There will never be a way to digest or talk about the 2020 Chicago Cubs season without noting that it was a pandemic 60-game sprint, but that can’t be held up as a reason to take nothing away from the year.
To that end, I am looking forward to hearing from Cubs President Theo Epstein on the year that concluded, David Ross’s first season at the helm, the status of the organization, the path for player development, the offseason challenges, and, of course, the future for this core.
I’ll be updating with Epstein’s comments and my thoughts as the info comes – the presser is streaming right now on Cubs.com.
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Straight away, Epstein indicates there’s nothing special to the fact that he’s meeting with ownership this year – he does it every year, and his expectation right now is that he is still going to be with the Cubs for 2021.
Like I said this weekend, it’s preferable if Epstein is around for this coming year, and it’s also preferable if the parties all work together to ensure they’re already into the transition process as the 2021 season is playing out.
He is flexible, but anticipates status quo at the moment. Epstein keeps pushing back to focus on the Cubs organization on the whole, and aim to win the division again in 2021, while setting things up for a long-term run.
There will be a transition plan in place, and it will be definitive – but it’s not there yet. Epstein reinforces the idea that he believes in the 10-year thing (he’s avoiding saying explicitly that he’s gone after next year, but it seems fairly clear).
As for the players, again, no one is untouchable. But in this environment, is it possible to improve for 2021 while also looking ahead to the future? Threading that needle? Epstein does think it is possible. The offense just hasn’t been there, though. They expected the offense to be a strength by this point, but it’s not. “We have to be honest about that.” That said, Epstein believes the Cubs have a lot of advantages to bring to the table this offseason – adding for 2021, and also being “transactional” where opportunities arise.
Epstein praises the pitching and defense this year, and saying that there are guys who are here now who could be part of the next great offense. But there are also guys outside the organization that’ll have to be part of it.
As core players get closer to free agency, Epstein acknowledges that it’s not a great approach to just proceed as is, and then deal with issues next year. There is an opportunity cost in not adding for the long-term future.
Epstein: when really good hitters are getting beat in the zone by fastballs (as happened this year), it means they’re off. They’re not in rhythm. They’re off in their approach. They’re off in their confidence, etc. It’s all still real, it happened, but we also have to remember that this year put odd pressure on guys, making it harder to get right.
Epstein wants to add different dimensions to the offense (though we’ve all seen that was necessary for years).
The coaching staff supported the players in such a good way, as we saw with the starting pitching, the bullpen, the defense, the framing, the baserunning. It just didn’t happen with the offense.
Cubs haven’t done exit interviews with players yet because they wanted the players to have some time to go home with families.
It was a challenging year in player development. Epstein feels like the staff still got a lot of work done, there was a lot of positive development among players (app, one-on-one virtual coaching, etc.). Good progress under the circumstances, but there’s no way to quantify the consequences of not having a minor league season. Instructional League will help give a better feel for where guys are, and we need to get better visibility soon on what 2021 will look like (either normal, or with huge adjustments). There’s a lot talent in the farm system.
Epstein on payroll: we’re in a period of great uncertainty, industry-wide and our organization. We know what losses were this year, but we don’t know what revenues are gonna be next year. We don’t know how many fans can go to games when. But we also don’t know what free agency and trades are gonna look like, because 29 other teams are in a similar spot. We also don’t know what the schedule will look like, the roster size, the DH or not, how many playoff teams, etc. The point is that there’s so much uncertainty, which means we have to be really systematic on trying to properly forecast the range of possible outcomes. Be strategic about the plan, acknowledging the uncertainty. Have to be versatile, adjustable, and effective despite that uncertainty.
Remains to be seen whether Jon Lester will be back or not. It’s possible there’s a reunion. But right now is an appropriate time to acknowledge the impact he had on our organization.
Because of all the unknowns, Epstein can’t state whether this is an “end” to the core. But at the same time, we can’t keep running out the same group and the same offense and expect better results. It’s a period of real transition. Some guys will be part of the next group, some guys will come from out of the organization. We’ve had a lot of belief in this group to our benefit over six years. But if you want to point to the latter three years and say the belief was actually to our detriment? I have to wear that. We have to wear it. We don’t have that dominant offensive core like we thought we would have.
A period of crossroads and clear transition. That’s the phrase Epstein used.
Bat to ball skills are fairly innate – you’re born with it or not – but you can improve contact a bit at the margins. If you want to dramatically improve contact, though, you have to add players who have that skill. Happ did a great job addressing contact issues, as an example, but if you want major increases, you have to add those players.
Some of the industry-level advances have helped pitchers more than hitters (when asked why it seems like Cubs, at a developmental level, have had more success with pitchers than hitters). There are breakthroughs on the hitting side, and there might be some lag. We made some big changes to our hitting infrastructure the last two years, and we now think we’re state-of-the-art in how we do things. We’ve had some great success at the prospect/young player level. The area we haven’t had success is helping hitters reach their full potential at the big league level and then maintaining that consistency.
Epstein says he feels the same now as he has the whole time he’s been with the organization: I view the world through a Cub-centric lens, and I’m grateful to be here. I want everything we do to be better, and I want to set the Cubs up to another long run for success.
It was a very successful first year for someone who is going to be a great manager of the Cubs for a long time. David Ross is the right guy for this group. Even if you set aside all the unique circumstances of the year, he still had an outstanding season. Great trust among the players, great leader for the coaching staff, saw the game extremely well, he took a bullpen that struggled early and played an important role in turning it into a strength.
Epstein is invested in the Cubs and their future, and doesn’t want to talk about his next steps post-Cubs – only wants to focus on how to improve in 2021, and build long-term success. (He’s talking like someone who is happy to be a part of the transition process, rather than just ducking out.)
Epstein praises the progress of Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay this year. Each is definitely possible for the rotation next year, behind Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Will have to seek some depth from outside the organization from there, even though the Cubs like some more of the rising AA/AAA level pitchers.
Back to transition, asked about Jed Hoyer: only have had general talks, but now is the time to start being more specific and more thoughtful. Epstein notes that Hoyer has already been a top executive (with the Padres), and Epstein sees those qualities in him. The Ricketts Family does, too. That’s a factor when looking at what a transition could look like, but is there anything firm in place? No. Those are the things we have to talk about going forward. We’re lucky to have Jed.
Execs are preparing to do everything virtually this offseason. It’ll be the first offseason doing things like that, which means there will have to be more outreach, since you can’t rely on seeing guys at the various meetings.
Re trading contracts: uncertainty rules the day, but you can’t always wait for full information before you have to act. There are going to be certain fundamentals that are true of this market, which have been true forever: a one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing. That could be valuable to us (since we have the players), but also in the trade market.