Theo Epstein urgently needs to back off his players

theo cages

Let me start by saying that I genuinely admire what Theo Epstein has accomplished during his time with the Cubs and that he’s largely responsible for the greatest moments of my baseball fandom that don’t involve Steve “Mongo” McMichael challenging Angel Hernandez to a parliamentary debate, presumably at a champagne room of his choosing. And you know that anytime a piece begins with an establishing statement like that, it’s about to be followed by the phrase “That said...” and 1300 words describing how Theo done f’d up.

That said...

Throughout this offseason, the one word that Epstein and the front office kept repeating was “urgency.” The Cubs would have to play with urgency from day one. Every game would have to be approached with a sense of urgency. And if every day in 2018 reflected that urgency, the Cubs might have ended up winning that one more game that they would have needed.

The only way “urgency” could have been tossed around more often at Wrigley Field was if the ballpark was hosting a Foreigner reunion tour. Which would have been the perfect metaphor for the 2019 Cubs: a show where nobody leaves happy about their ticket purchasing decision. And based on this Kafkaesque opening week of the season, stressing urgency while at the same time spending the offseason committing to roster stasis might have been the worst decision Epstein has made in his time as Cubs president.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that the front office was doing everything they could to help out in a time of increased urgency when the biggest improvement they could come up with was Daniel Descalso. I’m not sure there’s any situation on Earth where he’s the first answer to an urgent emergency--including a psychopath holding a gun to your head and commanding you to “Name the best baseball playing Descalso.”

Based on this opening week, it’s clear that the only tangible result of the “urgency/stasis” dichotomy has been to create a suffocating sense of pressure inside the Cubs clubhouse. As Jon Lester admitted after the team fell to 1-4, “We’re all, from top to bottom, pressing a little bit too much right now...we put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start that I think it’s kind of hanging over our heads a little bit...”

After five games. That’s insane. Especially for a group of players as accomplished as these guys. If this is how the Cubs are pressing on April 4, by mid-June half the team will be catatonic. And you’ll be able to tell that the roster is comatose when you finally see a Carl Edwards Jr. appearance in a box score where he doesn’t walk anybody.

The Cubs have begun the season with an unholy combination of unrelenting pressure and no tangible reinforcements to relieve it. At this point, you don’t need me to recap the unwatchable results of this series of decisions. And it didn’t need to be this way. Theo and the front office issued their “urgency” edict in direct response to the team’s flameout  at the end of 2018. And while it was understandable to be upset and dissatisfied with the way that season concluded, the demands for baseball penance in its wake were more than a little over the top.

Now, I’m not going to argue that Game 163 and Wild Card Playoff didn’t suck out loud.  Nor am I going to pretend the offense didn’t break. Because thanks to the Cubs taking Tyler Chatwood out of the rotation last July, I still have functioning eyes. But to argue that those two games required a complete rethinking of how this team has operated since opening their contention window--especially following a 95 win season--overlooks a couple of significant factors underlying last year’s collapse that were completely outside of their control.

As you no doubt remember, the offensive breakdown was exacerbated by a stretch of 41 games in 42 days to conclude 2018. And yes, I know that you’re sick and tired of hearing about that. But you know what’s more tiring than hearing about that stretch? Playing in it.

Quite simply, fatigue had to be a huge factor in the offensive breakdown that marked last September. Even in the case of elite athletes, it would be biologically impossible not to be utterly drained by that experience. That shouldn’t happen in any workplace. And it wouldn’t have if the players still had a functioning union that enforced CBA-mandated prohibitions on games over 24 consecutive days. Hope the clubhouse chef was worth it, guys.

The other factor that led to Epstein’s call for urgency were the consecutive losses in Game 163 and the Wild Card Game that marked the team’s limp to the finish. Game 163 was bad enough but also the kind of thing that can happen in a single game against a red hot team like Brewers. After being finishing in a tie after 162 games, you could accept it. But the Wild Card Playoff was another thing entirely--and the problem wasn’t so much the loss itself but baseball’s fundamentally flawed playoff design.

Simply put, like everything created by Bud Selig, the Wild Card Playoff is a gimmick concocted to distract from a problem that would have required actual leadership to solve. A one game coin flip sudden death contest forced upon two playoff teams for no reason other than ratings is antithetical to the very nature of baseball. The kind of scenario where Tony Wolters and his 48 OPS+ can destroy a 95 win season in one day because Selig wanted artificial drama. The whole concept is seemingly designed to ensure that somebody feels terrible after a 95 win season.

(And yes, Pirates fans from 2015...I hear you. Join me as we descend on downtown Milwaukee with torches and send Bud Selig off to retirement in solitary confinement!) (AKA: Marlins Park on a Saturday night)

In retrospect, even in the wake of last year’s disastrous finish exacerbated by exhaustion and a postseason designed for chaos, a 95 win season should have told the front office that the old Joe Maddon approach to baseball still worked. While “Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure” and “Try not to suck” have crossed the Rubicon into cliches, they were still effective for the current group.

But because Theo Epstein chose to obsess over the performance over a crushing stretch of schedule and the results of a gimmicked-up single elimination game concocted by the worst commissioner in baseball history, he decided that the team’s heretofore successful philosophy had to go. Then despite calling for urgency all winter, the front office displayed none of it themselves by declining to make any improvements. And now the entire Cubs roster is pressing the panic button after game five of 162. Christ on a bicycle.

(I can hear several of you yelling already so let me clarify: I find fault with Theo Epstein for the Cubs’ Gigli-esque 2019 debut but I also agree with you that Tom Ricketts is a far greater culprit in this scenario. It’s just that if I wrote this piece about Ricketts, it would be the equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s novel in The Shining with 500 typed pages consisting entirely of the letters F and U. Theo is guilty of a bad decision. Ricketts has betrayed our trust and disgraced himself.)

The combination of urgency and stasis was just one of many bizarre moments in a dreadful offseason. And that grotesque and unsettling feeling has unfortunately followed the Cubs through the first three stops of 2019. To be fair, if anyone in Cub history has earned the benefit of the doubt to see if he can turn things around, it’s Theo Epstein. Throughout his time in baseball, Epstein has demonstrated an ability to take responsibility, recognize his missteps, and learn from them. Hopefully, I won’t have to follow up praise for his abilities with another “That said...” anytime soon.

That said, fix the bullpen and win some games.

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  • And I thought I had strong opinions...

    Good stuff, Ken. Lots to unpack there. I've thought a lot about how the credibility of ownership and management has declined over the last couple years, IMO. Their words used to be gold, and I'm not sure that's the case anymore. I can't agree with all your assessments, but there is much to discuss here. I'll have more to say on this topic, as I'm sure will many others, but I don't have the time nor energy at the moment.

    I look forward to the discussion. Thanks.

  • I'm not sure if there is anyone out there, even while he was in Boston, is a bigger fan of his then myself.

    That being said, sadly I totally agree with your article. He's preaching urgency, off season but now is saying that story line is over in the clubhouse.

    I don't get it.

  • Um, yeah, 'bout that... the pressure to succeed comes from all sorts of places, including the players themselves. They were embarrassed at their awful performance in games 163 and 164 last year, and they should have been. Since the WS win, we've had two years of "who, us, worry?" with less than optimal results. I don't see a problem with a clear message from the FO that more is expected from this expensive and highly touted lineup. If that bruises the fragile ego of some .220 hitter, oh well...

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    So you think pressure and bruised ego's will make those players play better?

  • In reply to HJW49:

    When you're 24 and divorced, with custody of three kids and a $30k per year crap job and your boss rips you a new one, talk to me about "pressure and bruised egos." This is the major leagues, there's no participation trophy. I don't expect Billy Martin in the dugout, but I don't expect to hear anyone crying about the "pressure" of being asked to do their job - especially when their "job" is everyone else's dream.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:


    I'm sorry to hear that your life's been that rough.

  • In reply to HJW49:

    My life has been richly blessed. I simply haven't seen an iota of evidence that comments Theo or Jed made to the media caused so much pressure that the team went into a tailspin. Players in a losing streak feel pressure. Players in a losing streak to start the season after pooching the end of the prior season feel pressure. Winning takes the pressure away very quickly.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    There was far more pressure to break the 108 year streak.
    I think fans are just looking for excuses but "pressure" or "urgency" aren't the reasons for a slow start.

  • In reply to HJW49:

    No one in the Cubs management from Theo down has disparaged any player's talent or professionalism. I don't think any egos have been bruised by Theo, if that is what you are implying.

    Steinbrenner, that guy could bruise egos, and a lot times it did work. These are pros at the highest level, they have huge egos! But I would never condone King George's style of team management. I much prefer Theo's.

  • In reply to HJW49:

    SO you think pampering spoiled rotten egos will make those players play better?

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Well said. Gotta find out who can hack it here.

  • Nice article agree with a lot that was said but I don’t think despite their success that the team was fine and we shouldn’t be critical of certain players. I’ve said a 100 times the brewers wouldn’t have caught the cubs if it weren’t for that stretch of no off days. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t earn it they played much better then the cubs down the stretch and the cubs really didn’t hit the entire 2nd half even before the long stretch. The lack of progress from several youngsters was alarming especially given the star power this team has at a number of positions. And the continued big game failures of the pen was once again an issue. I think this team has the type of core where they should compete for titles every year if the right moves are made to fill out the depth of this roster. I know they had a good season overall but they had a number of guys that had disappointing years. I think everyone’s concern also is how many more high end years can lester and hamels give the team as well both of them were fantastic for the cubs

  • I can vaguely remember that early on in last season, there were games where Maddon and others just seemed to give up on. And how many times was it said or implied that "there were plenty of games left and that this was only one "meaningless" game" as if one game will not make a difference. Well, one game did make a big difference.

    Even during the stretch of 41 games in 42 days to conclude 2018, this attitude continued to show up. Regardless, we had plenty of chances in the 120 games prior to that stretch to win one more game but we continued to give up on some of them. That was NOT the attitude of the 2016 World Series Champion Cubs.

  • I've enjoyed your opinion pieces, Ken, and have mostly agreed. But the idea that Theo Epstein has put too much pressure on the players by being disgusted with the end of last season, and now it's spilling into the beginning of this season, seems like a stretch to me. The "urgency" narrative may have taken on bit too much life over the winter but I'm not sure it was because the front office talked about it all winter. Seems like that was the media and fans.

    Along with his displeasure at the performance of the offense down the last 50 game stretch, Theo also stood by his players. The other side of the narrative is that he believes in the players and believes that they are better than they performed as a whole. This is actually a positive message, but also to his detriment. By this winter, it was really too late to trade "talent." I think that a lot of Theo's disgust with how the season ended was with Maddon's outward "lack of urgency." I don't want to pile on Joe, though.

    To the purported lack of urgency shown by Theo and the front office, if you truly stop and examine the situation, what more could they have done? And lamenting past deals (Darvish, Chatwood, etc) is a red herring. Last winter, who should the Cubs have traded away, and for who, that would have been an improvement? The fact that they haven't signed Kimbrel at this point I see as proof positive that Ricketts isn't allowing it.

  • We're spoiled babies if this article is indicative of what people think. I think John would have told you to calm down if you had submitted this to him after a ten game sample.

  • In reply to cubsker:

    I don't agree with the viewpoint expressed in the article and I've been very upfront about how unfazed I am by the rough start. But we are about discussion and differing viewpoints here as well. We had a weekly anarchy column every Sunday for tha reason.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It's actually boring when everyone agrees.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I do (not?) agree. Some topics evoke strong opinions, and I enjoy and learn from opposing points of view. Jonathan and I just made comments in today's Minors Recap and show that people can be civil on sensitive topics.

    On a more fun note, I saw a graphic tweet of the spray chart of all of Schwarber's MLB HR's. It was beautiful. I'll go now and try to post a link.

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    It was those civil disagreements that I always said had this site give the lie to "never read a comments section online." It seems like in the last couple of years we are getting away from that and the comment section has been looking like comment sections all over the internet. Vitriol. Name-calling. Ad-hominem attacks.

    Glad to hear that some of our veteran posters still know how to have a civil disagreement.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Here it is. This is a link to a single tweet from a private account, and I've never tried this before. Hope it works, this is impressive:

    Kyle Schwarber has a beautiful home run spray chart... Here's an animation of all his homers since 2015.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    That didn't work. I'll try something else.

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    Can you just draw a picture in your post? LOL

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    That's fabulous!

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    Is that it?

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Not sure, I'm having technical difficulties. But it was from Darren Willman, so you probably got it. If it is a single-screen, moving color shot of symmetrical HR arches covering pole-to-pole, that's it. Ain't it beautiful? Thanks, Joel.

  • There may have been some pressure put on the coaches and players due to circumstances and FO comments about 'urgency', but I have been very impressed that a major part of the problem with this year's start was the lack of preparation in Spring Training. One Cubs den commenter several days ago showed the stats for pitchers in ST versus prior years innings pitched and there was a remarkable drop-off in innings pitched by the roster pitchers. This could explain why the bad pitching was evident in so many of the pitchers. The stats show that the 13 roster pitchers had less than 10 innings pitched per pitcher. This may have been the result of having so many pitchers under contract for ST. Maybe there weren't enough innings to go around. Until someone can explain why this reasoning is faulty, I will continue to think this was a factor.

  • In reply to cubster:

    The actual innings pitched may not be a great metric. So often guys no throw simulated games or on back fields and those innings are not counted. Regardless, the pitching has been behind this far.

  • As much as it bothered me how last season ended I didn’t come away from it shattered or crushed or whatever other descriptive that could show gloom or panic or little hope going forward.
    They won 95 games. Ninety-five. With overcoming nothing from the majority of their FA acquisitions so something else must have gone right, this wasn’t a team that limped into a WC game barely by going 87-75.
    I give the Brewers alot of credit. They played hungry and with drive that the young Cubs did in ‘15 & ‘16......winning at the end when they had to. I don’t think we kicked anything away......I think we just got beat.....sometimes ya just gotta tip the cap.
    What Epstein should really do today is send a comp for dinner out to LaStella.....the Brewers are seeing that the road is not as friendly as what they started with....

  • I applaud your efforts to write this article. You make a strong POV based on your interpretation of how Theo went about his business.

    I, however, do not agree with this at all. I think you did not understand what Theo meant when speaking about "urgency". You wrote about games 163 and the WC game-- "flameout". You wrote about a dichotomy of urgency/stasis as if they are intertwined. They are not and I think that is a miss in your position.

    The "urgency" Theo spoke to was about not punting on games in April, May, and June as a WIN in those months is the same as a WIN in Sept. It has nothing to do with game 163 and the WC game as you wrote. But instead deals with the mindset from the start of the season. There was no doubt the Cubs in '17 and '18 lacked a killer instinct (urgency). We heard excuses about a hangover and it's a long season. The problem is each season is different and a team simply cannot turn on the switch and get back to high performance levels. There is no question Joe should be held accountable for this too as some of the lineups he put out there on "get-away days" and the like were nothing more than Iowa Cubs lineups. He sat 3-4 regulars at one time which is unacceptable, IMO. A guy here or there OK, but give your team a chance to win. 1 extra win in April or May and there is no 163, we go get some rest, and then take on a playoff run. But the season was not handled properly and we saw the end result.

    The stasis you wrote is Theo believing in his team. He could have shipped out a number of guys. But he said he believes in "internal improvements" to drive the '19 season. This was a vote of confidence in the talent this team has. If players feel pressure to win and prove last season's ending was a fluke, then good. There should be a nervous excitement when playing. If you don't have that, then something is not wired correctly within or the message you are getting is flawed. The players should feel pressure to do well--not embarrass themselves or the organization. Had the bullpen not melted down in Texas I would bet you probably don't write this narrative. So I am not sure Theo is to blame other than the pieces he put on the roster, not his commentary about playing with urgency.

    Again, I applaud you for taking on a tough subject with your opinion. This makes Cubs Den a great place to come listen and talk Cubs baseball. Thanks, Ken.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    This was really well said. Hats off to you for stating your position so eloquently.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:


  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    That was also really well said, BP. Hats off to you for stating your position so eloquently.


  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Thank you. Sometimes less is more.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    ...more or less...

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Couldn't agree more with this comment. (Actually, I could agree more. See below)

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    The Cubs did not punt games and didn't lack a "killer instinct"
    I'm reading a big over reaction over a slow start. Every team goes through these stretches throuhout the year.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    We will not come close to agreeing. It is not an overreaction to the start. This is something that has gone on for 2 seasons. If you don’t believe there were terrible lineup choices and games where the play was lackadaisical to non-interested, then we did not watch the same team. Do you think Theo just made up his urgency talk?

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Do agree with you on at least 2 games last year.....can’t remember what dates, one was right around August 1st or 2nd on a getaway day where Maddon put a lineup on the field that was just not competitive, I only remember it because I thought I would have been pretty upset to have paid to see it.

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    I do. I had some real heartburn over some of the late April and May lineups too.

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    In reply to rbrucato:

    I am not surprised to see this from you, rbrucato. We have interacted a lot over the years. Sometimes we agree. Other times we have opposing views. But your thoughts are always worth considering. And I strongly agree with your comments in this post.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Thanks Joel. We can always learn from opposing views. And we don’t have to agree. It’s nice when it does not turn personal.

  • There are a lot of points to agree with in this piece. First and foremost, Ricketts closing the checkbook and ridiculously claiming "there's no money left"; Theo's general aversion to not investing in bullpen pieces for his entire time in Chicago and the intense schedule down the stretch last season. Having said that, the team's offensive drop off started in July, before the trade deadline and well before the last month. As tough as that schedule was in Sept, I just can't give them a pass with that excuse. All teams are worn out by then and the Cubs just basically folded their tent when the games counted most. Been a life long fan and I'm thinking the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  • In reply to Ronson54:

    Theo actually invested heavily in the bullpen twice in the last 2 years. He traded a Top 10 prospect, Gleyber Torres, for Chapman and gave out a 3 year $30+ million deal to Morrow. I wouldn't say that is an aversion. Those are significant prices there.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    and Wade Davis. Theo sees the bullpen differently than us fans, that is for sure, but he does invest in it when it is needed. That is why it is obvious that they don't want to cross that salary threshold and have to pay the luxury tax if they went and got Kimbrel.

  • In reply to KJRyno:

    I forgot about Davis too—thanks for the update.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    From a Patrick Mooney article, quoting Theo: "“We’ve had one of the best bullpens in baseball over the last four years and there’s probably been a grand total of three days that people haven’t been worried about the bullpen." The article states that the Cubs BP ERA ranked 4th, 3rd, 3rd and 1st in the NL over the past 4 years.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    rbrucato... You cherry picked 3 moves in 5 years, 2 of them trades, all closers. Their issue has been getting from the 5th-6th inning to the 9th and most of that group has been journeyman pick ups... Cliff969... ERA is one thing, IRSP (inherited runners scoring prevention) is another. According to ESPN, last year the Cubs BP was at 61%, near the bottom of the NL.

  • In reply to Ronson54:

    How is the checkbook closed with the second biggest payroll in baseball?
    It is Theo's spending of the budget which is the problem.

  • This is the kind of piece that stimulates conversation on a Wednesday morning (for me who natch is late to the discussion). But there were many things that were papered over a little too neatly, which need further examination:
    a) Urgency has been overstressed (maybe a bit true) while the team has not changed significantly from last year. Really? KB was hurt for most of last year, which seriously affected his game, and all signs indicate he is healthy again. Yu was on the DL most of the year and is healthy again. We have Hamels for the entire year, only a few months last year. Those are possibly big upgrades from last year's version
    b) Much of last year's failure to win the division was the offense significantly declining after the ASB. This stasis that has been mentioned is really Theo sticking with the guys who were chiefly the source of the decline. And you know what, he's been proven right so far, by a big margin. The offense has been fantastic, for the most part. These guys that were struggling are now hitting very well. The problems that occurred last year are not the problems of this year, so far.
    c) It's stated there is no tangible relief coming to help out the roster. Not true! We've already received very tangible relief, swapping out Edwards and Monty for Ryan and Webster. Just because they aren't household names doesn't mean they are useless. In fact, the pen has almost immediately settled down, and will continue to do so (IMHO), and these guys have played a positive role in that.

    This article seems like a very well timed (the cherries are extremely ripe) occasion to criticize the FO. Now this whole 'urgency' theme may not have helped anything (it looks like it certainly did not help), but probably not adversely affect the team too much. The pen has been a serious disaster, that's primarily the problem. Tangible help has already been applied. I'm not very worried about the BP. The rotatation, OTOH, well we'll have to see. Hopefully Lester will be back healthy soon.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    We definitely shared similar themes!

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Let’s hold the KB is back and healthy talk. SSS but even Tommy La Stella has 3 times as many HR as KB and KBspent the first 9 games in homer happy stadiums with 1 HR.

  • In reply to stix:

    TLS hit two homers against the Brewers last night, very nice! My advice is not to wager that he'll have more homers than KB at the end of the year. Don't worry about KB this year, unless you are a Cardinals or Brewers fan.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    La Stella has only 13 HRs in his career. I think your wager is safe but KB hasn’t lit the world up since spring training started. Hopefully he can regain his 2015/6 stats but i’M not expecting that.

  • Forget the bullpen issues for a moment. Theo's big mistake was drafting a prototype American League player and refusing he made a mistake which led to not backing up the truck to acquire Christian Yellich which would have been a big upgrade to the Cubs outfield.
    Theo would overpay for a pitcher but not an outfielder, go figure.
    MLB is turning out to be a joke. In the second game at Milwaukee the strike zone changed from inning to inning. When is someone at MLB going to do something to fix this and better the game ?

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    Don”t believe the cubs had the minor league resources to get Yelich. Marlins wanted ML ready minors leaguers. Obviously there were/are none of those on hand. Marlins were on a rebuild and didn’t want any ML pieces as ther clock was started and Marlins weren’t looking for that .

  • In reply to stix:

    Unless the cubs still had Eloy and cease they simply were never in the running for yelich. I’ve heard some suggest Schwarber but at the time of the trade he was coming off his worst season and the marlins wanted minor leaguers so they didn’t have to start their clocks while starting a long term rebuild. Aside from that even with improved defense Kyle isn’t a good fit in that big outfield over 81 games

  • I'd work 365 days a year to make 1/10th of what these guys make. Please don't ask me to feel sorry for them, especially about pressure. If they fail, they have guaranteed $$ that are more than I'll make in a lifetime. If I fail, I get fired and cannot support my family. That is pressure.

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