Epstein, Ross talk offseason speculation, Bryant

President of baseball operations, new skipper address media in Mesa

February 12th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- The past four months were billed as an offseason of real change for the Cubs. After missing out on the postseason in 2019, and following the parting of ways with manager Joe Maddon, that is what president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said could be coming for the franchise.

At Wrigley Field on the final day of September, Epstein noted that there would be no untouchables on the roster, hinting that the core group might be broken up via trades. As of Tuesday, when Epstein held court on the first official day of Spring Training, the core remained intact and the "real change" consisted of a real overhaul of the player development hierarchy and processes

"I'll be honest, it hasn't been as much turnover as we expected," Epstein said. "All along, we weren't going to force change. We were seeking it in certain areas and seeking improvement in certain areas, but I feel like any time you go out there saying, 'We need to accomplish change just for change's sake,' you probably make bad deals and you make a tricky situation worse."

So, if no major change occurs between now and Opening Day (and the probability of that diminishes with each passing workout), then the Cubs are left asking new manager David Ross to squeeze more out of an 84-win roster. Ross and his revamped coaching staff plan to create a more structured environment with more unity and accountability, and hopefully more victories.

On his first day behind the mic at Spring Training, Ross let out a laugh when asked if he was lobbying for Epstein to keep standing pat rather than trading one of Chicago's key cogs.

"Duh, don't trade any of my All-Stars," Ross replied.

Ross knows the landscape, though. With no major changes, the Cubs still project to be over the first luxury-tax threshold -- something that likely needs to be solved before the end of the year. The Cubs also still have a cast of key players coming off the books after the '21 season, leaving the front office to balance winning now with planning for the future (via extensions or trades).

So, just because a star like Kris Bryant is expected to arrive to Cubs camp by the end of this week, that does not mean that trading Bryant is completely out of the realm of possibilities. In fact, expect the Cubs to keep their toes in the water on that front in the coming weeks, especially with the ability to now scout possible trade targets during Spring Training.

Ross is diving into evaluating spring competitions, devising plans for preseason workouts and discussing season strategies with his staff. The new manager plans on leaving the roster building and big picture issues to Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and their front-office team.

"I really rely on Jed and Theo and the front office to do their job," Ross said. "I want this to be a spot for winning for a long, long time and they've had a track record of doing that. And so, I just stay out of that area. Obviously, if Theo calls me and asks me, 'Do you want Kris Bryant on your team?' I would tell him, yes."

After the service-time grievance filed by the MLB Players Association on Bryant's behalf was unsuccessful, Epstein said he reached out to the third baseman. He offered to talk about anything on Bryant's mind -- trade rumors, the grievance process, etc. -- before the third baseman arrived to camp.

Epstein also applauded Bryant (under control through the '21 season) for standing up for his rights as a player in the case.

"There are no hard feelings on either side," Epstein said. "He's excited for the 2020 season, really excited about becoming a dad here soon and looking forward to getting started and continue what's been a great relationship."

Epstein did not, however, go as far as giving Bryant any assurances that he would not be traded.

"No, nothing like that's come up," Epstein said. "I just wanted to make sure we maintained our open dialogue and the very healthy, positive, productive, mutually beneficial relationship that the Cubs and Kris have had all the way back to 2013, and that we hope will continue."

From his seat next to Ross, Epstein said he was "turning the page" on all the public talk about potential trades. Now, with pitchers and catchers preparing for the first official workout on Wednesday, and position players reporting Sunday, Epstein said the focus must return to the field.

With no blockbuster deals done, the real change the Cubs are banking on at the Major League level is this new atmosphere and culture under Ross' leadership.

"The key is preserve all the things that we've done well," Epstein said. "But, add new elements, new standards and I think this new environment will help our guys get more out of themselves and will help us as a team certainly outperform where we ended up last year.

"I think the raw performance of what we went out there and did, our base talent level, was a lot more than 84 wins. Now, we have to go prove it."