Rozner: Cubs' Epstein not surprised he's gone from hero to target of fans' wrath

It has been quite a while since the Cubs headed for Arizona after such a quiet winter - and on the heels of missing the playoffs.

And the man who rescued the franchise from a shocking lack of competence on the way to ending the worst title drought in sports history, has gone from Chicago hero to the focus of fan wrath after moving on from Joe Maddon and shopping the faithful's most beloved stars.

Yep, it happens that fast when expectations skyrocket and winning exacts a price.

"The key is you don't listen when they're saying nice things about you, and then you don't have to listen when they're not," Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently. "You can't define your self-worth based on people being reactive to a moment of success - or not.

"I'm proud that we hired Joe. And I'm proud of the five years we had together, and I also know it was the right thing to do for the organization.

"Things change. Just like your manager can be the perfect guy at one moment in time, and then become not the right guy for another moment in time, you know going into an offseason - or a period of the CBA - that you're going to be really aggressive, that you're going to acquire through trade or free agency some big-name players, and you're going to be lauded, hopefully, not just in the offseason, but when your team wins.

"You're going to be well thought of."

The flip side is ...

"There's going to be times when you have to get rid of guys maybe a year before people think you have to," Epstein said, "or you're gonna have to reset the roster, or you're going to run out of financial flexibility and be less active for a couple seasons, and you know you're not going to be as well thought of.

"That's just the reality."

It's not like Epstein hasn't been through it before. Even after ending the curse in Boston and winning a pair of titles, setting up a third captured not long after he left for Chicago, he became a target after any season that did not end with Red Sox rings.

Now he's become the focus of Cub fans who want to know why the North Siders aren't spending more and aren't favored to win in 2020.

"We knew once this CBA came out," Epstein said of luxury and repeater taxes, "there would be some real challenges toward the end of it for big market teams that had developed a lot of good players getting more expensive through arbitration, had added free agents on top and had won.

"If you look at the three teams that won in '16, '17, '18 (Chicago, Houston and Boston), it hasn't been a real active winter for any of us in terms of adding players.

"Part of that is the reality of the CBA. We knew it would be challenging and ultimately there would be a choice between maximizing the moment in '20 and '21 or taking a longer-term view and trading out of that position a little bit while still trying to win."

In other words, Epstein did not want to drive the big blue bus off a cliff.

"It's pretty clear in talking to everyone in the organization, including ownership, that no one wants to follow a good run of five or six years and be out of it for five or six years," Epstein said. "We wanted a smoother transition.

"There's going to be change whether you like it or not, so better to make it - if possible - on your terms, and try not to have a real falloff where you have to put your fans through a long period of non-competitiveness."

A reasonable person would likely admit to being surprised that so many players who arrived so young and performed so well under immense pressure have not taken steps forward.

This has unquestionably hurt the program.

Either way, says Epstein, this disruption was inevitable.

"There was always going to be a time when our players reached free agency, so we've been mindful of that," Epstein said. "We've worked really hard to try to sign players to extensions. Those offers have been turned down and I respect the players' right to do that.

"If you're in that spot where you can't sign them and you don't have flexibility to keep adding, then you have to look for ways to transition more on your terms.

"All we've done is to be open-minded about it. There haven't been many transactions. There hasn't been a lot of turnover. So we're just transparent about the fact that we're open to it and considering it."

While the focus has been on Kris Bryant, he's not the only player the Cubs have shopped in the last five months, and yet even Bryant could be here for the rest of his career if he wanted to be.

To this point it seems free agency for Bryant is inevitable, which puts the Cubs in a spot where they have to get something for him in 2020. The alternative is to try to win with him again in 2021 and let him walk.

That would be unwise, but the Cubs wouldn't be the first team to do it.

As for the roster the Cubs take into this season, it's not likely to make the fan base happy.

"The moment this CBA came out, we knew '20 and '21 were going to be times people would be scratching their heads because we wouldn't be able to squeeze any other talent onto this roster," Epstein said. "You understand that and you come to terms with it."

The fan base, thus far, does not seem inclined to do so.

Winning, it turns out, will have that effect.

Cubs President Theo Epstein introduces new manager David Ross last October. General Manager Jed Hoyer assists with the jersey. Associated Press
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