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Cubs' Theo Epstein talks Joe Maddon's exit, possible replacements

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gives a closing news conference for the season Monday at Wrigley Field.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gives a closing news conference for the season Monday at Wrigley Field.

In trying to explain the firing of manager Joe Maddon and to provide a taste of what’s to come, Cubs president Theo Epstein framed the state of the team this way Monday:

“This is clearly a moment of transition,” Epstein told the media during a 1-hour, 20-minute news conference at Wrigley Field, adding that the Cubs are going to “build something anew.”
While continually praising Maddon by saying he was the right manager at the right time for where the Cubs were in 2014, he said the team now needs the right manager for where they are now.

With that in mind, Epstein confirmed that former Cubs catcher and current special assistant David Ross will be a candidate to manage the Cubs, with the process of interviewing candidates beginning next week. It’s also likely that bench coach Mark Loretta also will interview for the job. Epstein did not wish to comment on the status of former Yankees manager and Cubs catcher Joe Girardi.

The front office will meet with the coaching staff Tuesday.

“David Ross has a lot of great things going for him,” Epstein said. “I would say that his connection to the players on the team and especially his connection to the 2016 team are not necessarily assets that distinguish him. Rossy is a really attractive candidate, and he’s going to be evaluated on the merits, what he can bring to the table as a major league manager, given his skills, given his experiences, given his worldview, given what he knows about winning.”

Ross, who demonstrated leadership as the backup catcher on the Cubs’ 2016 World Series-winning team, has no coaching or managerial experience, but Epstein insisted that would not be a disqualifying factor.

“Lack of experience, and I’m speaking broadly, is always a factor,” he said. “It’s not a determining factor. It’s a significant factor. I always have a greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before, especially with manager. But I think there are ways for that to be overcome. There are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game.”

The Cubs are at this point because they finished out of the playoffs for the first time since 2014 with a record of 84-78, good for third place in the National League Central. A nine-game losing streak near the end of the season sealed the team’s fate.

The result was an especially disappointing one for Epstein, because a year ago he spoke for more than an hour about how the team’s offense had “broke” and that 2019 would be a year of “reckoning.”

He joked that he tried to use more “boring” language Monday, but that the organization may have fallen into what he termed several times a “winner’s trap,” whereby methods that worked in the past may not necessarily work again.

“We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum or the parts,” he said. “I think we had a lot of good individual performances. We had a lot of talent and ability. If we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year.

“The next manager has to create an environment that turns that into wins. That’s not solely on the manager at all. That’s roster construction and everything else. That’s what we’re looking for as a manager, to try to help our group. The next manager will be a success if he finds a way to get the most out of each player.”

To do that, Epstein suggested changes in work routines might be in order.

“It’s important, and again, Joe was wonderful at this, but it’s going to be important for the next manager of this particular group at this time to find a way to foster a team identity,” he said. “I think [with] this group, our routines tended to be more individualized. There wasn’t a lot of work as a team.

“I think it’s going to be important for this group that we find time to work as a team, that we find time to assemble as a team, that we find ways to deliver messages so that there can be a great sense of team identity and purpose for this group. At this moment in time with this group, I think accountability is important. We were pretty mistake-prone. Again, organization by challenge, not on the manager.”

Epstein emphasized that the Cubs had the second-highest payroll in baseball, and “that is not on the manager. That is not something especially on ownership. When we fail to accomplish our goals, that is my responsibility.”

The current core group of Cubs players is still young, with most still being at least a couple of years away from free agency. Still, Epstein said that there likely would be changes to the roster.

“When you ... fall short of your goals and fail to perform at the biggest moments as dramatically as we did, it provides a real opportunity of you’re willing to be honest with yourself and are willing to take a hard look inside,” he said. “We’re not blowing anything up per se. But we’re likely to see real change, real adjustments at various levels, most levels of our baseball operations. With our player group, there’s going to be some change, some real change with our player group. That’s inevitable.”

In the wake of Maddon’s firing, Epstein was widely criticized in the media for not providing the manager with a better roster, including the lack of a leadoff hitter, a better bullpen and a closer.

He was asked in which areas he was most self-critical.

“I had this belief that this group of players who won the World Series at 22 and 23 years old, many of them, were going to grow into an unstoppable set of players if we could continue to supplement them and show faith in them,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. I’ve made decisions to pour a lot of resources … every available dollar that we’ve poured back into plugging holes in this group, trying to find pitching for this group, trying to elevate this group.

“If I could do it over again, I would as a leader try to find a way to be more objective and more critical and more open-minded to different ways to do it. I think that’s got us into trouble if you look at the amount of resources that have gone out the door trying to supplement this group.

“The other one is you got to hit on deals. The five-year rebuild was just about perfect, one of the best in history if not the best. Why? It wasn’t because it was a grand strategy or any new paradigm of how to run a baseball operation. It was because we performed at an extraordinarily high level. We hit on an incredible amount of deals and got impact players back in deals where we shouldn’t have. We haven’t performed at that level since then.”

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