By Cee Angi-
(CBS) Even before Dale Sveum’s termination paperwork was finalized, the Joe Girardi-for-Cubs-manager rumors started flying.
No one knows where the rumors originated from, really. Perhaps they are nothing more than a pipedream, but regardless, the prospect of Girardi at Wrigley has consumed the headlines this week as fans cross their fingers and toes hoping their next manager is waiting by the phone in the Bronx.
On Wednesday night, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Cubs are prepared to make Girardi an offer and that, “the Cubs and Girardi have expressed mutual interest through back channels for weeks,” so maybe it is closer to a reality than it originally seemed. But what I wonder is just why the possibility of a Girardi administration seems so exciting, and what the organization and fans think he’s going to accomplish.
The idea of Girardi following in the hallowed footsteps of Jim Essian and Mike Quade certainly seems plausible. Girardi is the quintessential Cubs manager given that a) he might be available, b) he spent seven seasons with the Cubs, c) he went to Northwestern, d) he’s from Peoria, and e) Ryne Sandberg is no longer available.
But Girardi spending his holidays here and liking deep dish more than the floppy stuff in Midtown doesn’t necessarily make him the right fit. The draft-Girardi movement risks confusing the man’s background with the man’s skill. It conflates the seductive quality of sentimentality with the cold reality of a team that will require a patient manager who can endure a slow rebuilding. In other words, don’t confuse Girardi being the right manager for the place with his being the right manager for the job.
Regardless, the situation seems to be intensifying. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman met with Girardi’s agent on Wednesday and the two reportedly discussed the outlines of a new contract. Girardi is still under contract with the Yankees until the end of the October, so even if Wittenmyer’s sources are correct, for the Cubs to make an actual offer they would need the Yankee’s permission. According to reports, the Yankees have no intention of cooperating, and why should they? They want to retain Girardi, and besides, he could use any offer from the Cubs as leverage.
There may be more going on behind the scenes that we can know, but Girardi certainly seems content in the Bronx—despite having to work around distractions both good and bad, like the Mariano Rivera farewell tour and the A-Rod nonsense. As difficult as this season was for the Yankees, next season seems likely to be at least as difficult given aging players, injuries, and the possibility of Robinson Cano (as well as lesser lights Curtis Granderson and Hiroki Kuroda) potentially departing via free agency.
Still, even if the Yankees continue to cut payroll as they are rumored to do to reset their luxury tax penalties, the Yankees’ dynasty isn’t collapsing as much as it’s entering a temporary rut. It would be peculiar for Girardi to leave a team that, under normal circumstances, offers a perennial chance at the postseason in order to supervise an ongoing rebuilding, one that periodically pauses to make another run at the postseason only to subside again into mediocrity.
If Girardi doesn’t work out a deal with the Yankees, there’s no doubt that he’d be the best manager available on the market to fill the leadership void in Chicago, at least if, like a tree, you evaluate your manager by the number of rings he has. He won a World Series with the Yankees, and in his seven years managing, he has a .566 winning percentage.
Girardi is seen as cerebral and somewhat stats savvy, although the majority of his decisions are driven by a binder full of small sample sizes that he uses to justify in-game decision-making. There’s a little room to quibble—he tends to leave his starters in too long (he’s led the league in blown quality starts the past two years) and he uses his bullpen rigidly based on the inning—but he’s still better than most.
That doesn’t mean his potential impact on the Cubs hasn’t been overstated due to his Chicago ties. Barring an unlikely turnaround, the Cubs are still at least a season away from contending, so what they need is less a conservative player of percentages who manages by the book (or the binder) because he’s just killing time until one of his veteran power hitters smacks a three-run homer (followed by a call to the bullpen for the greatest closer of all time), and more a caretaker who can nurture a young squad for a couple of years before moving on.
Aside from his first season managing, 2006 with the Florida Marlins, he has limited experience coaching young and developing players, let alone an entire roster of them. There are some positive indicators here, too: Though Girardi’s Yankees teams were dominated by veterans, if when a young player or journeyman was called up to fill a spot on the roster, he usually gave them a chance to play.
This was particularly true with young pitchers; he’s been willing to test them repeatedly, and as long as they are performing, he sticks with them. He also made a regular of Brett Gardner and gave playing time to Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez, but it’s still difficult to assess whether Girardi has the right skillset to mentor the struggling foundlings that make up the Cubs’ nascent youth movement, especially Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija, and Anthony Rizzo, all of whom lost their way this season.
No doubt part of Girardi’s appeal is what the Yankees accomplished this season, winning 85 games even though their stars–Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez—missed the bulk of the season. Some might now look at Girardi as having a magic touch, able to turn a squad of replacement players into near-contenders, but to me his conduct as manager of the 2013 Yankees seems merely a case of an adequately intelligent manager plugging holes with whatever players he had available and, at least for a time, it worked.
When the Yankees signed Lyle Overbay, they didn’t expect he’d hit eight home runs in the first two months, and the fact that he did doesn’t make Girardi a genius. Girardi also didn’t have much of a role in Alfonso Soriano, who the Yankees traded for in late July, hitting like he was 25 again for a couple of weeks after putting the pinstripes back on. Girardi’s good, but the fact that the Yankees finished six games over their Pythagorean expectancy seems to speak more to good fortune than good management.
When people say that the Cubs must hire Girardi, I wonder if what they are really saying is, “Hire us a compelling manager so that we have a reason to tune in to this team during the rebuilding years, and put a good face on losing,” but it’s not clear that Girardi is that guy, either. Girardi has never cracked under the pressure of managing in one of the major’s toughest environments, but he is often terse and brittle after tough losses.
Girardi isn’t a sound bite guy, his laughter is often forced (and as an aside, sounds like Ernie from Sesame Street) and he’s not the type to deflect and shield his players from criticism because he simply doesn’t have that sort of charisma. That’s not to say that the Cubs need a sideshow manager like Bobby Valentine or Ozzie Guillen, but it seems that he might be a little too similar to Sveum in this regard.
Girardi may be looking to escape New York; he might also be nostalgic for the Cubs (and vice versa). But even if there’s mutual interest, for an organization that is taking such care to groom talent for the future instead of busting its wallet for the fleeting satisfaction of signing free agents, it seems that these Girardi rumors are about three years too early. Girardi’s not a fool, and while he’s up for challenges, he has considerably more to lose by coming to the Cubs too early than he would by waiting. The Cubs need to find a manager who is inclined to manage a rebuilding squad and that can get some results along the way to work as an opening act until there’s a need for a headliner.
The right time to call Girardi will be after his next contract expires, when the team is closer to competing, rather than handing him a roster that is diametrically different than anything he’s managed in the past. Buck Showalter aside, winning managers rarely demote themselves to rebuilding teams just for the challenge. There’s little doubt that Girardi, or any manager for that matter, would love the thrill of bringing the World Series trophy back to the Wrigley after all of these years, but that seems to be in the five-year plan, not a reality for next year.
Asking Girardi to manage the rebuilding Cubs would be a lot like asking Warren Buffett to manage a Waffle House. Sure, he’s the best available and he might even be interested, but it’d be a step backwards (and potentially boring) for a manager like Girardi to come to Chicago now. His experience, the expense, and his specialties are incongruent with the current needs of the organization. This is just like any lesson of the rebuild: Patience first.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.