MILWAUKEE – Almost five months ago, Dale Sveum sat in the visiting dugout at Miller Park and sent the message that everyone would be held accountable. No one really believed it, but the Cubs manager made a thinly veiled threat that even Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro could be demoted to Triple-A Iowa.
“We got to perform at the big-league level,” Sveum said on April 21. “We got (to) make people aware that there are things that can be done if you don’t start performing.”
It sounded like team president Theo Epstein sent a similar message when he declined to answer a yes-or-no question: Will Sveum be back in 2014?
Fast forward to Wednesday in the same dugout, where reporters crowded around Sveum and asked him questions about his job security before a 7-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
At least Chris Rusin didn’t get into a shouting match with a coach in front of the cameras after Sean Halton’s grand slam landed in the picnic area beyond the right-field fence. It was pretty much game over in the first inning. That’s 89 losses with 10 games left, nine against probable playoff teams.
Epstein isn’t going to judge Sveum on his record. Who would win with this roster? So the focus will be on Rizzo, Castro and how the manager develops young players. Rizzo said he was unaware of Epstein’s comments, but gave the manager a vote of confidence.
“Dale’s done a really good job this year, especially with Starlin and I,” Rizzo said. “Obviously, we didn’t live up to what we’re supposed to do, but that’s the game of baseball.”
Rizzo is hitting .226 overall and .174 with runners in scoring position, generating 22 homers, 75 RBI and 74 walks in a hot-and-cold season. Epstein admitted the organization overloaded Castro (.242 average) and should just let the two-time All-Star shortstop be himself.
“We all are accountable for people’s production,” Sveum said. “We all try and figure it out (and) obviously they haven’t had too good a season. On the other hand, it’s only Rizzo’s second season and we seem to forget that a lot of times.
“This kid came up last year and was on top of the world coming from Triple-A. He fell right in and was living on electricity last year. This year he’s putting too much pressure on himself.
“So now it’s: ‘OK, did I learn from it?’ This is a grueling season and it’s a grueling thing to be in the third hole in the Chicago Cubs lineup in Chicago. Those are learning experiences.”
For now, the spotlight won’t be on Epstein and whether or not his front office invested more than $100 million in the wrong foundation pieces.
“You take the positives out of everything,” Rizzo said. “I know I’m a good hitter. I know I can hit for average, along with the power and RBIs. I know I can hit with runners in scoring position, which I haven’t done. (But) it’s maybe putting a little too much pressure on myself.”
Sveum developed a good reputation as a hitting coach while helping Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun*, Corey Hart and a homegrown core come together in Milwaukee. But the Cubs finally realized they should just leave Castro alone and not fill his head with too many voices telling him to see more pitches and draw more walks.
“It’s a fine line there,” Sveum said. “You take somebody’s aggressiveness away and you lose the ability to hit. Some people can do it, but that way of hitting ain’t made for everybody.
“But I think since we put him in the one hole and told him not to worry about swinging at the first pitch or anything like that – just be (yourself) – he’s done pretty well in that role.”
As Sveum said that morning in late April, there are always other options, which is why the Cubs will think about who should manage Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, because all these prospects will have to go through the same growing pains.
“No one is going to feel bad for me,” Rizzo said. “You drive yourself in this game and that’s how it is. There’s guys in the minors that are trying to take everyone’s jobs, so you go out and compete and play hard. This is going to be a good learning experience when it’s all said and done. Hopefully, it’s just a little bump in the road for the entire organization this year.”