After the end of the 2014 Chicago Cubs season, Theo Epstein spoke optimistically about the upcoming offseason.
It was time to get serious.
“Knowing the money will be there changes the lens in which you view every transaction,” said Epstein, then the president of baseball operations.
The Cubs had cleared about $41 million off the payroll after their third straight last-place finish in the National League Central, and Epstein and business operations president Crane Kenney were addressing a group of season ticket holders at the Oriental Theater.
The Cubs wound up spending smartly that offseason, bringing in starter Jon Lester on a six-year, $155 million deal that turned out to be arguably the best signing in team history. They turned the corner in the rebuild in 2015, making it to the National League Championship Series and winning the World Series one year later.
Once again the Cubs are voicing optimism and promising to spend money in the offseason, though this time it’s Jed Hoyer making the big decisions. Whether the Cubs are close to turning the corner in the rebuild that can’t be called a rebuild is a question that can’t be answered until we see what moves Hoyer makes and whether the current group can build on its strong finish in 2022.
Manager David Ross said before Saturday’s 2-1 win against the Cincinnati Reds that he was excited about the team’s growth and work ethic, though he cautioned they’re still a ways off from where they need to be.
“Those are good signs,” he said. “We’ll continue to grow. We’ve got a long way to go to get better, to competing for a World Series, but these guys are on a mission to do that.”
The Cubs extended their winning streak to six games and have taken 10 of their last 11. Seiya Suzuki’s solo home run in the seventh was the winning blast, and Adbert Alzolay and Wade Miley combined for five hitless innings of relief.
The Cubs end their home schedule Sunday at Wrigley Field, which likely will be the last chance for fans to say one final goodbye to catcher Willson Contreras, the only remaining active player from the 2016 champions.
The Cubs held a tribute during Saturday’s game for Jason Heyward, another member of the ‘16 champs who was told last month that he’ll be let go after the season. After a highlight package of Heyward aired on the video boards, the outfielder stepped out of the dugout to a standing ovation and flashed his World Series ring.
Most of the 2016 Cubs have had their farewells, and after this season the only one left will be pitcher Kyle Hendricks. Heyward said Thursday that when he signed in 2015, some former teammates told him: “It’s the goat, brother. You ain’t gonna beat the goat.”
But that team ended the Billy Goat curse, and now there are no more mythical obstacles preventing the Cubs from replicating that success. It’s all on Hoyer and Chairman Tom Ricketts.
This has not been a season to celebrate on the North Side despite the uplifting ending. The Cubs’ play at Wrigley has been particularly uninspiring with a 36-44 home record.
A few moments in 2022 will be remembered years from now, though for some in the left-field bleachers the season’s biggest highlight was watching Epstein posing for pictures while sprawled out in the basket, a final goodbye to Chicago before he packed up and moved his family out East.
The Cubs are 1-70 when trailing entering the ninth inning, a tragic number that needs no analysis. Their one comeback win came on Aug. 20 at Wrigley, when Nick Madrigal singled home the tying run in the ninth and Contreras had a walk-off RBI single in the 11th. Maybe Marquee Sports Network can play it on a loop all winter.
In truth, this was the kind of season most Cubs fans were accustomed to before Epstein signed Lester eight years ago, thus raising the hopes for a championship and sustained success. They got it right — except for the sustained part.
Hoyer and Ricketts have said the money will be there for future success, and for the sake of Cubs fans, let’s hope they spend it wisely.
And the Cubs aren’t done hyping the future. They brought some of their top prospects to Chicago this weekend to get acclimated to the organization, including Class-A outfielder Owen Caissie, acquired in the Yu Darvish deal with the San Diego Padres that signaled the beginning of the end of the winning era.
“My biggest takeaway is everyone seems happy here,” Caissie, 20, said. “Like when I’m walking down the street, everyone has a smile on their face. It’s pretty cool.”
Heyward basically said the same thing about Chicago on his way out.
“The sports city here, obviously I know it’s been tough on the winning side those last few years, “ he said. “But either way, Chicago doesn’t take that stuff for granted, and to me that’s been something that has been awesome to be a part of. Just taking walks, going around the city. As a professional, as someone who is a ballplayer in the city, people embrace that, they respect that and they respect their space.
“They want you to enjoy what they’re enjoying, and that is something that’s really cool and unique about the city.”
One more game at Wrigley, with Marcus Stroman taking the ball Sunday in his final start before the three-game, season-ending series in Cincinnati.
The ballpark will close for the winter, and the neighborhood bars and restaurants will try to find ways to make some money until opening day returns in April.
It’s going to be a long winter for Cubs fans, but they’ll keep on keeping on.
They know the drill.