There seems to be this pervasive idea that Theo Epstein speaks in some kind of code, as if you need to play recordings of his interviews backwards to get the true meaning of his words. But that just isn’t the case. Even though the erudite baseball boss doesn’t always speak plainly, he always says exactly what he means. But because his statements are rarely binary, there’s often room for a little creative interpretation.
Never has that been more clear than when Buster Olney took some liberties with Epstein saying the Cubs don’t believe in considering anyone completely untouchable. Which is how “it would be virtually impossible to envision the deal that would make sense to move them” quickly became “Cubs open to trading 3B Kris Bryant…perhaps as soon as this winter.” No, Buster, no.
It’s one thing for conspiratorially minded fans to interpret the realistic possibility of such a franchise-altering move in backmasked audio, but for a respected baseball writer to do it was downright irresponsible. If Epstein wants to say something, he isn’t about to float it to a member of the media — either local or national — in order to get it out there.
“No, I don’t believe in sending messages through the media,” Epstein said at last week’s GM Meetings, per Patrick Mooney (subscription required). I just believe in communicating — not in the media — directly with players about where we think they should be at in their careers. And validate the things we’re doing really well and identify things they need to do better and try to work with them to make sure that happens.”
Epstein has been as blunt this offseason as we’ve ever seen him, largely because he’s “pissed off about the way the season ended.” More importantly, the players are pissed off about it as well. So when he talks about fixing things, he’s not focused on the 95 wins the Cubs racked up in the regular season. He’s only concerned with the zero games they won in the playoffs.
And that’s why he’s been so critical of the players and the staff and the culture and the performance that all bear responsibility for that outcome. But he’s not just acting like Billy Badass, Keyboard Commando and taking a hard line from the middle of a media scrum. You can rest assured the Cubs players, coaches, and front office employees are hearing the same message, probably with even more urgency.
“I think they all understand, like all of us, their careers depend on performance and in some cases on improvement,” Epstein said (again per Mooney). “Playing time and spots on the roster and all those things — it’s a business. They depend on performance. And ultimately our success as an organization depends on performance. That’s the reality and we’re communicating really directly with our guys about it and working really hard with them to attain those goals.”
When it comes to the Cubs achieving that success and attaining their shared goals, it’s necessary to have the best possible collection of talent they can possibly assemble. Regardless of how you feel about their (non) pursuit of the biggest free agents, it’s an unassailable fact that Bryant needs to be around for them to have their best chance at winning in October. That’s all you need to know to brush aside any trade speculation from Olney or Mad Dog Russo or [insert favorite rumor monger].
While it’s much better to be pissed off than pissed on, Theo Epstein and the Cubs both after a disappointing finish that left everyone salty. And the team president isn’t shy about sharing exactly how he feels about it. So don’t waste too much of your time and effort trying to decipher hidden meaning or waiting for talking heads to tell you what Epstein is saying. Just listen to him.