CHICAGO -- Theo Epstein took his seat in the interview room down the hall from the Cubs’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field on Monday afternoon. Considering the calendar had not even flipped to October, the team's president of baseball operations was in front of the mic and facing reporters far sooner than he had hoped.
Earlier in the day, Epstein did exit interviews with his players, who emptied their lockers and began their individual journeys into the offseason. Come Tuesday, he will meet with members of the coaching staff to discuss their status for next year. And by next week, Epstein hopes to start interviewing candidates for the Cubs’ managerial vacancy.
"We're very disappointed that we weren't able to deliver October baseball," Epstein said. "It's something I feel the fans deserve year in, year out. That feeling of letting our fans down should motivate all of us, every single one of us in this organization -- I know it does for me -- to put the work in necessary to build the next Cubs championship team."
That process began prior to the regular-season finale Sunday, when Epstein and Joe Maddon announced together that the manager would not return next year. Epstein continued to lavish praise on Maddon during the press gathering Monday, calling the manager the "perfect" fit for the young, upstart ’15 Cubs team that was growing into a perennial contender and an eventual World Series champion.
For the past three seasons, Epstein thinks, maybe the Cubs got caught up in the "winner's trap" of relying too much on the methods that led to the 2016 World Series title. It is time for change -- in the front office, in the player development and scouting departments, and certainly in the clubhouse -- and the Cubs will have a new voice to steer the franchise into this next era.
"Now, we need the perfect guy for this moment in time," Epstein said, "for this group, for where they are in their careers, for the way their skills and their habits and their outlook have evolved. There's a unique challenge at this moment in time. If I were in a different situation, I would hire Joe in a second. I would hire Joe in a second today.
"But, for this group, by definition, I feel like change is important. So, there's just certain things that a new voice can accomplish that the same voice -- no matter how talented, even a Hall of Fame manager -- can't quite accomplish the same, and especially with our group."
Former Cubs catcher David Ross, who is a special assistant to baseball operations with the team and an analyst for ESPN, is on the list of managerial candidates, Epstein confirmed. It has been speculated that bench coach Mark Loretta is also in the running, but all Epstein acknowledged on that front is that there is "at least one" contender from the current coaching staff.
Joe Girardi's name has been floated in external speculation, but Epstein wanted to limit his comments to internal candidates for the moment. Epstein noted there is at least one more possible option among the staffs of the postseason teams. So far, the Cubs have not reached out to seek permission to interview any external candidates.
"We're working on our list," Epstein said. "We're not going to drag this out any longer than it needs to be, but we also want to be thorough, make sure we [make the right decision]. It's difficult. In the interview process, you want to make sure you don't end up with the candidate who interviews the best. You want to end up with the candidate that's going to be the best manager. That can be nuanced."
Epstein listed a handful of concepts he hopes to achieve in tandem with the new manager:
• Trying to "make sure the whole is as good or exceeds the sum of the parts" when it comes to getting the most out of the Cubs' players. Epstein feels the talent on the field in recent seasons has not reached the desired results as a group.
• Cultivating a winning culture behind the scenes through focused and consistent work. When the Cubs add players from the outside, he wants the environment in place to be one that energizes that player, and not the other way around.
• Establishing more of a team dynamic and identity. Epstein felt "our routines tended to be more individualized" rather than team-centered. He would like to see more of an emphasis on group work going forward.
• Creating more accountability within the clubhouse. Epstein wants an environment in the clubhouse where "sloppy mistakes, mental mistakes aren't tolerated" going forward.
• Embracing a "grinding" mentality from Game 1 through the final game of the season, rather than expecting that things will just turn out fine by the end of the year.
While listing off those desired elements, Epstein reiterated multiple times that all of these culture-based traits fall on his shoulders, along with the new manager and the players in the room.
Perhaps above all else, though, Epstein stressed the importance of looking forward rather than continuing to point to the ’16 World Series and the four straight postseason appearances. And that idea also will be factored into the equation when considering Ross -- popular among Cubs players and fans -- for the job.
Ross has relationships with several of the Cubs' current players from his two years with the team in ’15 and ’16. He became a folk hero among fans as Grandpa Rossy and an instant franchise icon when he homered off Andrew Miller in Game 7 of the ’16 World Series. During “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN on Sunday, Ross said he is "waiting for that phone call" from Epstein.
"I think it's one of the best jobs in baseball," said the 42-year-old Ross. "I've got a lot of close ties with those guys. I think the interest would be there. I think my heart is drawn to that dugout a little bit. ... It makes you think about a lot of things. I've got a nice job here at ESPN that I enjoy and gives me a lot of free time with my three kids."
Epstein said Ross' history with the team is not necessarily high on the Cubs' list of priorities in this search.
"He's going to be evaluated on the merits, what he can bring to the table as a Major League manager," Epstein said. "We're looking forward. We're not looking backwards. I think, in some ways, there's been almost too much emphasis on 2016 and looking back. So, his connection to that team or even to some of our existing players will not be a significant part of the evaluation."
Epstein added that the size of Maddon's contract (a five-year deal that paid him $6 million in ’19) played no role in the decision to part ways with the manager. Epstein also said that the front office is not looking to become more involved in lineup construction or bullpen management with whoever sits in the manager's seat next.
Epstein also prefers a candidate with managerial experience, though that is not a requirement.
"The reality is we are building something anew. We have to," Epstein said. "At every level of the organization. That includes asking and answering the hard questions. That includes a lot of self-reflection. That includes some change."