Friday, November 18, 2011

Cubs Find their Man

In a Friday press conference, the Chicago Cubs introduced their 52nd manager in the team's history. Think about that for a second - 52nd!! In the 141 year history of the Cubs, that's an astounding number and really represents not only the ineptitude of the Cubs in their history, but the monumental challenge that awaits the new gang at Clark and Addison. So that begs the question - is Dale Sveum, as the 52nd manager, finally the one to lead the Cubs to the promised land? Will he be able to instill Theo Epstein's "Cubs Way" in the clubhouse? In a word, yes, and that's all that matters.

With Sveum, the Cubs eschewed their norm of hiring the biggest name on the market. They didn't go for Terry Francona, Ryne Sandberg, or even someone like Mike Maddux. No, Epstein and Jed Hoyer knew the type of manager they wanted from the start. And I trust that they made the right decision.

Sveum is all business
Sveum, formerly the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, is at the foundation of everything, a baseball man. He's instinctive enough to rely on his gut for some baseball decisions, but is smart enough to know the major role that statistics play in today's game. It's probably that part that endeared him the most to Epstein. Sveum appears to be a good motivator and has good attention to detail, both aspects that are crucial to being a big league manager, especially one trying to rebuild a club. He's also honest and direct, and those good communication skills will be vital in handling players at the major league level. He will hold players accountable (see, Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano). This will coincide with his attention to detail - making sure players hustle, run hard to first, etc. All of those things, no matter how small, have been missing from Wrigley for as long as I could remember. The impression I got from his press conference is that he isn't here to be your best friend. Sveum is here to win baseball games. He made the comment, responding to the question of whether he values fun on the field, was something along the lines of - "winning is fun." Now that's the kind of guy I want running my team. That's the kind of guy that gains respect from his players just by his business-like approach.

Much has been made about his approach to statistics, the seemingly endless stigma that Epstein carries with him wherever he goes. Sveum, to be sure, places an emphasis on it as well:
"I do my due diligence and video work and prepare as much as anybody. As far as the stats, those are what they are, and we can use them to our advantage. It's a big part of the game now. It's helping us win a lot of ballgames, the stats and the matchups. That's just part of the game now, and you use what you can."
I think Sveum understands, just as much as Epstein does, that statistics are very important, but they're not everything. As Epstein's interview process showed, there is much more to it than just pure statistics. Deep down, Sveum needed to be a baseball man, one who deeply knew the game and would make the right decisions at the right times. For a successful franchise like the Boston Red Sox to be hot on his tail at the same time shows that he more than meets the muster.

Sveum's style will be big for Castro's development
I think it's important to remember that in baseball, the managerial position is only as valuable as the players on the field. Really, they're limited to maintaining an attitude and culture on the team, resolving issues, and providing a little instruction. Granted, those are extremely valuable things, but baseball is like basketball - the sport is defined by the players. They're more valuable with young players, but for veterans - they already know how to play for the most part. We need to recognize that Epstein had to find the right guy to implement the "Cubs Way." A culture change isn't complete until there is a manager in place as a conduit for the braintrust into the clubhouse. Having said that, Sveum will meet all of these managerial requirements and then some. He's a confident, direct baseball guy. He will hold Alfonso Soriano accountable when he lollygags it to first, he will manage the inevitable temper tantrums of Carlos Zambrano (who, for some reason, is getting his 156,605th chance with the Cubs. Kick his ass outta town!!), he will prevent Starlin Castro from falling into the lackadaisical ways that defined Aramis Ramirez, and most importantly - he will practice, preach, and teach defense. Maintaining an attitude that meets all of these requirements will be huge in the development of players like Castro, Brett Jackson, and other young players in the system (who are hard to remember right now because the Cubs' farm system is terrible. Surprise!).

I think Sveum is going to work out just fine. Epstein found a guy that fits the persona (the "Cubs Way") that he is trying to instill on the Cubs. And really, that's the most important thing. The next step is finding the players, veteran and young, to fulfill that philosophy on the field. One has to wonder if Sveum is going to make it easier to obtain a player like Prince Fielder. I for one, would skip going after the big fish and concentrate the $20-25 million or so a year on several different players. Go after pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Find veterans that fulfill that Sveum-Hoyer-Epstein philosophy and trade the veterans we have that don't fit the bill for younger players who do. If we're going all out to achieve the "Cubs Way," why not do it at every level? In that way, Sveum is only one more step, after the hiring of Epstein and Hoyer, to achieving success at Clark and Addison. The preliminary steps of changing the culture have been completed, but there is so much more to go until the games start being played again in the Spring. Yet, with Epstein, Hoyer, and Sveum in place, I know that most Cubs fans are comfortable with the direction we're heading. When was the last time we saw the Cubs make so many good personnel decisions in a row? I can't wait to see where we go next.