We don’t usually hear too much from Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. He did take quite a few questions from fans at the Cubs Convention, but he rarely grants interviews.
So this long interview conducted by Jon Greenberg in The Athletic is worth reading. And no, they didn’t ask me to say this, but you really ought to subscribe to The Athletic if you don’t already — it’s not expensive and you can always find discount deals around, and the writing is excellent.
The interview touches on a lot of things, but I wanted to specifically highlight this response, which I think sums up very well where the Cubs are as we approach spring training 2019:
I think this is a definitional year in a lot of ways. If we perform really well, and this core becomes sort of fully realized, then we’re really positioned for the next several years and can sort of think about intelligent ways to affect a transition while staying on top. If we underperform, then we’re looking at, our starting staff mainly, we’re looking at a year-plus of control left. Position players, the end of this year will be two years left. And it could go in a lot of different directions. And obviously, if we underperform this year, some change will be not just desired, but needed.
That’s only one paragraph and 110 words, but it tells us quite a bit about how Theo has approached this offseason and the 2019 season as a whole. He stated last October, and this has been repeated over and over and over, that he and management feel the answers to the Cubs’ problems are to be found in the current clubhouse. That’s why they haven’t gone out and spent a fortune on players, beyond what we’ve already discussed regarding the team’s apparent desire to stay under Luxury Tax Level 2. And he very well might be right, that having comeback years from Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish, among others, might be just as good as spending tens of millions of dollars on a free agent.
Beyond that, though, you can read right there that this team is going to be significantly different in 2020 if they don’t ... well, I’d say at least get back to the World Series. I’m not going to fall back on “the playoffs are a crapshoot” meme here, but since the Cubs have now spent two seasons not getting past the NLCS after winning it all, I would think Theo & Co. would consider a N.L. pennant sufficient progress to keep the core intact and, as he put it, “think about intelligent ways to affect a transition while staying on top.”
If not — if the Cubs have an early playoff exit again or maybe don’t even get there — I would think you’ll see a major retooling of the team next offseason, up to and including a new manager. Theo answered a Cubs Convention question about Joe Maddon’s future and whether he’d stay past 2019 by saying, “I sure hope so,” and I believe him. Maddon has made it clear that he wants to manage beyond 2019 and that he loves managing the Cubs, and it’s been my position (expressed again here) that they should have offered him a contract extension this winter. They chose not to do so, and of course that’s management’s prerogative. If the Cubs seem like they are “back” during the 2019 season and on their way to a postseason berth (division title), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joe offered an extension at that point.
Lastly, I think that Theo’s statement above seems to indicate that he wants to stick around for the long term. Greenberg asked him if he’d ever be interested in being a team owner:
Not in this phase of my life and career. But maybe down the road, yeah. It’d be kind of interesting if you did it with the right people, to have that much say and sort of what you stand for as an organization would be a cool new chapter. But that’s way, way down the line.
Remember that despite his longevity as a baseball executive — this is his 18th season in charge of a baseball ops department — Theo just turned 45. There’s plenty of time for him to figure out that “new chapter.” Epstein said, upon leaving the Red Sox for the Cubs in late 2011, that he felt that a decade in one place might be enough, but I wonder if that was just justifying in his own mind the fact that he was forced out of his hometown team. Everything I have read seems to indicate to me that Theo will be here past 2021, when his current deal expires, and I would think that Tom Ricketts would want him around rather than starting over.
Oh, and about the field goals I mentioned in the headline?
How’s the leg? (Epstein pulled his quad muscle kicking practice field goals for the Goose Island Cody Parkey field goal challenge. His athletic claim to fame, post-high school, is kicking a “wind-aided” 53-yard field goal in La Jolla, Calif. in the late 1990s.)
It’s not bad, but I still feel it a little bit when I sprint. But in spring training, I will be in full field-goal kicking mode.
Would you have really gone to that thing?
Would you have worn a disguise?
Not a disguise, but I was going to have a winter hat on and try to be a little under the radar. But it would’ve been a blast. I had a few friends who were going to go with me. We were going to stay and drink beer and watch a little of the playoff games.
Now that would have been fun to watch. Theo went on to say that he thought someone would have made the 43-yard field goal if the weather hadn’t been cold, wet and snowy.
To sum up: Theo Epstein is a smart guy, and he brought us the championship we all yearned for all our lives. I think he’s heading into the 2019 season with the right approach and right atmosphere around the team. It could be another special season on the North Side of Chicago.