CINCINNATI – Dale Sveum didn’t take much heat for last year’s 101-loss season, but another bad start has him wondering about his future.
The Cubs manager carries himself likes he’s done this job forever, and his fingerprints are all over the organization. But a sloppy 5-13 start has tested everyone’s patience, and it’s not so much the record as the way his team has been losing.
“I’d be lying if you didn’t think about yourself through some of this stuff, too,” Sveum said Monday. “That’s stuff you don’t have control over. I got control over my job and the coaching staff to prepare everybody every day. … That’s all I can do.”
[BOX SCORE: Cubs fall to Reds in extras]
Sveum then had to watch from the dugout at Great American Ball Park as his team went 13 innings before absorbing a 5-4 walk-off loss to the Cincinnati Reds, with ex-Cub Cesar Izturis lining a two-out single into left field off Michael Bowden.
The rollercoaster lasted four hours and 35 minutes and went like this: The Cubs wasted another good start by Travis Wood, two gutsy innings from Carlos Marmol, a bases-loaded chance in the 11th and Luis Valbuena’s go-ahead, two-run homer in the 13th.
To be clear, Sveum is not the scapegoat here. Ownership has instituted an austerity program at the big-league level, turning the Cubs into a mid-market team waiting for the Wrigley Field renovation and a new television contract after the 2014 season.
The baseball operations department is focused on the June draft and developing a critical mass of prospects. But as the manager likes to say: This is a performance-based business.
The Cubs could have gone with a more experienced high-profile manager, but the front office wanted a teacher who would oversee this rebuilding project and grow with the organization.
Sveum was asked if he feels the support from president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
“Oh yeah, no doubt,” Sveum said.
Epstein and Hoyer structured Sveum’s contract – a three-year deal that contains a club option for 2015 – with the understanding that the Cubs were building for the future and he wouldn’t be judged on wins and losses right away.
During the offseason, Hoyer put it this way: “The 101 losses – it’s on Theo and it’s on me. That’s not on Dale.”
Sveum’s initial job description became establishing “The Cubs Way,” stressing fundamentals and creating a professional culture where young players could develop. From April through September last year, the team played hard and maintained a drama-free clubhouse. The players also took advantage of the video/advance scouting systems pushed by his staff.
But the Cubs have committed 17 errors through 18 games this season, leading to 14 unearned runs and more questions about the organization’s overall direction.
“Nobody’s exempt,” Sveum said.
Sveum’s frustration could be sensed during Sunday’s pregame media session in Milwaukee, where he repeatedly wouldn’t rule out the idea of sending core players Anthony Rizzo and/or Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.
“Well, you guys asked me if (they) couldn’t get sent down. I just said nobody was exempt (from) it,” Sveum said. “They’re not the only ones. You guys were pushing them towards that question.”
The Cubs didn’t give in on Monday night and hung with a team that has World Series ambitions. Sveum doesn’t hide out in his office. He walks through the clubhouse and connects with players. So far, 15 of their 18 games have been decided by three runs or less.
“It’s easy to be down, but also hard to be down,” Wood said. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out every game. We’re right there every game. We just got to come together as a team and figure out how to pull them out.
“You just got to hang in there and ride it out. Tides will turn.”
In the fall of 2011, the Cubs said they wanted to hire the next Terry Francona, who guided the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles and kept in contact with Epstein throughout the search process.
The front office believes Sveum will be there when the Cubs are contenders again. His influence has only grown stronger, from making staffing decisions to watching video of potential draft picks to recruiting free agents. Win or lose, this team will be shaped in his image.
“I’m not pointing fingers at (Rizzo and Castro) or anything,” Sveum said. “I’m just (saying): Hey, we’re all (accountable for) this. I’m (not) exempt (from) being fired, so is my coaching staff. We all are in this together as a team. And as coaches, managers, we try and get people better in any manner we can.”