PITTSBURGH – After the Cubs fell short of high expectations with a sudden decline in the season’s final two weeks, President Theo Epstein acknowledged in general terms what they need to do to return to a championship level.
“There’s obviously change needed in a lot of areas,” Epstein said Wednesday before the Brewers’ victory over the Reds eliminated the Cubs from playoff contention for the first time since 2014. “That’s made even more clear by the nature of what’s happened down the stretch.
“It was made clear over the course of the year, too, in a lot of ways and back to last year in some regards too.”
Epstein stressed this was not directed at manager Joe Maddon, whose future will be discussed in the upcoming days as his five-year contract expires Sunday.
Epstein, who reinforced his commitment to fixing the Cubs and rejected a report about him returning to the Red Sox, said that within five minutes of his arrival in the clubhouse, three players asked how they can improve.
“When you have the worst possible outcome, which we had recently, it reveals everything,” he said, “and as painful as that can be, also creates a real opportunity for everyone to learn from it and grow.”
The season is likely over for third baseman Kris Bryant (right ankle) and shortstop Javier Baez (left thumb) – “There’s nothing for them to prove,” Maddon said – and first baseman Anthony Rizzo was pulled from Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates in the bottom of the third after making a remarkable return Thursday from a moderate right ankle sprain.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist also was expected to be pulled once the Cubs were eliminated.
In an interesting twist, Epstein said rookie Nico Hoerner could get a look at second base before the season concludes after starting 16 consecutive games at shortstop in place of Baez.
Asked if Hoerner, 22, will start 2020 in the majors despite never playing in Triple A, Epstein said: “It’s a tough one. He’s clearly showing he’s able to more than hold his own on a big-league field. And it’s an incredibly impressive feat, stepping into the middle of a pennant race, a big market, at Wrigley Field, for a team with a lot riding on every game. To step in and do what he’s done, I don’t think he’s gotten the credit he deserves. It’s pretty remarkable.
“It’s an interesting debate. I wouldn’t put anything past that kid. There are normal timetables for development. But in the end, it comes down to the person and the player.”
As far as needs entering 2020, Maddon said adding a “couple more contact bats” would help, but he believes in the nucleus of a team that has remained largely intact for four seasons.
Maddon also said adding a starting pitcher is “probably a priority, I’d think.” Cole Hamels’ left shoulder felt fine after a bullpen session Tuesday, but the Cubs haven’t decided if the soon-to-be free agent will pitch this weekend against the Cardinals.
Epstein described the rotation as “solid and certainly above average” while admitting that Hamels’ left oblique strain that sidelined him for five weeks prevented the rotation from being dominant.
“It could have been a defining strength for this club and a consistent one from start to finish,” Epstein said of the starters, who ranked sixth in the NL with a 4.13 ERA entering Wednesday. “Instead, it was solid and above average and wasn’t a reason we didn’t get where we wanted to go.”
Epstein said he and his staff will pore over ways to take better advantage of the Cubs’ plus-104 run differential and to improve their 20-37 road night record.
“Make no mistake,” Epstein said. “We have shortcomings we need to address.”
The Cubs will pay a tax for going over the salary threshold, and they don’t have much wiggle room in their quest to field a championship-caliber team while retaining their core players.
Income from their new television network, scheduled to launch in February, will be the same as their current arrangement, Epstein said, with the potential for “real growth” down the road.
Furthermore, he said, the wins won’t be dictated by the revenues in 2020.
“There’s a wall between baseball decisions and anything related to the baseball network,” Epstein said.
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