Cubs need to get better — but could’ve been a heck of a lot worse

There were a lot of words spoken at Friday’s end-of-season news conference with Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Seated in a room tucked into a very corner of an otherwise empty Wrigley Field, Epstein used about 10,000 of them himself.

It was long. It was a grind. It had some real highs and also some lows. There were times when the future looked so very bright, but others when all hope of a happy outcome seemed lost. Yes, I’m still talking about the press conference. But, no doubt about it, I could be talking about the 2017 Cubs’ season.

“We didn’t reach our ultimate goal,” Epstein said, “but there’s real value in getting back to October, winning a series, giving your fans thrilling baseball. I think that’s important. The identity of this organization has changed in ways that are meaningful and, I think, positive.

“In a year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we’re being honest, there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously. And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows you just how much the expectations have been raised around here and just how high the bar is, and that is a great thing. It doesn’t make this year a bust.”

Jason Heyward needs to be better. The same could be said of a whole lot of his friends. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Oh, no, the season was far from a bust. Since when did not winning the World Series equal a bust? I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when the Cubs didn’t even go to the playoffs every year. It’s still special when they do.

Their 92-win campaign, then beating the Nationals in the divisional round and getting creamed by the Dodgers in the NLCS — it was far from a nonstop thrill ride. It was slow-moving at times, stuck, frustrating. But it beat the heck out of watching some other city zoom by with its hands in the air.

As always with Epstein — perhaps the brightest baseball mind of his time — the offseason is a time of tremendous opportunity, responsibility and excitement. What will the Cubs do in free agency? What trades will they make?

“If we could make all that we have, theoretically, on our board, we’d definitely win the World Series next year,” Epstein joked. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

That goes for every part of the game and every part of a team. If everything went as desired, winning would be a piece of cake. If Kyle Schwarber hit .300 instead of .200, we’d have reveled in his at-bats rather than hide our eyes. If Jason Heyward had the sort of WAR number in his stat line that he did before he came to the Cubs, his contract would be considered a steal and not, as some see it, an albatross.

If the Cubs’ bullpen didn’t walk a higher percentage of batters than any other bullpen, guess what we’d almost never fret and complain about? The Cubs bullpen. And so on. If the 2017 season taught us anything, it’s that the Cubs can’t wait for the next big signing, or the next blockbuster trade, to save them. They have to fix the key pieces of a potentially long-term October machine that are broken.

Schwarber and Heyward have to get better. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, too. And everyone in between.

“A lot of them made improvements this year,” Epstein said, “and some regressed. But I think even the ones that regressed did it in a way where they learned from it and will improve next year.”

Some will, others won’t probably is more like it. But, without question, the Cubs can be better. Things also could be a whole lot worse.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com