Who's likely to go and who's likely to stay as Cubs look to 2020
Theo Epstein sounded like a man who knew he was "on the clock" during Monday's 81-minute postseason news conference at Wrigley Field.
That's as it should be.
Epstein, as is his right, fired manager Joe Maddon, a future Hall of Famer who led the Cubs to their first World Series victory in 108 years when the Cubs won it all in 2016.
We'll move on from Maddon here other than to note that he was the only member of the Cubs' key management team not to have received a contract extension during his tenure in Chicago. Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and former scouting and player-development chief Jason McLeod all got extensions, and in McLeod's case, a new job, as he moves to the major league side.
Epstein came to Chicago in the fall of 2011 with the idea of building a "foundation for sustained success." That entailed tearing down what was left of the organization at the time, suffering through three terrible seasons and then going on a run of five straight winning seasons and four postseasons.
The streak of postseason appearances ended this year as the Cubs finished third in the National League Central at 84-78.
The house that Epstein built is a nice one, but like all houses, it needs repairs and renovations.
Let's look at it room by room.
Rotation falls short
The Cubs may have gotten fooled by how the rotation looked on paper at the beginning of the season.
Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana looked to give the Cubs a big advantage in the NL Central
It didn't pan out, as Lester and Quintana were ineffective down the stretch and Hamels missed a month in the middle of the season with an oblique injury.
Maddon really didn't go with a six-man rotation for any length, and the Cubs have been slow on the uptake with the "opener" concept.
"We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Epstein said. "If you looked at 1-5, it looked like we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While he had a couple guys who had really good years and while all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator."
Lester will enter the final year of his contract, and Hamels is likely to leave through free agency. Alec Mills will get a chance to compete for a job in spring training as will youngster Adbert Alzolay, but the Cubs will have to obtain a proven starter, either by trading one of their young hitters or via free agency.
At the risk of being repetitive, we'll note that the bullpen a team starts the season with is never the one it finishes with.
That statement is true, and it's true for every team. At the beginning of this season, the Cubs' bullpen featured Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach and Randy Rosario. All were long gone by the end of the season.
The biggest failing of the front office was not providing Maddon with a proven closer until Craig Kimbrel signed in June. Kimbrel had his moments, but injury sidelined him twice, and the Cubs shut him down at the end of the season.
The Cubs will have Kimbrel from the start next season, and if he's healthy and in shape, he again can be a force. Old hand Pedro Strop might be out the door as might Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek.
Newcomers Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck showed well in spots this year as did Kyle Ryan, but the Cubs will need to add two or three relievers to the mix.
No offensive synergy
Epstein has talked of the Cubs needing to be greater than the sum or their parts. Nowhere was a lack of synergy more apparent than with the offense.
Kyle Schwarber had a breakout second half, using the whole field. As a result, he had a line of .250/.339/.531 with a team-leading 38 homers to go along with 92 RBI. For those that still value batting average, Schwarber raised his from .227 at the all-star break.
Injuries curtailed the late seasons of Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, but both had good seasons at the plate, as did Willson Contreras.
Former MVP Kris Bryant showed that, when healthy, he can be an elite player, with 31 homers and a .903 OPS. Knee and ankle injuries hobbled Bryant, with the ankle also forcing him to shut down early.
But the Cubs made too many mistakes on the bases, and their inability to make contact at important times also hurt them. The Washington Nationals came to town Aug. 23 to 25 and put on a clinic in this area, hitting the ball all over Wrigley Field in outscoring the Cubs 23-10 during a three-game sweep.
"We're certainly losing the contact battle," Epstein said. "We make the least contact out of anyone in baseball. I think that despite those great offensive individual seasons, we're still a team that can be game-planned for. And we see the fewest fastballs in baseball. That's an adjustment that you'd like to think we have made by now, but we haven't, so we have to own that and continue to try to improve in that area.
"By far the most outs on the bases in all of baseball. That cuts into it, too. Some of the components don't add up to being among the top two or three in runs scored."
Where they go from here
Ideally, the Cubs would sign Baez and Bryant to contract extensions, but that may not be possible. One may be traded as may Schwarber, Ian Happ and/or Contreras.
The first order of business will be a manager. Epstein said Monday that experience would not be a determining factor when it comes to former catcher David Ross, currently a special assistant. If the Cubs were to hire Ross, look for them to surround him with an experienced coaching staff.
It's possible the Cubs could end up with their fourth pitching coach and fourth hitting coach in four years.
The Cubs' championship window is still open, and Epstein is two seasons shy of 10 with the Cubs. Legacies are on the line.