For fans, it would be easy to say things could not get any worse than watching a team at or near the bottom of the majors, record wise. The easy assertion, however, is typically wrong.
There is one thing I love about the 2012 Cubs. There is one thing that stands out above everything else with this team, and it is a direct reflection on the character of the team and Manager, Dale Sveum. They compete. They compete for nine innings, until the final out is recorded every single day.
Some plays stick out in my mind to back my claim, like Ian Stewart running and sliding hard into second base and Reed Johnson hustling down the line to break up a potential game ending double play against the Twins on June 9, which was a game that had long been decided. There are other anecdotes similar to that one sprinkled all over the disappointing 69 games so far.
Beyond the team, I give the credit to Dale Sveum. He is showing that he is, without question, the right man for the job. I take the time to listen to his post game comments nearly every day when they are posted on cubs.com, and he sounds the same whether the team wins or loses. He doesn’t point the finger at players for losses. He doesn’t sit in front of the media and give the “woe is me” speech. He answers the questions and moves on.
Undoubtedly, this is a tough season for Sveum. His only other managerial experience came as the Brewers’ skipper at the end of their 2008 run to the Wild Card and their first round series vs. Philadelphia. His experience came with a winning team, and last season he was on their bench as they went to the NLCS. Indeed, he has needed to change gears quickly from refining the hitting of an established team that could rake with the best of them, to teaching the fundamentals of baseball to one with holes and “a talent deficit” that his new bosses in the Cubs’ front office handed him.
Handling that deficit is the first way in which he is passing the test. First, he surrounded himself with experience, youth, energy, and great teachers of the game. His coaching staff includes the very experienced Dave McKay (who should get a medal for his work in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano), Chris Bosio, Jamie Quirk, James Rowson, and holdovers Pat Listach and Lester Strode. All of them are somewhat young as far as coaches go, with the exception of McKay, who still seems to be young at heart. All of them are former players. All of them seem to have their players’ ears. He surrounded a team that wasn’t as talented or experienced with some talented and experienced coaches, and the product on the field, while tough to watch at times, has not been as sloppy or lethargic as it has been in years past under Mike Quade and Lou Piniella.
To this point, Dale Sveum has done nothing to cause me to lose my confidence in him. From afar, he seems to be the right kind of manager to help develop a team with some short-comings, but talent coming up through the system. In spite of the pace they’ve set and the potential for a fire sale as the summer continues, I still do not expect to see the team lose 100 games, because I expect them to keep getting better. They’ve done that all season. Their 21 games under .500 record will likely not change too much, because even though they had a long stretch of losses, they are a team with some good players that are capable of getting hot and going on a six or seven game surge. And the law of averages says that some of these close losses will turn into some close wins late in the season.
It may be tough to look long term at this team. It would also be foolish, since there will be inevitable changes. The leadership of the on field product is very good, though. There is a dynamic with this team that could make them fun to watch as a spoiler down the stretch. Take them day to day. And enjoy the product’s improvement looking back, as Dale Sveum has more and more time to put his stamp on the team and mold it for future, less difficult seasons.
The dismissal of Hitting Coach Rudy Jaramillo brings forth the standard response of Rudy being a fall guy for the abysmal offensive showing thus far in the season, which is fair, to an extent. Theo Epstein admitted that much today in his comments when he said that the Cubs were looking for a different approach at the plate; that the mental side of hitting needed to be more of an emphasis. With the Cubs seeing so few pitches, clearly some of the blame is being, whether it be rightfully or not, placed at Jaramillo’s feet.
Looking deeper into the hitting stats shows us that the Cubs don’t look at many pitches. Ian Stewart sees the most, at 4.17 pitches per plate appearance. Bryan LaHair and David DeJesus are the only other players that see over four. That means that deep counts and high pitch counts for starting pitchers are something the Cubs don’t get to see very often. Not from the batter’s box, anyway. So many times, not just this season, but the last three, have the Cubs gone from starter to set-up guy to closer, not being able to muster any offense. The downward trend has been consistent since 2007, though. That is not Jaramillo’s fault.
Today is the start of a new approach for the offense. To be clear, it was a matter of time before Jaramillo was gone, as his contract expires at the end of the season. He was not going to return. And he was not going to return because, while he may be “good with the mechanics of the swing,” according to Epstein, he clearly was not the voice behind the message that the new management regime wants to air for the Cubs going forward. It came out this afternoon that Jaramillo was asked to change the message and, clearly that didn’t happen to the satisfaction of management. In steps Minor League Hitting Coordinator James Rowson, who is not unlike the other coaches on the staff. He is young (35), a former player with the Yankees and Mariners, and he will be the voice that the new leadership is looking for…at least on an interim basis.
It’s been said on this page before…the Cubs need to take more pitches. They need to be more selective. They need to be confident and swing at their pitch and not the pitch the guy on the mound wants them to swing at. While Rudy Jaramillo has had great success with Alfonso Soriano this season, improving his timing and with the uber-young Starlin Castro, nobody on the team takes a great number of pitches, and with a former hitting coach in the manager’s chair, there has to be some overlap of philosophy. Obviously, there wasn’t in this case. Dale Sveum said during spring that he didn’t want anyone swinging at the first pitch unless they could drive it. There is still a lot of first pitch swinging…and very little first pitch driving to show for it.
Today is just another day of molding the organization into the shape that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Dale Sveum, and the rest of the front office want to see going forward. To rebuild, there must be some tearing down. Before long, the rest of the old structure is going to be gone…Ryan Dempster, Alfonso Soriano, possibly Matt Garza, and others. The hope is that the new structure have a much stronger foundation than the one that is being replaced. While the old brought some excitement, it was built on borrowed time.
That time has run out.