There’s one phrase I’ve seen used over and over again since the Cubs lost Game 5 of the NLCS on Thursday night: “Theo has a lot of work to do.”
The question is, how accurate is that statement?
The truth is, all front offices have a lot of work to do in the winter. And yes, the Cubs do have several things to address if they want to get back to the World Series in 2018.
In no particular order, this team’s winter wish list probably includes:
- 1 or 2 starting pitchers
- 2 or 3 relievers
- another bat (leadoff or middle of the order)
In addition to that list, Theo and Company will have plenty of trade opportunities to sift through. Will they try to trade Ben Zobrist and eat half of the deal? (Ed. note: Zo has a full no-trade). Will they dangle guys like Ian Happ or Kyle Schwarber for a blockbuster trade? And because of the bullpen issues, will they go against their own policy and pay Wade Davis commensurate with other elite closers?
“Going into the off-season and keeping an open mind for some tough decisions, is appropriate,” Epstein said during Friday’s press conference. “We’ve really benefited from having two or three extra starting caliber players on the roster. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.
“Sooner or later you reach a point where you have to consider sacrificing some of that depth to address other needs on the club. I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open to that if it makes the outlook of the team and the organization better.”
That indicates a trade or two could be coming, setting up a very interesting winter. Paramount among any moves the Cubs make, either in the trade or free agency markets, is relief pitching.
“The bullpen is a clear need,” Epstein said. “We have some work to do in the ‘pen. The biggest factor is just the walks. We were 30 out of 30 teams this year in unintentional walk rate. That’s not acceptable. We had the third-best bullpen ERA in the National League, but we didn’t do it in a comfortable way to get there.
“We’re going to prioritize finding some pure strike-throwers out of the bullpen. But the guys we have, we’ve got to find a ways to get them locked in.”
A lot of fans expect the Cubs to go after a leadoff hitter this winter, but Epstein would like everyone to pump the brakes on that assumption.
“The leadoff hitter thing, it’s always nice to have an established leadoff hitter,” he said. “In certain situations depending on your outlook, it can start to slide toward luxury, not necessity. I would rather have one, but I’m not going to sit here and say by Opening Day we’ll have one. We scored the second-most runs in the league this year without a true leadoff hitter.
“More important than identifying one guy, we have to continue on that arc, that will lead to tough, consistent, team at bats where we perform with situational hitting, and a dependable 2-strike approach, and where we’re no fun to pitch against.
“To be a consistent championship organization, you have to get to a point where your at bats are so mature and so consistent that you even give the good pitchers fits,” Epstein continued. “If we’re honest about it, we didn’t get to that point this year. We’re young but we still need to progress. We can’t just count on experience. We have to look ourselves in the eye as an organization.”
Make no mistake about it, this team was no match for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Corey Seager didn’t even play, and the Cubs were still crushed in every aspect of the game. That clearly means the members of the front office have their work cut out for them. But despite all of that, this franchise is still in excellent shape and it may not take nearly as much as what many people think to get them right back in championship contention next season.
For most teams, the work needed in the winter is to try and make their team a contender, or to continue rebuilding for the future. Only a handful of teams are trying to make moves to solidify a World Champion, and that is the category the Cubs fit in.
The starting rotation returns at least Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana. The lineup will include young studs Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras. There’s a ton of young talent to either keep or trade to fill other holes — Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ. How many teams would beg for that kind of talent, youth, and depth to have at their disposal?
The point is, the core is in place. Even after getting smashed in a series, some perspective is needed: The Chicago Cubs have been the most successful team in the majors over the last three years. They’ve won more playoff games from 2015-17 than they won from 1909-2014, combined. This is the golden age of Cubs baseball. And with all of that success, they still have their core locked up for years to come. They still have Theo Epstein running the ship. They have options, resources, and a group of players that won’t be satisfied with just one championship.
“The identity of this organization has changed,” Epstein said. “To have disappointment when it’s the third year you’ve reached the NLCS, that shows how the bar has been set, and that’s a great thing. This is steam you can count on to play in October, play deep into October, and you like their chances of winning those games. That’s a hard-fought identity, and I’m very proud of that.”
Is there a lot of work to do this winter? Absolutely. But it’s the good kind, the kind Cubs fans have dreamed about for a century. Let the work begin.