It seems that at several points every season, a faction of the Cubs fan base calls for the dismissal of Theo Epstein. This has been the case since just after he was hired to oversee baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, when he failed to deliver a World Series championship during his first offseason. It’s been the case for almost any trade Theo and general manager Jed Hoyer have brokered, even if the trade turned out to be okay (h/t Cubs Den). It’s actually getting tiresome, but we’re a baseball blog and community and deal with such things, so here we are.
Now let’s not pretend that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod are infallible. They are only human, and all humans will make mistakes at some point or another. Aisle424 wrote about the 45% of the time Theo is wrong on Obstructed View a while back and had this to say:
Like all people, Theo isn’t great. He isn’t bad. He’s a combination of the two. He has his strengths and his weaknesses like any person does. To put it as simply as I possible can, Theo is a combination of this post and the hundreds of articles you’ve read over the last 6 months. Most importantly, by himself Theo will not turn this organization around. He’s said so many times. It’s an organizational effort that begins at the top with the owner and extends through the lowest level of the minors to those scouting amateur talent across the world.
Among many things, casual fans don’t seem to realize that baseball in the Theo-Jed-Jason Cubs era is drastically different from the Jim Hendry era, and it really starts with the letters C, B and A. For one, player salaries have skyrocketed (especially in free agency) due to the influx of TV money and the aggregate of regionally-based popularity of the sport. For another, the CBA restrictions have made it more difficult and punitive to acquire amateur talent merely by throwing money at assets. Teams are now bound by strict spending limits that will result in loss of future acquisitions if those limits are exceeded, something that the Cubs will have to deal with this spending period after going balls out to get international free agents including Eloy Jimenez and Jen-Ho Tseng. It’s understandable why fans hate losing; I hate losing too, as you may have gathered from my frustrating experience at Monday night’s Reds game. Fans want a quick fix, they have the “what have you done for me lately” philosophy, and they hate the fact that the rebuild is taking so long. But from my vantage point the Cubs are making steps towards respectability even if it hasn’t manifested itself at the major league level yet. Then again, as long as Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are doing well, I’m going to be quasi-content for now.
We can look through the transaction logs to note all the failed transactions that the Cubs have made under the supervision of Theo Epstein. Of course we have the Tyler Colvin and D.J. LeMahieu trade for Ian Stewart that obviously didn’t work out. Stewart was eventually released by the Cubs after injuries and hissy fits and hasn’t played for the Angels since early May, while both Colvin and LeMahieu have been useful cogs in the NL West so far this season. Colvin in particular is probably outperforming the entire Cubs outfield right now.
The Lendy Castillo Rule 5 draft sorta didn’t work out that well either. Castillo is toiling in the minors for the Cubs right now. In the meantime, they let Ryan Flaherty get away in Rule 5, and Flaherty has been…oh wait, he still kinda sucks.
The Carlos Zambrano for Chris Volstad trade was borne out of necessity since Zambrano had worn out his welcome. Volstad sucked, so obviously that didn’t work out. Then again, it was a sunk cost anyway. And maybe, just maybe, they should have said “To hell with the medicals” and traded Carlos Marmol for Dan Haren anyway. Maybe they should have kept George Kottaras. Maybe this, maybe that. Baseball is hard.
Grabbing Kerry Wood in free agency (he retired midseason after being mostly ineffective) was pretty much a PR move. And they did have to bring Koyie Hill back into the organization again. Free agent acquisitions like Edwin Jackson (disappointing so far), Scott Baker (broken and gone), Kyuji Fujikawa (broken) and Jose Veras (now an Astro again) didn’t work out as planned.
So we have listed the major fails here, but we also need to look at everything else, which is overwhelmingly positive. It’s so positive, in fact, that articles such as this have been written about the bright future that is in front of the Cubs. If we continue with the transaction logs, we see that while the Michael Bowden return for Marlon Byrd didn’t work out that well, the other part of the deal, Hunter Cervenka, is working out well in Tennessee, even getting a call to the Southern League All-Star Game this season. Before that, the Cubs claimed a bat-flipping maniac named Luis Valbuena off waivers who is now one of the fixtures in the infield until reinforcements arrive. And aside from the really obvious sign-to-flip pitchers, the Cubs have made some shrewd free agent signings with David DeJesus and Dioner Navarro, though they probably should have traded them for a bit more rather than letting them go for next-to-nothing.
These tiny positives are all in addition to the guys who are destroying baseballs in the minors almost daily, and the pitchers that came back in trades and that were possible because the Cubs dared to let Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena go. It’s possible because even if Theo and Jed aren’t that smart, they decided to hire a guy who is smart enough to be offered an interview for an open GM position. The system is about to get even deeper with another shrewd draft. It’s been a long process, but there’s been improvement. You just have to look past the as-of-now-crappy product at Wrigley Field.
When Theo Epstein was first hired, he said a couple things at his introductory press conference:
“I firmly believe that we can preserve the things that make the Cubs so special and over time build a consistent winner, a team that will be playing baseball in October consistently and a team that will ultimately win the World Series.”
He has always been careful to, from that day, emphasize the word “consistent” in his statements. The Cubs need to be a perennial contender and not a one-year-wonder. That means no go-for-broke signings until…
“We’re going to build the best baseball operation we can. We’re going to change the culture. Our players are going to change the culture along with us in the major league clubhouse. We’re going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority. That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not. Once you get in in October there’s a legitimate chance to win the World Series.”
Epstein vowed to build a better scouting and farm system for the Cubs.
“We won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent” going to Wrigley Field from the minors.
“We’re going to have to grind our way to the top,” he said.
All this has been done per the campaign promise. The farm system is now one of the best in the majors in a short period of time and possibly getting better. And yes, the Cubs are playing service time games in a way with their top prospects, but the kids need a bit of extra work before they can come up and play in Wrigley Field. Many anti-Theo pundits will point to this statement:
“Every opportunity to win is sacred,” Epstein said. “It’s sacred to us inside the organization and it should be sacred to the fans as well. They deserve our best efforts to do what we can to improve the club, and put the club in position to succeed in any given season.”
This is where they say, “Theo lied to us!” because he isn’t going on parallel fronts to make sure both the majors AND the minors are being improved at the same time. In the context of the current CBA, parallel fronts is impractical and likely impossible if the foundation is poor and has to be rebuilt. However, we have seen improvement in the bullpen and in the starting pitching (at least until the inevitable trades, but there’s depth in the minors that may be able to step up to fill in the gaps, plus, y’know, Theo and Jed are generally pretty good at trades), and Rizzo and Castro are starting to hit their strides. I believe Theo when he says he isn’t hurting for resources despite the Wrigley renovation/expansion having hit more snags, and the Cubs have never been shy about developing talent since he’s been around. The future is very bright, and hopefully we won’t have to wait much more before we see the MLB Cubs in October again.
Of course, if it’s 2019 and they still haven’t made the playoffs and every single prospect fails, then yeah, let’s #FireTheo.