In today’s loss to Pittsburgh, Starlin Castro had two hits and Anthony Rizzo wore the collar again. That’s not really too different from the last week or so, where neither has been setting the world on fire. In Starlin’s case, he’s been less productive all season than he has in his first three. Anthony Rizzo has been as streaky as it gets. He ended a 40 PA streak without a strike out with a flurry of them coming in the last four ballgames. Ultimately, both have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Starlin Castro is not as protected as he was when he was called up three years ago. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are not in the line up to protect him anymore, and it has shown since the beginning of 2012. Anthony Rizzo never got the luxury of being in the line up with Ramirez or Lee, and has been the man since last June when he was called up. At least Alfonso Soriano was swinging the bat when he got the call. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all, and Rizzo has also done some uncharacteristic swinging and missing, in an obvious effort to carry the offense.
Dale Sveum has shown up as the scapegoat for this season. It isn’t a surprise that Dale is the one being chased with torches and pitchforks. After all, he is the one who is hanging sliders late in games. And it is Sveum who is swinging at pitches a foot off the plate with runners in scoring position. It would be unimaginable to forget all of the errors in the field he’s committed, as well. Actually, I’m being told that he hasn’t done any of those things thus far. While he (and every other manager/ head coach in professional sports) has done some things that may not seem to be the right move, or clearly haven’t been the right move, it is absurd to blame him for the failures of the bullpen this season. He could not have known, before the season, that Carlos Marmol was going to be as bad as he was out of the gates after as good as he was in the second half of last season. He could not have known Kyuji Fujikawa would have a forearm injury and not tell anyone about it. The same applies to the Shawn Camp fiasco that happened earlier this week. While it is fair to question some of the moves Dale has made in some situations, to pick him apart and blame him for the failures of the team would be a disservice, especially since he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the development that he has overseen. The Cubs were the worst defensive team in baseball in 2011. They are much better now (spare me the errors, crap. Those are 100% subjective. Peripherals say the Cubs are much better than they were in 2011). They are much better base runners. They make some silly plays on the bases now, but they are errors or aggression, and not errors of not knowing what’s going on. All of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija have grown in the time Sveum has been around. Darwin Barney won a Gold Freaking Glove. Matt Garza stayed with a 61 win team after being shut down in July because of the atmosphere of the clubhouse when a lot of players go home to rehab. That speaks volumes to Dale Sveum’s ability to manage a clubhouse and a ball club. He should get the credit he deserves if he is going to get the unfair criticisms of being the reason a team with a talent deficiency is 10 under .500.
All of that leads me to this…when do the fans start looking in the mirror and blaming themselves? The obvious answer is never. Because nobody wants to think they’re the reason for anything. We as a fan base, collectively, have a lot more effect on things than we might think. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are two very rich players who fans are always talking about being the future of the team and the cornerstones of a team that lead the Cubs fans to the promised land. That’s a heavy burden on two kids. Because they are kids. 23 years old is young if they were starting in Iowa. They are both starting every day at Wrigley Field. While I am not tremendously older than either of those two, I do know that I have undergone a major transformation in the years since I was 23. That’s just out of college for most people. These two are being counted on to win a World Series where one hasn’t been won in 105 years! Are they feeling the pressure of expectations levied on them by media and fans? I can’t answer for sure, but I would venture to guess the obvious answer is yes. It shows in their performance. They are both trying to make things happen when nothing is there to be made…and it is hurting them and the team. Matt Garza has already addressed the negativity around the team this season from the fans. Since he’s still new to the whole Cubs atmosphere, he must not realize the negativity has been going on for a long time. Dale Sveum isn’t the first “moron,” “idiot,” “over-thinker,” or “washed up player” to come through here and be run out of town by the fans. It happened to Mike Quade, Dusty Baker, and Don Baylor…all in the last 12 years. It probably would have happened to Lou Piniella, too, but he got the hell out of town before he could be chased down Sheffield Avenue by an angry mob. All of the things that I love about being a Cubs fan…the passion, the loyalty, the undying desire to see the Cubs win it all…have to make being on a team that doesn’t win it all an unmitigated hell. We’re the people who booed Carlos Marmol before the home opener this season. We’re the people who booed Alfonso Soriano unmercifully for not running out a line drive that was caught at third base on national television. We’re the people who, inexplicable, found some cause to boo Aramis Ramirez when he made his first visit to Wrigley last season as a member of the Brewers.
And for what? Because every year has to be THE YEAR? I’ve said it before, other bloggers have said it before, and the front office and manager have said it before if you listened closely to what they’ve said…this is not the year. This is another completely developmental year. Theo, and I paraphrase, said it’s either playoffs or protected pick. And if you hooked him up to a polygraph, he’d probably tell you playoffs were never really an option. He’s smart. He knows who is on the line up card Dale fills out everyday. It’s not a playoff team.
I’m not saying to applaud mediocrity. I’m not saying to ignore mistakes and to not boo a lack of effort. I’m saying that we aren’t helping. The players that are running out there everyday feel the weight of a fan base pushing down on their shoulders. And there are only a few who are out there everyday. Castro. Rizzo. Barney. Those are the ones who will have the best chance of being a part of the team that does win it all. Crushing them now is just counterproductive.
When Theo Epstein was introduced as the new Vice President of Baseball Operations with the Chicago Cubs in October, there were some startling changes around Clark and Addison. He brought a new attitude to the organization and promptly called it “The Cubs’ Way.” Heck, it was even published and distributed throughout the organization. Even the kitchen staff is new. From my perspective, the change is refreshing; an opportunity to change the culture of a big spending and small achieving team.
Under GM Jim Hendry, the Cubs spent money that they had on players they didn’t need. And did it while sacrificing prospects and the future for a “win now at any cost” approach. It worked in 2007 and 2008, with Division Championships and playoff births. It failed in the “playoff wins” department. This is not a look back to bash Jim Hendry. To his credit, he did produce a team that was in contention more than it was out of it during his tenure. And there were the persistent leaks that players like Alfonso Soriano were signed from the Tribune Co. to win and boost the value of the team for sale. Huge contracts were handed out like Old Style in the past. Carlos Zambrano was probably a good signing. He is only 30, and was a young pitcher, entering his prime when he signed his contract. Everyone knew he was a basket case, but with Lou Pinella around, there seemed to be a big personality to keep Big Z in check.
Celebrity managers were also common. Don Baylor, Dusty Baker, and Lou Piniella were all hires under Hendry. All of them had ups and downs. Piniella was by far the best, with three winning seasons, but with no playoff wins to show for it, none of them had the success they were hired for. Ultimately, all were unceremoniously run out of Wrigleyville, just as Mike Quade was. Mike Quade was far from a celebrity manager, but he was one heck of a smart baseball man. You could hear it in him. I feel bad for Quade. He got dealt a deck full of threes. He had an aging team beyond its prime, with some young players not yet in their prime sprinkled on top of it. Not a recipe for success. Actually, considering the team had a decent run in the second half of the season, it was to his credit that he kept them interested.
Moving to the present, there should be some optimism with the Cubs, and the direction that the organization is taking. First and foremost, Tom Ricketts wants to win. He is as much a Cubs’ fan as the rest of us. And he has the money and desire to do it at all costs while making his investment pay off. Hiring Theo Epstein was a step in the right direction. Theo hiring Jed Hoyer as General Manager was another step in the right direction. Trading Carlos Zambrano was a step in the right direction. Working on trading Alfonso Soriano for whatever they can get is a step in the right direction. There are more steps to take, but each step is a step toward the future of what can be a long, sustained run of success.
With Ricketts’ willingness to eat bad contracts to unload old players, and Epstein’s “long term asset” approach to player acquisition, there is some promise for the future. Dale Sveum was the perfect hire for this ball club at this point in time. He’s not a sexy hire. He’s wasn’t a sexy player. He’s a grinder. He was a grinder as a player. He is, by any account, a tremendous teacher, and preaches fundamentals and accountability. All of those things are traits the Cubs need to have in the near future. There isn’t a talent gap at the moment. There is an experience and performance gap. Dale is the kind of guy that can work to bridge that gap.
Long term assets is a phrase that has become common amongst the new brass. It’s a good one. Sean Marshall probably wasn’t going to be back after this season. Trading him for two of the Reds’ major league ready prospects was a strong move that looked beyond this season. Sean wasn’t going to be a cheap re-signing and his age was starting to increase to a level not consistent with handing out a big contract. The players that the Cubs got in return are inexpensive players that will be around for a few years. Likewise with Carlos Zambrano. Matt Garza spoke today about Big Z being a Cy Young contender in Miami. If that’s true, and it very well could be, he wasn’t going to be cheap to bring back, either. Garza is right, though. And he knows it could mean he gets sent out of town. There is talk of a contract extension, which Dale Sveum endorses, that could turn him into an asset for the future, as well.
The changing of the guard has come to the Cubs. Every step has to be made in the direction of sustaining success. Assembling a team that wins this season and then drops to the bottom of the division in another two or three isn’t the right approach. Just ask the 1997 Marlins. Or the 2003 Marlins. Or the 2001 Diamondbacks. Or the Yankees of every season except for 2009 since the turn of the 21st Century.
Ricketts. Theo. Hoyer. Zambrano. Marshall. Garza. Soriano. One step at a time.