It wasn’t until about 15 minutes into Theo Epstein’s end-of-season news conference — one that focused much on what went wrong — for something to dawn on him.
“I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far into the press conference without the balancing caveat of we won 95 games,” Epstein said, one day after the Chicago Cubs were bounced out of the postseason with a 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field.
“That’s our goal every year. By that measure, it was a largely successful regular season. We do set out to win 95 each year, or more.
“Nine times out of 10 that gives you your division title, and you’re moving on.”
The statement came in response to a question about the status of the Cubs’ coaching staff, which featured several new members this season.
“This isn’t on the coaching staff,” he said. “Even if we end up making a change or two, which I’m not sure there’s going to be, I think continuity is important as well. You don’t want to be changing coaches just for the sake of changing coaches.”
It was a wide-ranging, hour-and-10-minute back-and-forth with the Chicago media.
Along the lines of the coaching staff, one of the biggest topics was the fate of manager Joe Maddon, who has one more year left on his contract.
There were reports earlier in the season that Maddon might not be back if the Cubs didn’t make a deep playoff run. On Wednesday, there were reports the Cubs would allow Maddon to manage in 2019 without offer of an extension this off-season.
“Joe’s status remains unchanged,” Epstein said. “He’s the manager of this team. I’m very happy about that. I know there was a sort of high-profile report this morning that was not accurate. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I saw there were some claims that he and I had some personal friction. Not true at all. We have a terrific working relationship.
“We don’t agree all the time about baseball issues, and that’s the way it should be. I don’t want a yes man as the manager, and I don’t want a yes-man relationship the other way. I think there should be discord and debate and healthy, trusting relationships where you can work together to make the organization better. And that’s the way it is.”
Epstein added it was too early to talk with Maddon about an extension.
One of the biggest problems the Cubs faced this season was an inconsistent offense. In addition to scoring 1 run in the wild-card game, the Cubs got beat 3-1 by the Brewers in Game 163 of the regular season to determine the winner of the National League Central. The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Cubs 2-1 last Saturday.
“I mean this with no disrespect to any of our players; I respect them all greatly in every way,” Epstein said. “Part of getting better is facing the problem. Our offense broke somewhere along the lines. Of course there’s going to be a thorough examination, and of course we’re going to spend all our energy trying to fix it and fixing it.
“If you look back at the first half of the season, we led the league in runs scored. We led the league in OPS. We led the league in virtually every significant offensive category. And we were cruising.
“We felt really good offensively. We had cut down on our strikeouts. We had sacrificed some power, but not all. We were getting on base at a huge clip and scoring a ton of runs.”
Things went downhill from there.
“In the second half, things were dramatically different,” Epstein said. “Overall, we had 40 games in which we scored zero or 1 run, which is hard to fathom. In the second half, we only had 50 games in which we scored 2 or more runs. Our record in those games, when we got to 2 or more, was 37-13.
“We hit more groundballs in the second half than any other team by a huge margin. Our goal is to hit line drives and flyballs out of the ballpark.”
The Cubs wound up fourth in runs scored, 11th in home runs and fifth in OPS.
In other areas, Epstein said:
• He does not believe Kris Bryant will need surgery on his left shoulder, which ailed the third baseman-outfielder much of the second half.
• The Cubs would “absolutely” like to have pitcher Cole Hamels back for next season. They have a $20 million option on Hamels for next year, or they can exercise a $6 million buyout and try to negotiate. Hamels came to the Cubs from Texas in a July trade and helped stabilize the rotation down the stretch.
In the end, Epstein said that because 95 wins weren’t good enough, the Cubs have to look within.
“There’s obviously things that we need to do better, that I need to do better,” he said. “We should all look at this season that way, that we won 95 games. Great, but we didn’t accomplish our ultimate goal. How can we get better? How can we be accountable? A full winter, this extra month that we unfortunately happen to have, is a luxury in baseball.
“But we now have that luxury, unfortunately, of the full off-season. It’s a challenge. We’re thinking about the front office with our own decisions and our own processes. How do we take full advantage of this so we’re never in this position again?
“We don’t want to be part of an offensive collapse in the second half again. We don’t want to be part of losing a division lead late again. We don’t want to be part of looking back, maybe recognizing that, ‘Gosh, maybe a greater sense of urgency from Game 1 through 162 would have led to one more game, and we’re still playing.
“We don’t want to be part of that ever gain, so we need to make good use of this time.”