CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- It's hard to read it any other way: Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is actively taking his team back from whatever he had allowed it to become under the mostly autonomous control of manager Joe Maddon.
It's a complex, intensive and far-reaching initiative described by the outstanding reporting at The Athletic Chicago by Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney, detailing not only how Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are acting on the distaste engendered by the flaccid fizzle of 2018 but how thorough and collaborative the entire process has been to this point.
The short and clear takeaway is a tightening of the ship, with the relaxed style of the skipper replaced by a firmer hand at the helm, guided more by the direct presence of upper management.
Sharma and Mooney bring closure to some mystery surrounding exactly what Epstein has been doing all winter, after he called it one of his busiest despite only a handful of marginal player transactions. He has been putting new structure and regulations in place while articulating expectations explicitly for both veteran players to set examples and younger ones to rededicate themselves to maximizing their talent.
Epstein's brutally frank end-of-season press conference gave us a roadmap to the next steps: emotionally honest player exit interviews begat yet another full-blown coaching purge while the decision was made to let Maddon finish his five-year contract with no promises of an extension, a de facto challenge to him to prove himself anew.
Then Epstein, Hoyer and others flew to meet with team leaders Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo, opening a dialogue about the changes, allowing for bilateral buy-in even if it appears that this was happening in some way, regardless.
The laid-back happy times are over, now. It's as if Epstein is challenging the fundamental mantra of Joe Maddon baseball, testing the ultimate truth of the pressure/pleasure balance to find another or better way to win. They're smart enough to know that baseball is a game that can't be played harder, but they're asking for more effort and attention in players' preparation, approach and routine.
There will be more mandatory batting practice, more time spent in the dugout leading up to and during games and less beer and fast food in the locker room and on the plane. Ten potential "trap games" on the schedule will be identified and presumably treated more urgently than they otherwise would or perhaps have been.
It's not as if any one of these issues was wholly responsible for the Cubs' broken offense of 2018, which allows us to infer that it's as much about the reassertion of control itself. This interpretation is bolstered by the news that Epstein and Hoyer not only plan to travel with the team more often but increasingly will work in a space by the Cubs clubhouse rather than in their more distant Wrigley offices.
They're watching and listening is the message, monitoring everything in their purview.
It's a doubling down on a vote of no confidence in Maddon in some ways, Epstein not just refusing to even talk about a new contract for him but swapping out another coaching staff, then planting his own flag next to the sacrosanct clubhouse both home and away, while appealing directly to influential players to provide more vocal leadership themselves.
There's an ominous and dubious approach to their current manager in all of it, Epstein's sour postseason mood and subsequent soul-bearing from key players made manifest in a new practicality.
For a man in Maddon who spent much of last season talking about putting the art back in the game, there could be handwriting on the wall.
By Dan Bernstein