"What I want to avoid is the middle ground. It'd be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We're not hiding that. There's no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?''
Wring your hands. Shake your fists. Roll your eyes if you still can keep them open watching a Cubs season that unceremoniously held its last home game Wednesday at Wrigley Field.
But nothing has changed since Theo Epstein transparently braced Cubs fans for the worst seven months ago in Mesa, Ariz.
OK, that's not entirely true. Since Epstein's burst of brutal honesty, the record changed and the Cubs have fulfilled their front office's low expectations with a last-place finish in the National League Central. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made the basement easier to find by showing so many veterans the door as they flipped the roster in search of long-term assets. Of the 25 players who wore a Cubs uniform on opening day, only 12 remain. Everyone else escaped infamy.
Sunday will mark the end of the worst two-year stretch in team history. On the day Epstein took over the team in October 2011, he vowed every season was sacred. Instead, every season on the North Side has been putrid.
All the consistent inconsistency makes growing doubt in the Epstein Era understandable. The Wrigley Field renovations that supposedly will open revenue streams keep moving slower than Dioner Navarro going from first to third. Trends in spending under Chairman Tom Ricketts too often have made us wonder if the Cubs are playing in major-market Chicago or Kansas City. For the fifth straight year at a ballpark that once needed only beer and sunshine to draw, home attendance dipped — this season to 32,625 fans per game — hurting the bottom line.
The Bears are unbeaten. The Blackhawks stand within days of raising another Stanley Cup banner. The Bulls will welcome Derrick Rose back this weekend. In Chicago — where the White Sox's futility has contributed to the city's worst season in 65 years — ignoring baseball not only is easy but encouraged.
But if you believed from day one that Epstein was the right man to change the losing culture of the Cubs, you understand this particularly painful phase. It should surprise nobody. Regardless of how many losses the Cubs accumulate, who didn't think the highlights of the 2013 season would be the amateur draft and the trade deadline? In February, Epstein scoffed at the difference between 84 and 89 losses and his same logic applies in September. Whether the Cubs lose 85 or 95 games affects history more than progress; semantics that affect only the standings but not Epstein's standing.
You don't have to subscribe to Vine Line to find positive reports of top minor league prospects and improved pitching depth thanks to the way Epstein has stocked the system. To expect players such as Kris Bryant or Albert Almora to contribute to a contender in 2014 sounds premature and delays winning perhaps one season longer than Epstein originally wanted. But trying to rebuild a winner from the ground up, frustrating as it can be, still offers the Cubs a better chance at sustained success than throwing money at overpriced veteran free agents the way they have too often in the past.
Endorsing Epstein's overall philosophy even after two long summers hardly makes him beyond reproach — and not just for the Edwin Jackson contract. He erred badly in letting manager Dale Sveum dangle the final 10 days of the season, publicly inviting speculation he knows better to avoid. It was uncharacteristic clumsiness by Epstein and it came in the midst of other signs of team dysfunction. Jackson and Sveum exchanged words. Pitcher Jeff Samardzija lost his composure with third-base coach David Bell. Reliever Kevin Gregg popped off publicly, apologized and was sentenced to staying on the roster for the final week.
For people to believe in the Cubs Way, it cannot include his team's inability to get out of its own way — in the dugout or in the front office. It also must revolve around integrity, which Epstein can demonstrate by allowing Sveum to return for the final year of his contract in 2014.
Nothing guarantees fantasy picks such as Yankees manager Joe Girardi or Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will be available or interested. Nobody ever will compare Sveum with Rays manager Joe Maddon, but something seems blatantly unfair about evaluating him as a major league manager when he was saddled with a minor league roster. The epitome of a grinder, Sveum isn't flashy but never embarrassed the organization either.
Firing Sveum now would mark the first unexpected departure from Epstein's plan. The rest was easy to see coming.