If you haven’t already seen it, let me again recommend this interview of Theo Epstein by Jon Greenberg at The Athletic. It is interesting, informative, wide-ranging, and frequently funny. (Epstein was legitimately going to do that Cody Parkey kicking challenge in a low-key mode until he hurt his hamstring.)
Although there’s so much in the lengthy interview worth your attention, there is one section I wanted to spotlight for discussion today, given how the offseason has played out, from what the front office said when the season ended, to what they said a month later, to what they said this month at the Cubs Convention.
When asked about his level of confidence in the team at this point, Epstein naturally expressed a great deal of confidence in his guys – as you’d expect, and as is fair, given the roster. But he did acknowledge that there are nevertheless some concerns, and then he went into an impromptu discussion of messaging and audiences. It’s fantastic and telling:
“I’m open about some concerns. Obviously on paper the ‘pen isn’t as fully formed as it normally is for us at this point of the time of year, so it’s not without our concerns. You always have to manage the message. In the winter, after the season, you can say some things that are pointed and true. As you move closer to the season, you have to just be smart about the way you present things. You don’t want to lie or hide the ball at all, but you also want to present the positive, because the messages get relayed out there to players and you’re moving into a more competitive mindset where you’re focused on togetherness and hard work. You’re going to be sort of hyper-focused on areas of weakness and try to fix them behind the scenes, but you want everyone to feel good about things.”
Anecdotally, we’ve seen this kind of strategic deployment off messaging throughout the front office’s time here in Chicago. The issues that need addressing are discussed earnestly and pointedly right after the season, and then, over time, either because moves are made or they are not, you start talking more about how you love the way things are looking. These guys can do it, and they need to believe they can do it. In that way, you can turn perhaps an offseason whiff into a vote of confidence in the guys you already have.
I am reminded of some of the quotes I saw from position players at the Cubs Convention, essentially espousing just that view – that no big bat addition is needed, because the front office has confidence in these guys doing what they need to do to bounce back. Whether you, as a fan, want to see a big bat added to the mix or not, it is absolutely a good thing for the extant players to believe it’s not necessary.
Maybe, then, we’ve got even more information on why the offseason messaging this year played out like it did. Perhaps Epstein got “pointed and true” at the end-of-season press conference, talking about the offense that broke and the need to focus more on production than on talent. But he very quickly realized – much earlier in the offseason than usual – that he was more or less going to have to ride or die with the bats he had. So, the messaging pivot happened very quickly. Not because fan expectations were being managed, but because he was already in that place where he was ready to “present the positive,” and he wanted the players to be “moving into a more competitive mindset where [they are] focused on togetherness and hard work.”
For a club that wore down badly last year, and ultimately crumbled at the end, perhaps getting back together and focused early was always going to be more important to 2019 productivity than holding out hope that an impact bat would fall into their lap.