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.
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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