Theo Epstein Hints at Minimal Roster Turnover, Lack of Big Offseason Moves

Theo Epstein hadn’t addressed the media en masse since the lengthy postmortem press conference in which he lamented a “broken” offense and vowed to fix it moving forward. Emotions were raw and the lack of sleep was evident, as was the lack of time allow him to step back far enough from the recently concluded season to see it in proper perspective.

Speaking from his suite at the GM Meetings, which formally begin today in Carlsbad, CA, Epstein got into more details about the respective futures of Joe Maddon and Addison Russell. By so doing, he may have reinforced some of the recent reports of the team’s unwillingness to spend big on a monster free agent and possibly reshape the roster in the process.

Maddon will be entering his fifth season with the Cubs and he’ll do so without any assurances that his tenure will be extended. That seems odd on the surface, what with a 97-win average and postseason appearances in each of his first four years. Oh yeah, there’s also that World Series title, which people forget. But as Epstein has laid out quite clearly, this isn’t just about win totals.

Or, more accurately, it’s not about regular-season results and it’s certainly not about paying for past performance. As far as the Cubs are concerned, the most important win total is zero, the number of postseason victories they had this year. That was also their run total in far too many games.

Though Epstein made clear that the decision not to talk extension with Maddon — a position on which they’ve remained steadfast for months — was not about distancing themselves from the manager. Rather, it’s a matter of ensuring the team still has the right leadership in place to “be one game better than [they] were last year.” That means reinvigorating the urgency and getting the most out of their assembled talent.

One could argue, convincingly so, that winning 95 games given all that occurred in 2018 was representative of Maddon’s best season in Chicago. Well, his best regular season. As such, there may be impetus to keep the band together and let Maddon have another go at it with a roster that should be healthier, even if otherwise unchanged for the most part.

“I think we’re really talented,” Epstein said. “It’s time to produce, or else there’s a chance for significant change for the group. So that’s really where our focus is. It’s a pivotal year.”

There are several different ways to interpret that, but the main thrust of it seems to be that the Cubs are ready to ride or die with what they’ve got in house. The “chance for significant change” would apparently come only after another disappointing performance this season, which sure seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs are not going to blow up the budget this winter.

It’s almost as though Epstein is viewing this as a science experiment, trying to determine which reagent is truly responsible for his team’s chemistry. While he can’t run several different scenarios at once, standing somewhat pat with the very clear understanding that something needs to change from an urgency standpoint kind of isolates Maddon as the primary focus.

Were the Cubs to bring in a superstar addition like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, they might not be able to properly deduce the true source of the team’s resultant success or failure. There’s also the idea that, as’s Jon Morosi wrote, “the Cubs seem more enamored with players becoming available via free agency in future offseasons — such as Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado — than those in the current class.”

But if all that was really the case, it sort of seems like Epstein and the Cubs would be cutting off their collective nose to spite their face. Avoiding the market simply to bide their time and/or push Maddon out onto an island, particularly given their competitive window and the massive revenues they’re enjoying, seems ill-advised. Unless, of course, there are some deeper money issues at play.

Regardless of how you slice it, Epstein’s rhetoric backs up the reports that have been coming out for the last week about the Cubs’ unwillingness to spend. Which leads us back to the current roster and keeping it largely intact, perhaps even by keeping Addison Russell around. We heard from The Athletic‘s Patrick Mooney that such a scenario was becoming more likely, and Epstein spoke that Monday.

“The solution also means, with respect to Addison, it means discipline,” Epstein said. “And he’s been handed his discipline and he’ll serve it. I also think part of the solution can possibly include rehabilitation and reformation. And taking steps to examine whether the individual is worth the investment so he can grow so that this never happens again with him. So we’re in that process. We have a robust mental skills department. I don’t want to get into specifics, but we’re very engaged with Addy in trying to verify that he’s serious about self-improvement and adding more stability in his life to get to a point that we’re confident that something like this will never happen again.”

As much as that all makes sense, it’s still possible for the Cubs to do those things while choosing not to tender a contract to the arbitration-eligible shortstop for 2019. But Epstein went on to speak about a sense of responsibility for having an active and ongoing role in Russell’s rehab beyond just this offseason or the remainder of his suspension.

“We take credit when players grow up and experience great success on the field and off the field,” Epstein admitted. “We feel proud of being a part of that, playing a small role in that and providing the right kind of environment for that. So when a player has something in their life that goes the other direction or does something you’re not proud of, does that mean you should automatically cut bait and move on and have it be someone else’s problem or society’s problem?

“Or do you explore the possibility of staying connected with that player with the hope of rehabilitation including a lot of verification along the way. I think these are difficult things to wrestle with, but I’m not so sure that the answer is simply to cast the player aside and hope that someone else performs that work or that work takes place at all.”

Sahadev Sharma covered this very well and you should go read that if you’ve got a subscription. I continue to struggle with how to best address the topic and can certainly agree with Epstein that it’s a difficult thing to wrestle with. Which seems awful to say because domestic violence is wholly and unequivocally unacceptable. But do the Cubs bear responsibility for that and can they best be a part of the solution by actively participating in Russell’s rehabilitation?

Given a reality in which Russell will certainly not be barred from playing baseball beyond the near future, is there more honor in non-tendering him and just letting him go elsewhere? The difficult part there for me is that it feels somewhat akin to simply relocating priests accused of child molestation to a different parish. There’s still a big problem, that logic goes, it’s just not our problem.

Maybe the best course of action is for the Cubs to maintain responsibility for, or at least have active engagement in, the rehabilitation process while still cutting Russell loose. If he goes on to blossom into the next Barry Larkin, so be it. If the Cubs’ interests truly lie more with the bigger solution as it concerns domestic violence, they can still be a part of that without also hoping to reap the rewards of a career rebirth.

But the very possibility, one that seems much more likely now than a month ago, of Russell remaining with the Cubs seems to hint at the non-pursuit of Machado or other available shortstops. Keeping Russell and his projected $4.3 million on the roster is significantly cheaper than adding a free agent worthy of playing shortstop well enough to push Javy Baez to second base or finding a second baseman to keep Baez at short. Even if the Cubs are mostly concerned with the human aspect, the baseball side of things can’t be ignored.

But we’ll have to wait and see on all these things. The GM Meetings may provide more clarity of direction, though I suspect we may not really know what’s going to happen until the end of the month. Maybe not even then. For now, all we can do is speculate as to what Epstein really means and whether his words and the interpretation of them will change in the coming weeks.


Epstein spoke again Tuesday afternoon from Calabasas and his comments backed up what was said above.

“This time is precious,” he said (per Tony Andracki tweet). “We’re all part of this group that has enough talent to win the World Series and we don’t want to waste it. We don’t want to look back with any regret that there are things we could’ve done differently in our preparation or work habits or attitudes.”

It’s very clear from this snippet that Epstein is pointing out the merits of the current core and making sure they get the most out of it. And while he’s certainly not ruling out big additions, nothing about this indicates that big personnel moves are needed. But he’s not just sitting back all starry-eyed and acting as though nothing needs to change.

“We damn well better be honest with ourselves about the reasons why it didn’t happen and find ways to fix it, otherwise what the hell are we doing here?”

So that leaves the door open a little more, though we’ve already beaten to death the idea of a killer instinct that was largely absent last season. Epstein isn’t one to throw people under the public bus, but he has been very pointed in his assessment of his team and the way they closed out 2018.

As such, he’s trying to set a precedent for expectations when it comes to the way the players think and act heading into what could be a pivotal 2019 campaign. It’s way too early for any pronouncements yet, but it seems to be working.

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