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Bar raised on North Side, Cubs begin '18 prep

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- Now that the Cubs' season is over, crews began preparations on Friday at Wrigley Field for the next phase of the ballpark's renovation project. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein also began work on the 2018 team.

Epstein and manager Joe Maddon conducted exit interviews with the Cubs' players, and there was a theme.

CHICAGO -- Now that the Cubs' season is over, crews began preparations on Friday at Wrigley Field for the next phase of the ballpark's renovation project. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein also began work on the 2018 team.

Epstein and manager Joe Maddon conducted exit interviews with the Cubs' players, and there was a theme.

"Virtually to a man, everyone talked about what a trying season it was," Epstein said Friday.

A World Series hangover contributed to the Cubs' sluggish first-half start. Chicago was 5 1/2 games behind Milwaukee at the All-Star break, but the Cubs responded well, Epstein said, playing "intense, quality baseball every day in the second half," which helped them recapture the National League Central Division. On Thursday, the Cubs were ousted when the Dodgers clinched the pennant with an 11-1 win in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World.

Instead of prepping for their second consecutive trip to the World Series, the Cubs were cleaning out their lockers. Epstein said the players' reactions to the 2017 season were interesting.

"It was either, 'Good year, good year,' and some guys dropped, 'Great year, great year, heck of a year,'" Epstein said. "It was kind of a wide spectrum. [The season] didn't end the way we wanted to. We won the division for the second year in a row, we won 92 games, and we've now won 292 games the last three years, more than any other team in baseball. We went to a third straight NLCS, which hasn't happened in a really long time. We've won 19 playoff games in the last three years, more than any other team in baseball.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," he said. "Looking around at the guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously. And to have disapointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here, and how high the bar is, and that makes it a great thing. It doesn't make this year a bust, it means we didn't accomplish our ultimate goal."

Video: Theo Epstein on losing in the NLCS

Now, Epstein has some matters to address. Among the pitchers, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis are free agents.

"We'd love to have Wade Davis back. Same with Jake," Epstein said. "They're two quality pitchers, guys who are elite at what they do and have tremendous track records. We all know it's more complicated than that. Want doesn't mean having."

The Cubs will be in the market for starting pitching, and Epstein acknowledged they may have to trade some of their young talent to get the type of pitchers they want.

Epstein hopes the Cubs learned something about themselves in the postseason after having to deal with two of the top pitching staffs in the Nationals and Dodgers, and collectively batting .168 in the playoffs.

"The Dodgers series was almost a mirror image of the year before," Epstein said. "The year before [in the NLCS], I thought we were the better team and played better and we had better at-bats and executed better. This year, they were the better team on the field and played better and their at-bats were amazing. Our pitchers were talking about it."

What he'd like to see are "consistent tough at-bats, team at-bats, grinding at-bats where we perform well with situational hitting, where we perform well with runners in scoring position, where we have a dependable, consistent two-strike approach, where we're no fun to pitch against," Epstein said.

"If we're honest about it," Epstein said, "we didn't get to that point this year. We still need to progress, we need to mature and we can't just count on experience and the passage of time to get there."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs