By now, everyone can recite Theo Epstein’s plea from his early October press conference last year more or less from memory, right? Say it with me now: Production over talent.
At many times this year, however, that particular bit of Cubs gospel seems to have become apocryphal. With the notable exception of Ian Happ, who is reportedly being promoted at long last, talent and potential continued to rule the roost in terms of roster construction and personnel decisions.
But recent moves indicate that the tides may be changing. In demoting Carl Edwards Jr. and Addison Russell within a span of just a few days, two long-time big league contributors found themselves in a position few would have expected as recently as last year.
While the additional baggage of Russell’s off-the-field behavior makes it impossible to lump both men together, both carried significant expectations when it came to their contributions. One would be a shutdown reliever, the other was a Barry Larkin reboot.
Those expectations were common in a fanbase that was growing accustomed to the inevitability of successful linear prospect development. They were certainly present in the eyes of a front office that made the moves necessary to bring both players into the organization.
One of the hardest things we can do as human beings, though, is to recognize and react to a disparity between fervent hope and stark reality. This is perhaps doubly true when focus turns from something to someone, especially when its someone in whom an organization has invested so much financial and emotional capital. At one time, this Cubs core was built almost as much around the inevitability of Russell’s success as it was Kris Bryant’s.
These recent demotions hint that the front office has become increasingly willing to let go of either the foolish notion that success is inevitable or that roles for the Cubs’ young players are locked down. And in the week to come before the July 31 trade deadline, I expect we’ll see them further tinker with the roster in recognition of these altered expectations.
While it’s hard to know for certain if and when a player is done developing, it’s a bit easier to know when you simply can’t afford to wait to find out anymore. For all of their warts, this year’s Cubs find themselves in just that situation.
I obviously don’t know whether Russell or Edwards is gone for good or whether one or both may return to a more prominent role at some point this year. But I can say with confidence that the Cubs are no longer willing to take either player’s transformation into a reliable major leaguer as a given.
And I suspect we’re going to see more similar decisions in the future. The transition from thinking of someone as “our guy” to viewing him as “just a guy” is a difficult one to make, but the Cubs appear more willing to do so today than they did at this time last week.
What could that mean for other Cubs who haven’t lived up to high expectations or a first-round pedigree? Well, Dear Reader, we’re going to have to wait and see. But we may well be approaching the end of the era of taking successful development for granted.