(670 The Score) Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has done a remarkable job of remaining in the present moment when speaking publicly about his team, particularly in a season that now weighs heavily on the larger direction of the franchise.
With manager Joe Maddon working to the end of his five-year contract, a maturing core of position players, a pitching staff on the outer end of the age curve and the ongoing struggles with an inconsistent offense, the Cubs' current battle to return to the postseason carries a burden placed on it by Epstein himself last December.
"This year really is a reckoning in a lot of ways," Epstein told reporters. "We do have a lot to prove. The window is now. It's time to perform."
So what's now at stake, then? For what is this team playing beyond just another playoff spot?
When asked that directly on the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 The Score on Thursday, Epstein initially demurred.
"I totally understand the question. It's fair, and I get why you'd ask that," Epstein said. "There are times of year to talk in terms of the big picture, and there are times of year to talk about the moment and where you are right now. I don't think I do the organization or our players any benefit by expounding on the consequences or ramifications of our performance over a month that's coming up. I'd rather pour my energy and words into focusing on how we can win as many games as we need to keep playing a long time this year."
But then he relented a bit, having acknowledged in that non-answer that there was clearly more going on. Here was a glimpse of something beyond just the remaining five weeks of the 2019 divisional race.
"There's always more at stake," Epstein said. "Obviously, we've known for a while that we're faced with a situation where there's going to be some balance between maximizing the length of an existing window with trying to create a smoother transition to the next great Cubs team as well. So how well we perform within that window, within our primes can dictate whether it becomes maximized for a long period of time or whether you go for a smoother landing and a smoother transition to the next group."
Transition. Smoother landing. That means any number of potential changes but almost certainly a re-weighting of their asset portfolio toward future value, a decision that could involve the departure of one or more longtime position players as well as a reconstruction of the pitching staff. It's not a looming tear-down, but it's a clear reference to a retrenchment, a step back to take more forward. His reference to a theoretical "next great Cubs team" may indicate an awareness that this isn't it and may not be if brought back for one more run next year. The Cubs are a good team but are no longer a top-tier contender in their league.
This is why the all the calls for urgency and why Epstein keeps reminding us, "We have a group that's now in their primes, a really talented roster. We all feel like we should be winning divisions and competing deep into October."
Epstein himself is under contract through 2021, and it's reasonable to begin considering his appetite for creating and opening another competitive window when this one is believed to be effectively closed.
Other than all this, it's just 30 games left on the schedule.
Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.