In just about two days time, the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go. The Cubs, who have been more active than any team in the month of July, will see a considerable slow down in activity with the passing of the draft, the initial international free agent signing period, and the trade deadline. That leaves them with an ample opportunity to take care of what may be the most vital piece of business they have left before next season: Extend the contract of Manager, Dale Sveum.
As Theo Epstein’s hand picked successor to Mike Quade, Dale Sveum has done everything the Cubs could have imagined…and more. He deserves to go into next season with some job security, and the Cubs should go into this off-season, where they will surely try to add players who can help the major league team take the next step toward respectability, with stability in the manager’s office.
Although his 109-156 record isn’t outstanding, it is also not his fault. He walked into a complete overhaul of a roster of albatross contracts, aging veterans, and young players who really weren’t major league players. To make matters worse, the front office either traded or shut down major portions of his starting rotation…in both 2012 and 2013. The bullpens he’s had to work with have been largely unproven young players or veteran retreads (*cough cough* Shawn Camp *cough*), and it has shown in the win-loss column.
Dale Sveum was hired to do two main things: Keep the clubhouse together and develop young talent. He’s done exceedingly well on both fronts in his first two seasons.
On the player development front, the biggest feather in his cap is the coaching staff he’s put together. While he may have had Rudy Jaramillo and Pat Listach as hold overs for either part or all of last season, the additions of Dave McKay, David Bell, and Chris Bosio have all been successful. Dave McKay helped turn Alfonso Soriano into a serviceable left fielder. After years of being afraid of the wall and hopping around like a wounded bunny rabbit, Soriano had the highest UZR among NL left fielders last season. It’s amazing what a little coaching will do after Soriano admitted that he hadn’t gotten any outfield instruction before last season, from either Quade’s staff or Lou Piniella before him. Anthony Rizzo is another success, as Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach, brought his hands down, shortening his swing, and making him better than the .141/.281.242 hitter he was with the Padres in 2011. The anecdotes serve as evidence of a whole: the Cubs are a vastly improved defensive team from the years before Sveum. And the approach at the plate is starting to get better, too. Nothing happens over night, but the results are starting to show up. In spite of all of the player movement, trades, and lost veterans in the clubhouse, the Cubs have a winning record since May 26 (30-25). While the sample is small, the results matter. Even with major bullpen issues and a complete inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are playing competitively. The steps in the right direction are adding up.
The clubhouse is the other place Sveum was asked to thrive. As a former top prospect, he can relate to the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and soon Javier Baez, et al. He can also relate to the 25th man on the roster because that’s where his career ended after a devastating leg injury. He knows the weight of expectations and he knows the plight of the role player who is tasked to sit and wait for his name to be called, and the need to be ready. He relates to his players because he’s been there and done that. And while he took some undeserved criticism for his loyalty to Shawn Camp from fans, it was not his job to get rid of Camp. It was the front office’s. Having his player’s back, especially one who he’s had history with, was the only move he could make that doesn’t send the alienating “as soon as I see trouble, I’m going to turn my back on you.” message. That’s a terrible image to portray to the rest of the team. The fact that Dale said it was tough to see Camp go may have made fans cringe, but it probably made the team smile a little bit. When veterans like Matt Garza hang around after being shut down with 2 1/2 months left in a 100 loss season, it says as much as there is to say about a clubhouse…especially when Garza admitted if it had been Quade’s clubhouse, he would have gone home. And being able to sign quality free agents like Edwin Jackson after a 100 loss season doesn’t happen if the player thinks the manager is a bum who can’t manage a clubhouse. Think about it. Has anything obscenely negative come out of the clubhouse during Sveum’s tenure? For a team with the win-loss record the Cubs have had, you’d think there would be something. Especially in a media market like Chicago. But it’s been remarkably quiet. Which means the bad stuff is being handled where it should…in house.
Dale has been charged with over-seeing a complete rebuild, which couldn’t have been fun, couldn’t have been easy, and couldn’t have happened in any worse a place than Wrigley Field, where every year is “THE YEAR” to a group of people who only watch the game and read the box score in the paper each morning. The reality is, last year, this year, and probably next year are not “THE YEAR.” But the team is heading in the right direction in spite of the instability among the player personnel. That is a credit to Sveum, and the right thing to do is ensure that he never gets to “lame duck” status in the last year of a contract with a team, who next year may be able to win consistently for the first time in his tenure.
Besides. He got shot in the face and laughed it off. How cool is it to have a manager like that?
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.
Some of the news surrounding our beloved Cubs…
- Theo Epstein made it clear that he wants an actual piece in a trade for Alfonso Soriano. He cited Sori’s 2012 season and his willingness to help young players, making him a valuable clubhouse presence, as the reasons for why he wants an actual player, especially since the Cubs are going to eat a large chunk of the $36M remaining on Soriano’s deal. I don’t mind this approach, because the money for Soriano is already spent, so holding out to get something of value is not a terrible move. Soriano can help young players, his work with helping Starlin Castro become a better professional is of special note in this regard, and a young team can use a good veteran clubhouse player. If Soriano can replicate his season last year with a duplicate this year, he’d actually be worth the $18M he’s getting paid with his leadership and his production. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve defended Soriano for a few years, although I have been in favor of trading him. The guy has struggled with injuries since he got to Chicago, and could have missed far more games than he actually did. And, for what it’s worth, if last year really is the first time he had gotten any outfield instruction, it is partially the fault of the Piniella and Quade regimes for his defensive incompetence. To boil it down, I wouldn’t mind him getting traded, but the Cubs should get more than a bag of balls for him.
- Luis Valbuena agreed to a deal with the Cubs, allowing them to avoid going to a hearing with him. He’s going to get $930K this season, where he figures to be on the bench, but will likely serve as a back-up at 2B, SS, and 3B, all of which he can play competently. As a left handed bat, who took 36 walks in 303 plate appearances, he is the type of versatile player that has some value on a bench, even on a good team. It’s good to see him back, and hopefully be in a role he’s better suited to, after seeing him start a number of games at 3B when Ian Stewart was shut down with a wrist injury. With Valbuena being taken care of, that leaves Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and James Russell as the remaining arbitration players this off-season.
- The Cubs signed Brett Lillibridge and Darnell McDonald last week to minor league deals. I have not seen whether or not they’ve gotten invitations to Spring Training, but I would assume, with the team looking for competition and depth among potential players on the roster, that they have. As Spring Training draws closer, I’ll post a complete list of Bunting Tournament participants.
- Cubs Convention is this weekend. I will be there. It is my first opportunity to actually attend, so I am very excited about the chance to be a big kid this weekend. The information put out on the team’s website is here. It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend for fans, and with proceeds going to charity, it benefits a good cause. Classic win-win, so if you haven’t bought tickets and can attend, I would urge any of my few loyal readers and any passing readers to take the opportunity to head out this weekend.
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.
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.