By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) On Monday when explaining the reasons behind his dismissal of Dale Sveum as manager of the Chicago Cubs, team president Theo Epstein spoke of youth. And then he spoke of love.
But he didn’t mention romance, which is of course AWOL at Wrigley Field after 197 soul-crushing losses over the past two utterly joyless seasons.
“We’re at a critical point in our building process,” Epstein said amidst the rubble of the 2013 campaign. “There has to be tough love, but there has to be love before there’s tough love. You have to be patient with them. There has to be a clear, unified message. You can’t be getting different signals from different directions. And collectively – myself included – we failed to provide that.”
OK, so does that mean you’re actually going to provide it now, Theo?
This morning, Chicago Tribune beat writer Mark Gonzales explained that while Epstein did not cite specific examples of his now former manager’s shortcomings, “it was apparent Cubs brass took issue with Sveum’s handling of shortstop Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo in the wake of their struggles.”
Those issues very well might be valid, as Sveum – who had precious little to work with – also did little to truly impress me over the past two seasons. Most significantly this season, shortstop Castro (.283 to .245), first baseman Rizzo (.285 to .233) and second baseman Darwin Barney (.254 to .208) saw their batting averages drop by a collective 136 percentage points from where they stood at the end of 2012.
Now, was that Sveum’s fault? Perhaps to some extent. Either way, such numbers are a manager’s responsibility, even if they’re not his doing.
But I’d argue that the bigger problem with the Cubs – and the regressions of the 23-year-old Castro and 24-year-old Rizzo, as well as the 27-year-old Darwin Barney – was the lack of any consistent veteran on-field leadership or reliable stability with the Cubs big league roster, which was little more than a minor league lineup stuffed inside a MLB ballpark and had a revolving door on the clubhouse.
Castro and Rizzo are said to be team cornerstones for the Cubs future – they have the respective $60 million and $41 million contracts to supposedly prove it – but even if they really are that, they’re not yet team leaders.
And they shouldn’t have been expected to be.
Nevertheless, the Cubs forced that responsibility on them by trading away any – and every – established player that has been on the roster over the past two seasons. Since the start of the 2012 campaign, the Cubs have spun through a staggering 88 players.
That’s not a clear message for a young, developing player. It’s chaos.
On Monday, Epstein said: “We need to hire a manager and have a staff that presents a unified message to young players because the big leagues are hard enough. We need to help them along that way.”
Yes, Theo, you do. So start providing some actual unity and stability. Because, until the Cubs start treating their MLB roster like something other than a baseball halfway house and begin building an actual big league team instead of just compiling tradable assets, it won’t matter who the manager is.
And Castro’s and Rizzo’s numbers probably won’t matter much, either.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.