Monday, September 30, 2013

Firing Sveum the Tough, But Right, Choice

From the moment Theo Epstein was hired two years ago, the two operative words on Clark and Addison were "process" and "development." It was stressed to Chicago media members and Cubs fans everywhere that this process of developing a championship caliber - scratch that, even just contending - club would take time and effort. The same was said by Epstein when he hired Dale Sveum to be the Cubs manager. It was made clear that Sveum would not be judged solely by wins and losses, as it was expected that the Cubs would struggle mightily in the coming years. Instead, the Cubs had their own in-house criteria on which to judge the coaching staff and players. Essentially, it was Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer's responsibility to acquire top young talent, and Sveum and his coaching staff's job to develop it. Based on today's decision to fire Sveum after two seasons, it's clear that Epstein feels Sveum isn't the man to develop his talent.

At first glance, the firing of a manager so quickly into his tenure, especially one where the expectation level was admittedly low, seems harsh and rushed. The natural reaction is to look at the Sveum firing as a scapegoat decision, placing the blame of an especially difficult two years of losing on Sveum. The firing would in turn, the theory goes, give the Cubs some positive momentum and hope heading into next year, fresh off the heels of the worst attendance the club has seen in over a decade. That might make sense, especially in the political arena that Chicago is, if the man in charge wasn't Theo Epstein.

Epstein has proven time and time again that every decision he makes is geared towards achieving the long term vision of the Cubs as quickly as possible. That long term vision, explained from the moment he arrived, was to stockpile young talent, develop it, and then complement that young talent in free agency to build a consistent winning ballclub. Theo would do this through the draft, through trades with existing assets, and as we have seen, in the international market. He's been remarkably successful thus far, with the minor league portion of the organization as strong now as it ever has been. The key would be to take the existing young talent on the roster, especially Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, and build around them with young talent and after-acquired free agents.

Sveum meets the media after his firing
We don't know the entire story, as Theo told the media today that the decision was not based on wins and losses but instead on intangible things (well, I guess somewhat tangible) like development and communication. He mentioned that they first started to notice things going downhill in the first half of this season, and met with Dale at the midway point to let him know that he had the second half of the season to turn it around. When this didn't happen, even Sveum gave indications down the stretch that he was seriously worried about losing his job. It didn't help that there were a few instances with players down the stretch (most notably the Kevin Gregg fiasco), but Epstein insisted they had no bearing on his job.

If you look at the two prime examples, Castro and Rizzo, it is clear that Sveum took a major step backwards in the development of the two supposed cornerstones. I'm sure there are many more examples of a failure to develop, but these two are glaring. Of course, it isn't all on Sveum, but there were no minor setbacks. Castro's line this year, in his second season with Sveum, was a horrid .245 batting average, .284 on base percentage, only 10 home runs, and a baffling 44 RBI. More than that he struck out an alarming 129 times and only had 9 stolen bases. Each one of these categories is a major step down. As for Rizzo, he only hit 23 home runs, hit .233 with a .323 on base percentage and struck out 127 times. He only played in 87 games for the Cubs in 2012 and yet still had an obviously better season.

Castro's regression could have played a major role
That could be the crux of the reason to fire Sveum right there. There were hints that he wasn't getting through to the team, and there were stretches where these two young "stars" disappeared altogether. Theo, the cold business decision maker that he is, recognized that it is better to cut your losses ahead of time than to stick it out and risk ruining your two young top talents for good. Even more than that, the thought process had to include worries that if Sveum couldn't develop Castro or Rizzo, how would he do with Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, or all the other young talent? Like Theo said himself, a new manager will need to be able to communicate and foster an environment for young development as the organization begins its foray into bringing up the young talent.

My feeling is that Theo, who is good personal friends with Dale, didn't want to take the chance. Surely he can't pin all of the Cubs failures, even those of Castro and Rizzo, on Sveum. But he knew that the future of the Cubs and his vision, was at stake. The team is at a point right now where the right coaching staff is key. This is a turning point in the organization's future and if Epstein & Co. didn't feel like Sveum was the man for the job, if they had even one shred of doubt, then it was the right decision to make.

The search likely begins with Girardi
Obviously, the most glaring candidate they'll turn to is Joe Girardi. The current New York Yankees manager is the dream candidate, growing up in the Peoria area and attending Northwestern. He's an Illinois kid, educated in Chicago, who played baseball for the Cubs. It doesn't get better than that. Even more than that, however, is that he fits the criteria that Theo outlined today. He's a respected leader with managerial experience, someone who has led the Yankees to a World Series title. He's energetic, and even if he wasn't a move to Chicago would likely reinvigorate him. He's creative and dynamic, and most importantly knows more about a winning culture coming from the Yankees than anyone does on the Cubs besides Epstein. He's even been rumored to be doubting his future in New York. It's a no-brainer if it is at all possible, and my guess is that Epstein got wind that Girardi might want out and decided to make an all-out push at acquiring him.

At this point, there's no limit to who they may pursue, especially considering the emphasis Epstein seemed to put on an manager with experience. If I was him, I'd contact the Tampa Rays and inquire about Joe Maddon too. Make them say no. Take a look at respected assistant coaches, like Mike Maddux in Texas, but focus on hiring a manager who has experience and success in this area. We're insulated and beaten down by the losing on the North Side, but the job is looked at nationally as an extremely attractive one. You'll get top level front office support, a supportive owner, and a farm system loaded with talent now and always acquiring more. To be the man who finally brings consistent winning, and dare I say, a World Series, to Wrigley Field is something that speaks to everyone in the game. Just ask Theo Epstein.

I'm still digesting this firing. I liked Sveum, and felt that given time he might have a chance here. you feel for a guy who obviously cared and gave it his all. Even Epstein talked about how difficult this decision was, and said that he felt Dale would be successful in the future. But this far into Theo's tenure, he's made many more good moves than bad. I've learned to trust his decision making. Sure, he was the one who decided to hire Dale Sveum, a decision that is now obviously to the front office a bad one. But just as quickly as he hired him, he's now making the right decision to fire him. 

Thinking about it further, I totally understand his logic: if right now, at this point, you don't feel Sveum is the right man for the job, fire him and find the right man for the job. The stakes of finally establishing a winning culture with the Cubs are more important that giving a manager you don't have confidence in time to prove himself. All this does is make the future that much more exciting. Better get used to this Cubs fans. This is what it feels like to have the right guy in charge.