Jesse Rogers snagged Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for a 10-minute interview yesterday, and he put it up on ESPNChicago in the form of a podcast. If you’ve got 10 minutes, give it a listen. The two get into Jeff Samardzija extension stuff, prospect evaluation/preparation/promotion stuff, and expectations for the 2014 season.
A portion of the interview was dedicated to the process of building up a sustainably successful big league organization, while still recognizing the reality that you want to win games at the big league level. I want to touch on some things in that part of the interview, and address, specifically, how we can square belief in “The Plan” with what outwardly looks like a never-ending cycle of punting and disappointment at the big league level.
To begin with, it’s possible that Epstein regrets the sticking power of that initial “parallel fronts” comment – which, if I remember correctly, was an off-hand remark – from a couple years ago about how the Cubs’ rebuilding process would progress. The implication, of course, was that the Cubs would be heavily focused on building up young, controllable talent while simultaneously competing at the big league level. At the same time, again and again, even from that first offseason, Epstein was emphasizing what a tough road lay ahead for the organization (“you can’t turn an ocean liner on a dime“), and I don’t think any thinking Cubs fan expected the team to compete in 2012 or maybe even 2013.
That said, I do think it was reasonable to believe, as of pre-2012, that the Cubs could be competing by 2014 at the big league level (while also having a fantastic organization built up). It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, which has always been disappointing. Has the front office just be bad at the parallel fronts thing? Or was it always a part of “The Plan” to tank a few years away?
Well, as is so often the case, the answer is more complicated than the questions imply. If you pressed me, I’d have to say the answer is “neither.”
In the interview with Rogers, while addressing the idea of parallel fronts, Epstein conceded that the front office has had to tweak its approach to the rebuild in response to some external factors.
“We haven’t tried to hide the ball. I think we’ve had to adjust a little bit along the way,” Epstein explained. “Initially there were some hopes, I talked about duel fronts and parallel fronts and really trying to compete at the big league level while we built up for the future. We’ve had to adjust. Some things have not gone our way in different areas that have made our path more clear. So we have probably been more single-minded about building for the future even than we intended to be initially.”
How do I translate that? Well, to me, the front office probably always expected that there would be a down season or two, because that’s the nature of a deep rebuild (and, incidentally, given the dramatic changes to the 2012 CBA, having a couple crappy seasons isn’t the worst thing in the world if you’re trying to build up a talent base – in fact, I could argue that it’s unfortunately necessary, if you’re trying to build up the base quickly). But I think the front office also probably expected to be further along at the big league level by this point.
Why aren’t they? Well, Epstein mentions that “some things have not gone our way in different areas,” and I can only make educated stabs at those “things”: some poor development from key big league pieces, missing on some young international players, a serious delay in the renovation/improved monetization of Wrigley Field (plus the inability to secure public funds for the same), and other financial restrictions that probably became more oppressive as the Cubs’ revenues were squeezed by rapidly falling attendance.
So, to what extent was the crappiness of the 2012 and 2013 outcomes, and the projected crappiness for the 2014 season, a product of explicit planning? I don’t think it’s fair to say this is what the front office wanted. I do think some crappiness was going to happen organically as a byproduct of the rebuild, but maybe the depth and length of the crappiness was never part of “The Plan.”
See, here’s the thing about “The Plan” that the quotes and capitalization bely: it was always flexible. Sure, there’s some core tenets that were going to remain regardless of any external “things” that didn’t go the Cubs’ way – add young talent, improve organizational health at both player and developmental levels, clear away ugly contracts, change the culture, etc. – but to act as though these smart, smart guys weren’t planning on being agile enough to adapt when necessary is silly.
What matters is that the front office wants to win, and it wants to put the organization in a position to win consistently for a long, long time. They are doing things to make that vision happen (“The Plan”), while adjusting as necessary to the realities that arise outside of the theoretical vacuum where best laid plans are developed. In this way, the front office can keep The Plan on course for the long haul, even as the big league team once again projects for a disappointing season.
Lest anyone be confused, I’m not telling you not to be frustrated that, once again, the big league team does not looking a playoff contender. I’m very frustrated by it. But, just as The Plan necessarily adapts to that which affects it, I adjust my expectations and hopes to meet reality. It sucks that the Cubs don’t look like a playoff team on paper right now. But the front office has to keep doing its thing, because it’s still the right path. And, along the way, I’ll try to satisfy myself with the kinds of victories that don’t count on the scoreboard in 2014, but might in another year or two.