MILWAUKEE – This is not a media creation. It’s not a fill-in-the-blank game trying to divine what Theo Epstein really means. There are real questions inside the organization about whether or not Dale Sveum should return to manage the Cubs in 2014.
Sveum Watch started publicly the moment Epstein declined to say his manager would return next season. The team president’s message instantly went viral on Twitter, but sources signaled this has been building with concerns about player development.
No one can blame Sveum for the 64-89 record. That’s on the front office and a business plan that has turned this into a mid-market team. There are nine games left in the evaluation process against arguably the three best teams in the National League.
Jake Arrieta – another change-of-scenery pitcher picked up in another summer fire sale – showed signs of his potential by dominating the Milwaukee Brewers in Thursday’s 5-1 victory at Miller Park. But Sveum will be feeling the heat when the Cubs return to Wrigley Field this weekend, trying to answer difficult questions that aren’t just fuel for talk radio.
Why has All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro regressed into a .242 hitter? Why does franchise first baseman Anthony Rizzo look so defeated with runners in scoring position? Why is Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney fighting just to stay above the Mendoza Line? Why does Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija have a 5.30 ERA since June?
Arrieta – who retired the first 11 batters he faced and limited the Brewers to one run on three hits across seven innings – experienced culture change with the Baltimore Orioles.
Arrieta made his big-league debut in 2010 for a 96-loss team managed by Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel and Buck Showalter. Arrieta struggled to stick in Baltimore last season, as the methodically built Orioles won 93 games, the kind of surprise playoff team the Cubs talked about being in spring training.
“Since being here, I’ve seen a lot of good baseball. I’ve seen some sloppy baseball,” Arrieta said. “But every team goes through that. It’s just a matter of how do we minimize the mental mistakes and the costly errors that lead to lost ballgames. It’s a pretty simple formula. It’s having a certain amount of young guys step up at the right time and having other guys kind of follow suit with that.
“I want to be one of those guys that some young guys look at and say, ‘OK, this guy knows how to do it the right way.’ That stuff rubs off on other players and it’s just a matter of keeping that hungry mindset and rolling that over into next year.”
The Cubs are trying to figure out how to hit the reset button in 2014. They realize they took the wrong approach with Castro, trying to turn him into the kind of grinder you’d see in a Boston Red Sox lineup. Sveum recognized that last month, the kind of admission that could make him a better manager next season.
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As Sveum recalled: “When I talked to him and told him he was going to be in the leadoff spot the rest of the year, I said: ‘Just be Starlin Castro. Don’t worry about seeing pitches just because you’re leading off. Just go back to that kid we all know can hit free-swinging. Just be you and be comfortable in the box.’
“That way you don’t have to worry about: Are you taking enough pitches? Are you walking? Those things can snowball. It’s not for everybody to do that.”
It seems like the entire organization misread someone who led the National League in hits (207) during his first full season in the big leagues in 2011.
As Epstein admitted: “I think with Starlin, if you try to throw too much at him…Maybe, at times, we’ve been guilty of (that). Who knows? I think we’ve always been conscious of letting him be himself. But in his case, I think he’s at his best when he’s single-mindedly himself.”
One takeaway will be simplify the top-down message. Rizzo’s 22 homers look good on paper, but he’s hitting .174 with runners in scoring position and running into too many hot-and-cold streaks. It’s also difficult to judge the manager when the foundation pieces in his lineup are 23 and 24 years old.
“Just put yourself in a situation where you’re going to get a pitch to drive,” Sveum said. “If you look at all the prolific offenses, they’re all 27 to 32 years old. That’s when it all starts happening. The Red Sox – everybody throws the comparisons (out there). You want it right now. The bottom line is those teams have all 27- to 32- to 35-year-old players that have had 10,000 professional at-bats.”
Sveum was the third-base coach on the 2004 Red Sox team that made this front office. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer handpicked Sveum in November 2011 with the expectation he would grow into the job. Sveum still commands respects in the clubhouse, despite two dugout confrontations this week that looked bad in front of the cameras.
But developing relationships and creating a positive clubhouse environment aren’t always enough. Showalter remade the Orioles in his image, part of an overhaul that dropped their 2012 Opening Day starter into another rebuilding project with the Cubs.
“If you don’t know it yet, guys will soon realize that this is a business,” Arrieta said. “The front office is going to do what they feel is necessary to continue to move this ballclub in the right direction. And if there are hard feelings, that’s just something that we will have to deal with and kind of move forward.”