‘Real change is needed’: Theo Epstein opens up after rough 2019

CHICAGO – Theo Epstein walked in the media room Monday to give his first season-ending press conference in September since 2014.

“We’re very disappointed that we weren’t able to deliver October baseball, something I feel the fans deserve year in and year out,” Epstein opened with.” That feeling of letting our fans down should motivate all of us in this organization to put the work in necessary to build the next Cubs championship team.”

Coming off the lowest win total since 2014 with baseball’s second-highest payroll, Epstein pointed the blame in his direction while complimenting Joe Maddon.

“He changed the franchise forever, we want to recognize him for the legend that he is and wish him all the best… excited to see what his future holds on and off the field,” Epstein said. “Look, when we fail to make the playoffs, especially with the second-highest payroll in baseball, that is not on the manger.”

The team that was third in NL ERA and fifth in runs scored lacked the ability to win close games. Throughout Epstein’s hour-plus press conference, he consistently remarked how the next manager will have to build on team chemistry and that “real change is needed.”

In this moment of transition, Epstein assured that “a lot” of players on the current roster will hopefully be on the next Cubs’ championship team, but remarked baseball operations is going to “build something anew.”

“It’s an area where I need to do a better job as a leader, letting go of the past and focusing on the future,” Epstein said.

The Cubs will try to look forward in 2020, but could dip into the past for their next manager. During the press conference, Epstein confirmed that fan favorite David Ross is “one of many” candidates for the job.

“He’s on our broad list of candidates… he’s one of many candidates,” Epstein said before explaining what he’s looking for.

“Lack of experience is always a factor, it’s not a determining factor but it’s a significant factor. But, I think there’s ways for that to be overcome… beliefs, skills, personal attributes. Those can outweigh lack of experience, but experience certainly helps,” Epstein said.

Ross is open to the idea of returning to Wrigley.

“I’ve got a lot of close ties with those guys. I think the interest would be there. I think my heart is drawn to that dugout a little bit,” Ross said Sunday. “I’ve got a lot of thinking to do if this gets presented to me as everyone says will happen. I’m sure waiting for that phone call.”

Whether it be Ross or someone else taking the reigns, getting the Cubs to play more cohesive as a team is something Epstein is highly prioritizing. Following last year, baseball operations held closed door meetings with players to get a sense of clubhouse chemistry.

“Players identified areas of concerns, areas where we need to try to do things differently. And there was good, healthy conversation about that…I think there was good intentions and good effort,” Epstein said. “But in the end, that kind of change is really difficult, especially with tremendous continuity and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re embracing a lot of change now.”

With many core players like Kris Bryant and Javy Baez having their contracts up in 2021, Epstein said no one is “untouchable.” This offseason, deciding whether to extend core players or trade them for assets will likely be Epstein’s biggest challenge.

“I think we’re very likely to engage certain players in discussions about long-term contracts, “Epstein said. “If that’s not possible, then it might make you open minded about trades. There’s more than one way to take advantage of a player’s value and we’re going to balance those concerns moving forward.”

Looking back at the methods behind 2016’s title is not a recipe for future success, Epstein said.

“There’s a lot of looking back at things that worked in the past, there’s a lot of reliance on our natural ability and how we’ve done it in the past, “if you look at the last couple Septembers, you can make a strong argument that doesn’t work anymore.”

Epstein alluded to wanting a culture where a midseason acquisition, like Nick Castellanos, does not have to provide energy into the clubhouse, but feels it instantly from the team.

Speaking of the best 2019 trade deadline move, Epstein said he would “love” Castellanos back, but knows it’s complicated.

“He’s worked long and hard to get to free agency… he knows we’d love to have him back, but he also knows it’s not as simple as that,” Epstein said.

Whether the Cubs pursue Castellanos or another marquee free agent, Epstein believes the biggest change in the club will come internally expanding on the culture.

“We need to create a culture, in the clubhouse with guys in uniform that they push themselves to be the very best version of themselves. We have a great culture and we’re going to try to take it to the next level,” Epstein said.

Look for the Cubs to bring in managerial candidates as early as next week. As for Joe Maddon, teams are already lining up for his services. It’s  been reported that he’s interested in returning to the Los Angels Angels, where he began his coaching career in 1975.

Epstein ended his press conference on the idea that missing the playoffs this season may not be the worst thing for the club long-term.

“If this year made our evaluation clearer for us, and helped us stopped looking backwards and start looking forwards. In that sense, a reckoning was worth while.”

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