It’s not quite time to write those “honeymoon-is-over” stories Theo Epstein predicted during his first spring training with the Cubs. But firing Dale Sveum – his handpicked manager – put the pressure squarely on the president of baseball operations.
That means delivering Joe Girardi to the North Side – or having Plan B insurance if the New York Yankees manager doesn’t want to uproot his family and leave a first-class organization with 27 World Series titles.
Sources said the Cubs have identified Girardi as a top target and the potential free agent is at least open to exploring the opportunity.
Epstein listed managerial experience as the No. 1 priority during Monday’s news conference inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon, as well as proven leadership skills and a track record in player development.
Sveum was supposed to have all those qualities after going through the interview process Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer once used with the Boston Red Sox. Epstein disagreed with the idea that this would be a defining moment for how the public perceives the Cubs front office.
“I don’t think so at all – it’s clear it’s hard to hire managers,” Epstein said. “But we know what we’re doing. I’ve hired two managers. One’s Terry Francona, who may well be on his way to the Hall of Fame. And the other is Dale, who did a lot of very productive things here in two years.”
The Ricketts family and the marketing department would love Girardi’s homecoming angle – Peoria native, Northwestern University graduate – but he also has strong communication skills, an analytical background and that thick binder he keeps in the dugout.
[RELATED: Cubs end Sveum Watch, terminate skipper after two years]
“There’s no pressure whatsoever to hire a big-name manager,” Epstein said. “We want to hire the right manager. We’re at a critical point in our building process where our very best prospects are soon going to be young big-league players.
“It’s absolutely imperative that we create the best environment possible for young players to come up here, continue to learn, continue to develop and thrive at the big-league level – and win, ultimately.”
Winning has been an afterthought at the big-league level, but the Cubs feel like elite prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will keep moving fast through the system. As Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Darwin Barney struggled to make adjustments this season, Sveum, the hitting coaches and the front office got their wires crossed.
“We need to hire a manager and ultimately hire a staff that presents a unified message to young players,” Epstein said, “because the big leagues are hard enough. It’s confusing enough. We need to help them along that way and not get in their way at times.”
Epstein swung and missed on his first managerial hire here. One hundred and ninety-seven losses later, the Cubs have collected dozens of interesting prospects. But inevitably there will be questions about the guys picking the players, whether it’s investing $100 million in Castro and Rizzo or giving Edwin Jackson $52 million or trading for and re-signing Ian Stewart.
Epstein was asked about candidates who interviewed for the Cubs job in the fall of 2011. Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux was said to be a strong frontrunner during that search before withdrawing from consideration so he could stay closer to his family in the Dallas area.
“They’re in the back of my mind,” Epstein said. “I think we’re going to cast a wide net.”
But Girardi is the big fish, not just for that 2009 World Series title in The Bronx, but also his 2006 Manager of the Year award with the Florida Marlins. He pushed a lineup built around Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera and a rotation that featured Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez.
[WATCH: Kap and Bruce debate Girardi possibility]
There’s also the ex-Cub factor for the old catcher who played with Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood. Girardi would know this isn’t an easy job.
As Epstein said: “I think candidates who have Cubs experience in their background will have the built-in advantage of knowing some of the idiosyncrasies of the marketplace and the franchise. (They) might be better equipped in that one area to deal with the gauntlet that at times can be managing the Cubs.
“So I think that helps. Is it a prerequisite? Or does it mean candidates can’t be prepared who haven’t been through here? No. But there is a bit more of an adjustment period, as I’ve discovered when you come from the outside.”
In Year 3, it won’t be Sveum feeling all that heat.