Commentary: In Theo We Trust!
|Sunday, November 6, 2016 12:26 PM- -|
CHICAGO -- Let me first say that I firmly believe that Theo Epstein has cemented himself among the greats, and will go down as one of--if not the greatest General Manager or overseer of baseball operations of all-time. And think of this: he's younger than Bartolo Colon is. Whoa. Baseball is just great, isn't it?
As I listened to this snippet from his introductory press conference five years ago, still basking in the glory of the other night, its ups and downs nearly making me want a blindfold and cigarette multiple times and I've never smoked in my life... I realized that everything in that he said in the press conference, where he addresses the future, came true.
In-Theo-We-Trust has never felt more true to heart than right now. I had my speculations. I had my moments of "this is too good to be true"--but I also had a lot of faith in this squad when Theo, Hoyer, and McCloud all signed aboard. It just happened a lot faster than even I imagined it would. To say he did everything and then-some, putting this team in a core position to be good for years and add pieces to its puzzle as needed via free agency, or using trade pieces, is to say the least. A bit like some of the later '90s NYY teams which spent money, but did so more wisely than in the later years/new millennium, and managed to build AROUND an already-solid/very good core they had established in-house--much like this Cubs team. No, this doesn't look like a 1-and-done situation. They have the makings of a team who should contend for the playoffs for no less than the next 5 yrs barring some absurd meltdowns, and be in the mix for the title the next 3 years. For now, though, I just want to break down bits of that video, which I transcribed verbatim. It is uncanny in many ways just how it all came into fruition. Theo had a plan, and he executed this plan beautifully and did it with maybe one mistake: Edwin Jackson, and in reality, it didn't cost the team any prospects or anything besides a bit of money, and may have also saved them from signing a guy who isn't aging so gracefully in Anibal Sanchez. So, depending on how you want to look at it, that leak of Twitter info re: salaries and the subsequent signing of Edwin may have helped the Cubs from getting stuck on the hook long-term with Sanchez.... Either way, this regime has a pretty great record, and I want to simply go through some of Theo's quotes and point out how dead-on he was, and how it all came true. Curses don't exist. Futility does. Theo had a plan, executed it, and put a winning team and potential dynasty on the field for the Cubs. 108 years of bad management and miscues aside, it does start at the top, and from hiring better coaches (Maddon, among others) to everything else he said... well, I'll start from the top and go down bit-by-bit.
Starting off with about the first paragraph I transcribed from his press conference:
"Building a foundation for success also means creating a winning culture at the big league level. Our fans deserve a clubhouse full of players who are proud to wear the Cubs uniform, and are as passionate about playing as they are. Our players, on the other hand, need to know their teammates have their back and the organization will always be honest with them and put themselves in a position to succeed. We are going to have to grind our way to the top and we must do so together. It will be a lot of work, and we are ready, and we are hungry. As I mentioned earlier, when we do achieve that sustained success, and ultimately win a World Series, it will not happen because of any one person; it will happen because of all of us."
If you look back on even the 2003 Cubs, there was clubhouse tension already building, and love 'em or not, egos galore. Dusty was a hands-off type of manager and in my opinion, still is. Whether or not that locker room would have been better off with an in-your-face such as Lou then vs. later on is questionable, but in the rear-view. The 2015-16 Cubs displayed something, however, that even the 07-08 teams didn't really show me: leadership, teamwork, and just a joy for the game. Maybe it was their youth, I thought. I also saw this team do something others never have: bond together, and pass a lot of "litmus tests" thrown at them throughout the season. They had a rough stretch, but rebound to have a fantastic-- and record-breaking August, going off of Win%. They not only had to grind for some years, at least those who were on the team prior to the 2015 breakout and/ or hiring of Joe Maddon, to get to where they are now. They had to deal away popular players and make questionable decisions to the fan base at times, when a lot of people would have likely seen some of the stars looking for top-dollar locked up vs. another trade for "more prospects"--the value of prospects seemingly fluctuating in the fans' eyes every-other season, depending on each year's bust-to-breakout ratio, maybe. I don't know.
But give Theo the credit on that one by now, and by '15, probably. This is a clubhouse with, what--7 guys under or at age 24, now--and room to improve via free agency from extra revenue, or trades using prospects or even active roster players who are of positions that may be a bit too full come 2017. There are still a ton of ways this team can improve upon 2016, while going for a repeat championship in '17-- and '18. The depth to develop spots like the bullpen, which Maddon seemed to lose faith in, is there. Free agency money, at least some, should be there (and don't forget about how jacked-up the 2018 class will be, either--no doubt the Cubs will be in the thick of it, somewhere, someway, and somehow--come time). This is a TEAM, unlike any other Cubs ROSTER I have witnessed in the past since the years of some of the greats who never even saw the playoffs. Egos in check. Maddon has a great feel for them all.
"It will happen because one of our area scouts drives the extra six miles to get that one last look at a prospect before the draft. It'll happen because a rookie ball pitching coach comes out every day to early work until he finally finds that right grip for a young pitcher's changeup."
Kyle Hendricks definitely benefited somewhere along his path to the majors, becoming one of Major League Baseball's brightest young stars, and something Cubs fans can continue thanking both Dempster, and even the Hendry regime for taking the initial shot on Dempster while he was recovering, in helping bring Kyle (or Maddux 2.0, as his reputation rapidly builds, bulldog mentality right down to the way he pitches and studies the art of it, even having that 2-seam pitch that reminds me of Maddux's in his prime...) Hendricks to Chicago. Dempster helped the Cubs and is a great human being, and a beloved Chicago Cubs fan and someone I'd buy a drink for if I saw him in Wrigleyville and only had enough for one person. But I have to say, his best purpose may yet have been OK-ing the deal with Texas that brought the Cubs Kyle Hendricks over in return. His improvements since his first half-season, and even that half-season having people surprised, have been fantastic. Check the green box again for Theo as he was right on the money again. Some late-draft picks, or acquired later-round draft picks have also made a significant impact on this team already as well. There's 2 good marks.
"It'll happen because someone from our international staff takes that extra time to really get to know a 17-year-old kid and make his transition to the states that much easier."
I liked this one, even if Javy [Baez] may have been pushing closer to 18 at the time of draft....and had been stateside as well. If you'd like to consider Almora here, he fits the bill, as well in fashion similar to Baez. Soler was quite young as well, but not 17. Point remains, our international staff has done a fantastic job, as have our scouts that look at talent within the draft pool--including former international talent, a lot of which has played at Miami. There were some great players in 2011, including Sonny Gray, who the Cubs had flirted with in past drafts which he had said he would not sign who went after Baez. Even if Baez was Wilkins' product just by a bit (in which I thank him for selecting him to the Cubs), the development of Baez and then of course Almora (who came of the Theo regime) to follow was obviously a product of international staff making some difference. The Cubs liked what they thought they were getting with Javy Baez, but with everything and all that he has become and only in his second true year, and after needing almost a whole year in between in the minors to make adjustments, what he has done or did for the Cubs in 2016 overall was nothing short of brilliant, and international staff/coaches etc. surely played some role in his fantastic--and very quick development/turnaround, when it was a worry he may be a bust all-together in some folks' minds....
"It will happen because a fringe-prospect in Double-A buys into the Cubs' way, takes responsibility for his own development, and turns himself into a big piece of our big league puzzle."
I don't think I need to go too deep into this one--Wilson Contreras, anyone? Former 3B-turned-C, and a product of former scout Wilkins, as well, Contreras' 2015 breakout was as surprising to me as it was for the rest of the league, even if I knew who he was. To see him follow it up in 2016, he was on my radar for sure, and I had spoken of him to many Cubs fans who hadn't heart... To see him make the impact he eventually made upon starting the year red-hot at AAA, showing there was little left to prove, then coming up and pretty much claiming the #1 catching gig AND showing much superior defense than I ever would have expected made me look like a genius to a few people I have been tooting his horn around prior to the call-up... but even I had to say, "look, I didn't know he would be this good!"--because I didn't! Don't think I'm not happy. Wilson worked hard, and still is working hard. His defensive improvements are phenomenal and what he has turned himself into, at the later age of 24--no less--is just what Theo was talking about in that sentence. Bravo, Wilson Contreras. I look forward to watching your athleticism and hope you can stick behind the plate, too. Ross will be proud.
"It will happen because our major league coaching staff is more prepared than their counterparts across the field."
Joe Maddon's game-plan (at times) may have had me wanting to rip my hair off, but in the end, throughout most of the playoffs (and obviously the regular season, winning 103 games, was it? +a 1-1 tie vs PIT!) he held the upper hand in the manager's chess game, and would end up putting the other team in checkmate even if he had his back against the wall and the pawns closing in on more than one occasion...
"It will happen because our major league players band together, support each other, overcome adversity, and work really hard to make our fans proud. Yeah, it will not be any one person; it will be all of us for the Chicago Cubs."
Kyle Schwarber has to be considered the poster-child for hard work and overcoming adversity, to come back and play the role he did in the WS--even in limited action as he wasn't given the OK to play the field. I still truly feel he was one of the biggest X-factors, the the irony of Kluber getting the W in the all-star game, thus granting CLE home-field advantage, gave the Cubs the DH and a spot for Schwarber to work with in games 6 and 7, which definitely both lengthened the lineup, and gave them a much needed thump and protection in the order. No doubt in my mind he increased their odds once it went BACK to Cleveland from entering the lineup alone (and might I say, the 2-hole was a brilliant place to put him and I do hope he bats 2, with some form of Bryant and Rizzo to follow!)
Not only that, but after cries to bench Russell, what happens? He goes out and hits 3 home runs, one of which being a grand slam in a game which saw him *tie the World Series record (*Bobby Richardson, 1960; Hideki Matsui, 2009; Albert Pujols, 2011; Addison Russell, 2016) of 6RBI in one single World Series game. He had two chances to plate a 7th run, but came up short in each. The faith Maddon showed and adversity he battled, batting in the 5-spot, a place lots of pundits said he could not fit, or did not belong (in spite of his 95 regular season RBI), and he shut them up pretty quick or proved he could hit 5 in the order pretty quickly, with back-to-back home runs in 2 games, and the grand slam blast in game 6 in addition to 2 more RBI that night. Rizzo and Bryant got hot and starting hitting. They made adjustments, and you started to see lefties step back a bit in the batter's box, even, giving even guys like Rizzo a better chance on the stuff down- or up-and-in, and a much better chance to lay off or sit back on a curve. It worked.
We came back out in extra innings, after blowing a 5-1 and 6-3 lead with all of the momentum in the world for most of that game, and still put 2 on the board--including a very important insurance run, as things would prove in the bottom-half of the 10th--and still won-out. We used pitchers that Maddon may not have been 50% with even if he said he was, and we still got out of it all, as close as it came--right down to 1 pitch and the entire outcome could have been different.
Everything from that quote in which Theo promised not only to bring a championship to Chicago, but just how he was planning to--and carried out his plan to do so--came true.
"There's always next year" is no more; now, I'll simply be looking forward to next year getting underway, and following the off-season moves Theo and brass have put this organization in to make to only improve for '17-'18 and on. I finally don't have to "wait" for next year, but can sit and enjoy it, let it sink in, and maybe try to decide on jersey to buy that won't be on another roster within the next year. I think a lot of fans may have Cubs merchandise on their Xmas lists this year, and for once, I don't blame them one bit. This is one to let sink in, and enjoy, so enjoy it! But also remember to recognize just what a grind it has been at times, and how lucky we as a franchise are to have Theo--in addition to Hoyer and McCloud on board. This is a special team that is only going to get better, so instead of "there's always next year," how about we "WIN 2 FOR ERNIE!" instead?