You wonder if it’s a line from the largely extemporaneous end-of-season press conference that Theo Epstein would like to take back, or at least rephrase. Because it was something, especially when paired with the overall tone of the conference and the offense that “broke,” that sure stood out to all of us as very meaningful for the offseason ahead:
“It’s time to stop evaluating in terms of talent and start doing it in terms of production.”
Production > Talent
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) October 14, 2018
At the time, and again, given the tenor of the press conference and the perceived needs in the organization, it felt like Epstein was signaling changes to the roster on the positional side. Talent wasn’t enough anymore, and, in the offseason, you can’t really “produce,” so that means changes.
Except we subsequently learned that the Cubs were fundamentally tapped out on the baseball ops budget, which meant any kind of significant movement on the positional side would be only in one direction. That, at a competitive time for the organization, simply doesn’t make sense.
So, then, how should we retcon some meaning into what Epstein said?
He amplified his point to the Tribune, and I think – whatever he meant originally (and it was probably this all along, to be honest) – it’s now much more clear what Epstein wants to see, and what the organization is prepared to do. Emphasis added: “Guys have had their adjustment periods in the big leagues and have a couple seasons under their belt. Most of the team is moving into their mid-20s, not their early 20s anymore. And it’s definitely time to produce and decisions are going to be made on playing time and on optioning guys and roles with the team going forward based on production, as it should be.”
Good, good. Epstein is of course right that the Cubs cannot afford to focus on talent and development at the big league level right now, not with the NL Central projected to be one of the most competitive divisions ever, and not with just three years left of core control. That should absolutely mean the younger guys can hit themselves into daily starting position. It should also mean they can work themselves into a full-time bench role if the production isn’t there.
As for the optioning part of Epstein’s statement, it’s interesting to note some of the current Cubs with options remaining – not because you’d expect them to be optioned to the minor leagues this year, but instead because you know it’s a theoretical possibility. The positional guys on the 40-man roster with options remaining, and who cannot refuse an optional assignment to AAA Iowa if the Cubs decided to go that route: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Javy Baez, David Bote, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Mark Zagunis.
Realistically, I think you know exactly which of those players is actually at risk for being optioned at some point this season. But perhaps wielding the possibility of making changes – not a threat, just an option – will help spur along that production, whether by way of the added player incentive, or by way of the Cubs feeling more free to optimize playing time and match-ups. This isn’t quite like when former manager Dale Sveum said that a young Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro could be sent to Iowa during the dog days of the rebuild. Development cannot be the primary focus right now. The Cubs need to win.