Looking to the future, Cubs bet big on Sveum

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Looking to the future, Cubs bet big on Sveum

MILWAUKEE The Cubs werent looking for a celebrity manager. Their brand name is now Theo Epstein.

The search was quick, clean and efficient everything the new president of baseball operations wants this organization to be.

It ended Thursday with Dale Sveum agreeing to a three-year deal with an option for 2015. The 52nd manager in franchise history will be introduced Friday morning at a Wrigley Field news conference.

The sum of Sveums experience as a major-league manager is 12 games with the Brewers in 2008 plus a first-round playoff exit after Ned Yost was fired. The interim manager was passed over for Ken Macha and it happened again last year with Ron Roenicke.

Back then, did Sveum ever think hed be the center of attention for two iconic teams?

So much is about timing, and here it all played to Sveums advantage. The bench is short for experienced major-league managers now available. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux didnt want to uproot his family from Texas.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had confidence in the process that revealed Terry Francona and Joe Maddon as the two finalists some eight years ago in Boston. The Red Sox, of course, cast their shadow over everything.

When Epstein flew to Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 2 to fire Mike Quade in person, he had already spent weeks doing background checks on potential replacements for Francona. Two days later, Philadelphia Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin was brought in for the first interview.

The Brewers media guide lists Sveums nickname as Nuts. That bullet point didnt match up with his low-key attitude when Cubs executives put him in front of the media on Nov. 7.

The only time I really get too excited or emotional is when Im arguing with umpires, Sveum said. Other than that, I dont show a lot of emotion. So probably stoic would be (a) better way (to describe) my personality.

One trait that you have to have as a manager is never to let your players see one way or the other how youre feeling. Whether youre nervous or whether youre mad, whatever, I think its a bad trait to show body language to the players nowadays.

That familiar clubhouse presence Sveum was the third-base coach on the 2004 championship team in Boston appealed to the Cubs and Red Sox. He played parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues, which gives him instant credibility.

Sveum emerged as an All-American quarterback at Pinole Valley High School in San Franciscos East Bay region. He turned down a scholarship offer to play football and baseball at Arizona State University.

The Brewers made Sveum a first-round pick in 1982. Five years later, he generated 25 homers and 95 RBI. He was never the same player again after colliding with teammate Darryl Hamilton and breaking his leg in 1988. He has unique insight into the game.

Sveum widened his perspective during six seasons as a coach third base, bench, hitting on the Milwaukee staff.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin got used to showing up at his Miller Park office and finding Sveum already there beginning his work shift. Melvin called Sveum passionate and well-prepared, someone who knows players and has a competitive edge.

People whove known Epstein for a long time describe him as extremely competitive, someone whos always looking to get ahead and stay there. He beat his old team to Sveum.

Everything sharply came into focus this week in Milwaukee, where the owners and general managers assembled for their meetings. The Cubs jumped in front of the Red Sox and met with Sveum on Tuesday night.

Sveum then had lunch with Boston ownership on Wednesday, hours before Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts would check into the Pfister Hotel. Maddux couldnt convince himself he really wanted the job and would withdraw his name from consideration.

That night the Red Sox signaled they would expand their search and word began to spread that Sveum had an offer from the Cubs.

Epstein and Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington left the meetings on Thursday with an agreement to revisit the compensation negotiations after next months Rule 5 draft. Getting Sveum to Chicago wasnt going to be the drawn-out process it was for Epstein.

The long-range plan is building from within, and the managers office will be on the ground floor. Sveum will turn 48 next week and can grow into the job. The Cubs wont need him for the headlines or to sell tickets. Everyone in the room will know: This is Epsteins guy.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

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Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

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“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”