ORLANDO, Fla. – New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi would have been the biggest free agent the Cubs could have signed this offseason, a style/substance move to energize the fan base and wake up the organization’s core players.
Robinson Cano and Jay-Z won’t be coming to Wrigley Field for a splashy press conference. Scott Boras didn’t sound like he’d be steering high-profile clients Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo to Chicago after absolutely shredding the organization’s “very polite development structure.”
The Steinbrenner Doctrine means the Cubs will likely lose the bidding war for Masahiro Tanaka (assuming the Japanese pitcher gets posted). That was the overwhelming feeling at the ownership/general manager meetings that ended Thursday at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes.
The hottest rumor for this team ignited Sept. 17, when president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gave his no-alarm-bells non-answer about Dale Sveum’s future. That began the same-as-it-ever-was speculation.
“Well, it was expected after Dale got fired,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “Once that hit, I was like: Oh, boy, here we go.”
It’s been – what? – three times in the last seven years that Girardi has been linked to the Cubs job. It’s easy to lose track of all the changes in the dugout. On Opening Day 2014, Rick Renteria will be the team’s fourth manager in five seasons.
There are conspiracy theories out there. The business side loved the idea of marketing an ex-Cub who grew up in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern University. Girardi’s agent, Steve Mandell, is based in Chicago and has his network of contacts.
The baseball operations department deeply respected Girardi as a manager, but had suspicions the Cubs were being used for leverage. Multiple sources insist Sveum would have been fired after a 96-loss season – whether or not Girardi’s expiring contract might make him available.
Industry officials also described The Evil Empire’s negotiating strategy: If Girardi went and formally talked with the Cubs, his old job wouldn’t necessarily be waiting for him if he ultimately decided to remain in The Bronx.
“I went to Joe,” Cashman recalled. “I said: If this is something you want, let me know and we’ll let you go. But he said he wanted to stay, so we were able to work it out.”
Girardi had his high-level supporters when former general manager Jim Hendry decided to replace Dusty Baker with Lou Piniella after the 2006 season, setting the stage for back-to-back division titles.
As Piniella burned out and retired in 2010, Mike Quade got hot and kept the job after a strong finish. Girardi signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Yankees, 12 months after the franchise’s 27th World Series title (or why he now wears No. 28).
This season ended Sept. 29, with the Yankees missing the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. They didn’t announce Girardi’s new contract until Oct. 9.
There were signals Girardi felt conflicted, intrigued by the Cubs job, pulled toward the Midwest – but not wanting to uproot his family from the home they built in Westchester County. There was also some speculation about whether the Yankees would go Four Corners and make him wait until his contract expired on Oct. 31.
Cashman said that waiting period was mostly about finalizing details on a four-year, $16 million deal that will make Girardi a key figure in life after Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and eventually Derek Jeter.
“I never felt he was leaving us,” Cashman said. “If he wasn’t on board, then we would have cut him loose and let him talk to anybody.”
[EPSTEIN: Renteria the 'clear choice' for Cubs]
Girardi played on three World Series winners in The Bronx, catching Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter and David Cone’s perfect game. The Yankees have posted a best-in-baseball .580 winning percentage since he took over in 2008. He’s said to have strong working relationships with Cashman and the Steinbrenner family.
“I’ve known Joe and (his wife) Kim for a long time,” Cashman said. “He’s just good people. But at the same time, if it was something that he really wanted to pursue and wanted to make a change, then: A.) He had the right to do it; and B.) We weren’t going to stand in his way. I just wanted to know.”
The Cubs hope Renteria can get through to Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro and coach up all the prospects expected to arrive soon at Wrigley Field.
Otherwise, Girardi Watch can begin all over again after the 2017 season. But New Yorkers will never understand why you’d ever want to leave the Yankees.