has gotten it spectacularly right twice, including as the youngest general manager in history when he took over the 2003 Red Sox and retooled a 93-win team to eventually break the 86-year Curse of the Bambino in 2004.
That team did not require a rebuild. It benefitted from the manna from heaven of David Ortiz — an arbitration-eligible Twins slugger who was non-tendered because the small-revenue Twins couldn’t afford the luxury of his defensive deficiencies and recent injury history.
Six weeks later, the Red Sox signed him. And two months into the season, Ortiz was an everyday player on the way to becoming “Big Papi.”
After nine years, two championships and one epic collapse in Boston, Epstein took on the organizational overhaul and tanking rebuild of the Cubs, a five-year process accelerated by the historic success of Cy Young pitcher Jake Arrieta and sudden availability of Maddon in the fall of 2014.
“If you look at the five-year rebuild, it was just about perfect. It was probably one of the best in history, if not the best,” Epstein said. “And why? It wasn’t because it was a grand strategy or a new paradigm of how to run a baseball operation. It was because we performed at an extraordinarily high level. We hit on an incredible amount of deals and got impact players back in deals where we shouldn’t have.”
The sign-and-flip strategy with short-term free agent pitchers paid off with Scott Feldman turning into Arrieta and Pedro Strop through a 2013 trade with the Orioles. Negotiating to carry over unused payroll budget from 2014 into 2015 created the flexibility to sign free agent Lester.
Trading Ryan Dempster in 2012 and Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in 2014 netted a Game 7 World Series starter (Kyle Hendricks) and 2016 All-Star starting shortstop (Addison Russell).
The Rule 5 acquisition of Hector Rondon gave them a playoff closer. And even some of the incremental, shoestring-budget bullpen moves (Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill) paid off in 2015 for an ahead-of-schedule contender.
“And we haven’t performed at that level since then,” Epstein said.
Good in-season trades for the likes of reliever Jesse Chavez last year and outfielder Nick Castellanos this year don’t come close to outweighing offseason whiffs on high-risk injury case Brandon Morrow (half a season for $21 million), control-challenged Tyler Chatwood (one year left to salvage $38 million starter value) and enigmatic Yu Darvish ($126 million for a lost 2018, second-half surge in 2019 and wait-and-see the next four seasons).
That doesn’t count the disappointing two months of Craig Kimbrel (two years left on a $43 million deal) or the oft-criticized $184 million deal for outfielder Jason Heyward (who has been an important contributor on several levels, if overpaid).
“We’ve had real good major-league pitching, but there’s a cost to pay when you don’t develop your own pitching,” Epstein said, referring to his overall strategy to develop big-league hitters but acquire a lot of pitching from the outside, which became unsustainable when they were unable to develop even one pitcher who could stick for a season (not the plan).
“It’s certainly been a disappointment, and it’s put us in a position to have to be overly aggressive in trades and free agency to maintain that level to have elite starting pitching. We’ve had good pitching. For that to continue we have to start developing our own. We’ve made a lot of adjustments the last couple years.”
That includes joining the pitch-lab movement of hyperanalysis of spin rates and mechanics to help pitchers throw harder with better movement and to add pitches to their arsenals more effectively.
Adding velocity and stuff was part of the Darvish and Chatwood signings even against some internal debate over makeup and their abilities to handle the fishbowl of Wrigley Field.
And even with all that went right during the Cubs rebuild, Epstein benefitted from a fair share of admitted luck, including the beyond-expectations performance of Arrieta as a Cub.
The organization also lucked out when Houston tanked so much better than the Cubs in 2012 that the Cubs picked second in the draft behind the Astros — who then chose pitcher Mark Appel out of Stanford instead of Kris Bryant.
Bryant was everybody’s top hitter on the board, but the Cubs said Appel was at the top of their overall draft board and would have selected him if available.
In the first 52 years of the draft, Appel is one of only three No. 1 overall picks to sign and never reach the majors, having “stepped aside” from the game last year.
It might not be fair to criticize that evaluation if only because the Cubs obviously were one of several teams to hold that view, but how would that eight-year scouting and player development record look with Appel on the ledger instead of Bryant?
And this: When working on dealing veteran pitcher Dempster at the deadline in 2012, the Cubs had a deal done with the Braves for pitcher Randall Delgado — until Dempster was blindsided by reports on Twitter and used his no-trade rights to nix the deal because he wanted to go to the Dodgers instead.
When they got to the final minutes before the deadline and convinced Dempster the Dodgers were unwilling partners (allowing Dempster to listen to a call), they salvaged a last-minute deal with Texas for Hendricks, then a Class A pitcher.
What do the last five years look like with Delgado instead of Hendricks?
And where would they be if anybody had bitten big enough on trade talks involving Javy Baez before Maddon fell in love with the talent in the winter of 2014 and allowed Javy to be Javy — and an MVP runner-up?
“Absolutely, we’ve had some luck involved,” Epstein said of the rebuild when talking about the Hendricks deal on the eve of the 2016 playoffs.
That’s not to say Epstein’s crew can’t make right what went wrong the last few years — even with the Rubik’s Cube challenge of an empty farm system and a full payroll.
But how can even he “know we’re the right group” — never mind a Ricketts family ownership enjoying franchise-record revenues and skyrocketing franchise value despite quick endings the last two seasons?
Almost two decades ago, Epstein was one of the few GMs in the game — and perhaps its most aggressive — at the forefront of the so-called Moneyball movement, exploiting market inefficiencies (famously on-base percentage at the time) and using vast amounts of new information and proprietary computer models to seek the next advantages.
He compensated for picking lower in the draft by “overspending” throughout the draft to acquire harder-to-sign impact players other teams were reluctant to risk picks on.
Hard caps on amateur spending make that impossible now. And almost every team has similar tools and models for seeking competitive edges.
Epstein certainly knows what he’s doing; his credentials are undeniable; and he has a battalion of scouts, analysts, advisors and other staff at his disposal like no Cubs front office had before him.
But the industry has caught up. Teams like the Astros are setting technological and developmental standards. The small-market Rays have sustained success in the rugged American League East through two regimes because of shrewd management in the face of inferior resources. The Dodgers’ eighth-year ownership group initially outspent the field to win, then hired Rays GM Andrew Friedman to modernize the organization top to bottom; they’ve won seven consecutive division titles, including two 100-win seasons and back-to-back trips to the World Series in Friedman’s five seasons.
After Maddon became the only big-name fall guy for the Cubs’ failings since the championship, it’s at least fair to question how well this front office is equipped to “start anew” in an effort to return to the top.
Did it overestimate its original young core, or the value of its power over a more diversified lineup of skill sets? Is it too reliant on relationships with a handful of teams in player and staff acquisitions and worldview (Red Sox, Padres and Marlins in particular)? Does it undervalue pitching development vs. its big-league scouting and strategy “infrastructure”?
Was the new regime too dismissive of DJ LeMahieu’s alleged inability to drive or pull the ball when it threw him into the Ian Stewart deal with the Rockies in one of their first trades with the Cubs? Did it overlook red flags in Stewart’s makeup when it compared him to Alex Gordon, touting him in a 2012 internal “Baseball Operations Update” as “an excellent bounce-back candidate”?
Stewart, who quickly became a bust with the Cubs, acknowledged publicly that spring that his attitude was so relaxed at times that Rockies coaches actually asked him if he even cared about baseball.
“I think that’s the tricky part of being [in the] front office or a scout: You probably don’t know what guys are made of until you see them on a day-to-day basis,” said LeMahieu, a three-time All-Star, when looking back on the trade in 2016. “I have a drive to get better every year, and I expect a lot out of myself.”
That was one of the regime’s first internal player evaluations. LeMahieu’s all-fields contact approach has been a trait lacking in the Cubs lineup and sought for at least two years.
Did Epstein underestimate the off-the-field impact of maintaining ties with Russell during his domestic-violence suspension — if not overestimate Russell’s on-the-field value? Did he send wrong messages to the clubhouse when he let Tommy La Stella return to the organization after refusing to report to the minors in 2016 and by firing hitting coach Chili Davis after one season last year because some players weren’t listening to the message the team asked Davis to deliver?
Maybe that starts to get into the weeds on the messaging. But consider that this front office has gone through 10 hitting coaches and assistant hitting coaches in eight years.
The bottom line is the bottom line: It’s a results-oriented business.
Whatever the answers to all the questions, that’s how Epstein will be judged post-Maddon and post-shake-up — and how anybody else will “know” this is the “right group” for this job at this time.
“Words don’t mean anything,” Epstein said. “Actions do.”