The Cubs’ season came to an abrupt end last week, when the Marlins swept the NL Central winners in the teams’ first-round series. Despite generally strong regular-season play, the North Siders have now failed to advance to a National League Division Series in each of the past three seasons. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein discussed the organization’s outlook in an end-of-season chat with reporters this morning.
Having not quite lived up to lofty expectations in recent years, Epstein acknowledged some change this offseason “is warranted and necessary” (via Russell Dorsey of the Chicago Tribune). There’s seeming room for improvement on both sides of the ball. On the whole, Cubs’ hitters slashed just .220/.318/.387, resulting in a 91 wRC+ that ranked 21st out of the league’s 30 teams. Among everyday players, only Ian Happ and Jason Heyward performed up to or exceeded expectations. Anthony Rizzo was decent but didn’t play at his established levels, while Kris Bryant and Javier Báez scuffled through miserable seasons.
On the pitching side, Yu Darvish again cemented himself as a bona fide ace, with Kyle Hendricks continuing to shine as the #2 option. The rest of the rotation is uncertain, with José Quintana, Jon Lester and Tyler Chatwood all ticketed for free agency. 25-year-old Adbert Alzolay has the inside track on a rotation spot, Epstein confirmed (via Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune), but he admitted the front office will have to look outside the organization for additional pitching help. Whether the Cubs could make any high-priced additions isn’t clear, as Epstein said the franchise is facing a high amount of financial uncertainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (Gonzales link), as is more or less true of all 30 clubs.
Being open to some changes on the roster is hardly the same as desiring massive turnover; GM Jed Hoyer made similar comments last November, but the organization had a generally quiet 2019-20 offseason. The existing core is clearly capable of making another run in the NL Central, assuming the pitching staff is bolstered in some fashion. It remains to be seen if the conditions for a more drastic shakeup present themselves.
The 46-year-old Epstein also addressed his personal future. His contract expires after the 2021 season, and he’s reportedly planning to meet one-on-one with chairman Tom Ricketts in the coming days. Epstein confirmed he’ll sit down with ownership but downplayed the meeting’s significance, calling it a customary end-of-year process. “My expectation is that I’ll be here (next season),” he told reporters (including Jordan Bastian of MLB.com).
That said, Epstein hinted at the possibility that 2021 could be his final year in Chicago. When asked about the prospect of an extension, he noted that changes after a long time spent in one place could be beneficial for both employees and the organization (via Gonzales). As Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com points out (Twitter link), that’s in line with an increasing expectation Epstein might depart at the end of his deal.
If that were to happen, Hoyer would seem an obvious candidate to take over baseball operations. Long-term front office uncertainty aside, Epstein says he’s currently “as invested in the Chicago Cubs as I was at any point in the last nine years,” (Rogers link).