Perhaps the news isn’t that Theo Epstein is resigning from his position of President of Baseball Operations of the Cubs, but that anyone is graciously stepping aside and handing power to the next person in line. Need more of that these days.
Epstein had always said that 10 years in charge was all he was after, the Bill Walsh model as he called it, and next season would have been his 10th in charge of the Cubs. Handing off the reins to his buddy Jed Hoyer, who ascends from the GM chair, certainly makes the transition easier. It’s the timing that’s just a tad curious.
The rumors swirling around the Cubs are the same as they’ve been the past two winters. There’s going to be a major shakeup. Some beloved names are going to pack their bags. They want to get cheaper and set themselves up for the next decade instead of the next season. Not a rebuild but a retool.
These whispers seem to have some more bite to them, as just a few days ago even local deity Javier Baez was said to be available for the right price. Baez has been the only one of the World Series brethren whom the Cubs have seriously approached about a contract extension, so to hear his name as possible trade bait was jarring.
The Cubs certainly have their reckoning coming, as Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber all head into free agency after the 2021 season and Willson Contreras the season after that. Pile on top of that owner/gremlin Tom Ricketts’s utter refusal to spend more money than he deems necessary on the team (but pour whatever it takes and obscenely more into turning the whole neighborhood into his own white-bread/asshole Disneyland), and there are problems to solve. Or create, depending on how you look at it.
The Cubs shopped Bryant moderately hard last winter, but couldn’t find a deal that was even close to making the team better in either the short or long term. And then Bryant put in another injury-plagued disappointment, and one year closer to free agency, his value is making whoopie cushion noises. Schwarber, as well, spent the shortened season either hitting the ball on the ground or into rotten luck, and whatever value he might have had went face-down in the dirt.
Which means if the Cubs are truly intent on not paying Bryant even his arbitration award, or Schwarber’s, or Baez’s (another woeful season offensively), they’re going to have to make deals that on the surface look bad, or even non-tender them. Either option will certainly be unpopular, and it could just be that Epstein has no desire to have that on his record and is going to dump it on Hoyer’s.
Epstein could very well end up with a statue outside Wrigley one day, as his record speaks for itself. Three division titles, three appearances in the NLCS, four playoff appearances in five years, and of course the World Series title that is the pivot point to most Northsiders’ lives. He’s a lock for Cooperstown. While every National League team aside from the Dodgers would happily take the Cubs’ record the past six years, of late there has been a surprising amount of grousing that it wasn’t more. Whether it was due to Ricketts hamstringing the budget the past couple years or Epstein’s own arrogance or some combination of the two, the game seemed to have changed faster than Epstein the Cubs could spot it and adjust.
While the preeminent method of building and winning became get guys who throw the ball fucking hard and other guys who hit it in the air, the Cubs got left behind. Their pen never had scary fireballers and Epstein’s record of not producing one single useful pitcher (one that was a problem in Boston too) came back to haunt him. What budget Epstein did have while his position players remained relatively cheap had to be spent on Yu Darvish or Cole Hamels.
Over the past three seasons, the Cubs rank only above the Mariners in average velocity from their staff. They rank second in ground-ball percentage from their hitters. The game simply went the opposite way, and the Cubs couldn’t make up for all their strikeouts with grounders to second, the money for additional hitters who made more contact like the departed Ben Zobrist or Dexter Fowler simply wasn’t there.
On top of that, the Cubs couldn’t hit velocity. Anyone who watched Sixto Sanchez and Sandy Alacantara giddily and repeatedly blow fastballs by them in their two-game capitulation to the Marlins could have told you that, but it’s been a long standing problem. The Cubs were simply woeful against pitches over 95 MPH, and considering just about every team sports at least nine or 10 corn-fed mules who can only throw that hard and spit, that’s a real issue.
The Cubs cycled through hitting coaches like a chain smoker, but never could find one that could get the bulk of their lineup to make more contact or get the ball in the air more. In a lot of ways, the team reflected Epstein’s own stubbornness.
Add in that the Cubs pen has been a mess the past two or three seasons thanks to a lack of homegrown products and/or lack of velocity, which forced them into signing Craig Kimbrel past his sell-by date, and you get what we’ve got here.
Maybe the directive came from on high that the Cubs need more of a teardown than previously thought. Maybe Epstein is just tired. Maybe he didn’t see the point in authoring long-term moves that he wouldn’t be around to see blossom. Maybe he thought they just needed a new voice in the GM office, and moving Hoyer upstairs allows them to do that. Whatever it is, Epstein leaves as a Cubs legend, and before he would have been forced to sully that in any way.