State of the Cubs: Epstein focused on improving dismal offense
Theo Epstein delivered his State of the Cubs Monday, and one message was to slam the breaks on the theory he might leave before his contract expires next season.
In fact, he didn't rule out staying beyond next season, even though he's said in the past that team executives tend to have a 10-year shelf life, no matter how successful.
"I'm not going to run away from those feelings, but I also am as invested in the Chicago Cubs as our leader in baseball operations today as I was at any point in the last nine years," he said. "I woke up this morning thinking about how we can improve for next year and position ourselves for long-term success. My expectation is that I'll be here."
Epstein said he'll meet with Chairman Tom Ricketts soon to discuss the team, a meeting that happens every year.
There are plenty of issues to address, such as how much money there is to spend, how to score some runs in the playoffs and what happens to four core players -- Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber -- set to hit free-agency after next season.
Epstein said he's already texted with pitcher Jon Lester and may discuss ways to bring him back next year. But he also acknowledged the Cubs will be in the market for starting pitchers, with Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana hitting free agency.
Here's some of what Epstein had to say about these topics:
Is this the end of the line for the nucleus of players left from the World Series team?
"Because of all the unknowns, I don't think we're in a position to definitively state that this is an end," he said. "At the same time, I talked about being accountable and owning it. We can't continue to run the exact same offense, the exact same group of guys out there and expect better results."
Epstein pointed out the three position players who led the Cubs in WAR -- Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Willson Contreras -- are all under contract for two more seasons, and how the impending position free agents are all relatively young, with Rizzo the senior member at 30.
"I think the best way to approach this is acknowledging we're at a period of real transition," Epstein said. "Some of these guys are going to be parts of the solution and the next productive Cubs offense and there's also going to be contributions from guys who are not in the organization right now."
Why couldn't these guys score more against Miami?
"We were getting beat in the strike zone by fastballs and that's not something that had really happened in the past," he said. "To me, when really good hitters are getting beat in the strike zone by fastballs, it means they're off.
"They don't have their rhythm, they don't have their timing. They're caught in between. They don't have their confidence. They're not locked in with their approach."
The final inning of the season was a good example. Trailing 2-0, Heyward led off the ninth with a double, then Baez, David Bote and Jason Kipnis all struck out to end the inning, game and season.
Baez had a particularly rough season, striking out in one-third of his plate appearances and finishing with an on-base percentage of .238.
"I think the pressure of making the adjustment, getting out of the slump, knowing there were just 60 games to play with, wore heavy on a lot of guys," Epstein said. "It's still real, we have to own it. We have to reclaim that offensive foundation of being on the fastball, owning the strike zone and being a much more difficult at bat."
What will happen during the offseason?
The expectation is there will be no winter meetings, so Epstein will have to rely on the old-fashioned method of picking up the phone and talking to other teams about trades.
Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Schwarber are coming off bad years, so their trade value figures to be lower than it would have been a year or two ago. And with substantial loss of revenue in all pro sports, it's not clear how many teams will be OK with adding salary.
"We have a lot going for us as an organization going forward and a lot of chips to bring to the table this offseason," Epstein said. "We have two of the best starting pitchers in the game (Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks), on good contracts.
"Certain fundamentals are true of this market that have been true for decades. One of those is a one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing. That's to our benefit both with what we can do in constructing the 2021 team and also potentially to our benefit in the trade market.
"Is it possible to thread the needle and improve in 2021 while also setting ourselves up for the long-term future? I think it is."