Despite ‘Unique Challenges,’ Epstein Says Fans Should Expect Division Title

Let’s get this clear right from the start: Theo Epstein did not guarantee a division title next year when he spoke to the media at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando. When he said the fans should expect a division title, it was simply confirmation of the fact that the Cubs have built a team that is supposed to compete for the playoffs every season. He’s talking not of what he promises to deliver, but of the standard to which Cubs fans should hold their team.

And no sooner had the surefire Hall of Fame exec affirmed those lofty expectations than he immediately set about tempering them.

“Fans should be extremely optimistic about this seven-year run that we’re hopefully on,” Epstein said, per Patrick Mooney of NBC Sports Chicago. “By no means do we look at it as a run of three years of contention and then any sort of falloff. But that within a run of that length – seven years, hopefully, at least – there are going to be years that pose more challenges than other years.

We’ve known for a long time that 2018 was going to pose unique challenges [emphasis mine] because it was the year that Jake would be eligible for free agency and it was also the same year that a lot of our best players would enter the arbitration process.”

So, uh, that kinda sounds like he’s saying maybe the Cubs could take a step back this coming season. I think there’s actually some truth to that, though I don’t think he’s saying the same thing you might think he’s saying if you indeed think he’s saying what I think you think he’s saying. You think?

What I’m saying is that a lot of folks out there seem to believe that the Cubs could be looking to punt on this season, to borrow a euphemism from a sport in which Chicago has seen more than its fair share of organizational ineptitude. Even worse, there is actually a faction that believes the Cubs, having achieved the ultimate success, will now be content to sit back and play out the string.

Nothing could be further from the truth, which is that it’s sometimes necessary to tug on the reigns and slow things down for a bit in order to best assess what’s really going on. And in a market that isn’t as robust as what they’ll see in subsequent seasons, the front office may see fit to err on the conservative side. After all, there’s no sense spending all the money you have just because it’s there.

While several outlets have projected Yu Darvish to the Cubs, with one even going so far as to say the Cubs need him, it’s more likely that their biggest signing will be Alex Cobb. They’ll likely add at least one more starter from the market, though it could be someone like Miles Mikolas, which Mooney suggested in that aforelinked piece.

That’s not sexy in the least, but you can’t have lacy lingerie every night. More often than not, it’s the utilitarian cotton undies that are going to be worn. Really awkward analogy aside, my point is that things that seem really great in the moment or in theory aren’t always so over time or in practice. As such, the additional money you might want the Cubs to spend this winter isn’t going to look so great next year. Or the year after. Or the year after.

“Our goals haven’t changed at all,” Epstein explained. “We know that some years things are going to line up better than others for obvious improvement in the offseason or tremendous flexibility. And other years there are going to be more obstacles that you have to consider as you operate. But that’s what makes it interesting.”

Damn straight.

And the challenges they face this coming season could yet bear the fruit of opportunity when it comes to their top prospects, most of whom are now pitchers. Shorter, cheaper investments now will not only afford the Cubs more room to pursue bigger names in the future, but they won’t block the potential matriculation of the arms we’ve been waiting on for the last several years.

What I’m driving at is that you should, as Epstein said, “absolutely” expect the Cubs to win another division title. I’m not going to tell anyone how to fan. But don’t act as though the Cubs are guaranteeing anything other than a competitive team and don’t think they’re pushing all their chips into the middle this winter so they can get right back on par with the Dodgers and Astros or whatever.

These guys have never been about instant gratification and I think they’ve given us enough reason to trust that they know what the heck they’re doing. So even if that means less “wait till next year” and more “wait till two or three years from now,” it should all work out just fine.

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