Facing questions, Sveum says Cubs aren’t far off from contending

Facing questions, Sveum says Cubs aren’t far off from contending
September 24, 2013, 10:15 pm
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Mike Quade kept talking, insisting his team could get back into the playoff race, so a reporter jokingly asked the manager if the Cubs would become buyers at the trade deadline.

The Cubs were 18 games under .500 on July 26, 2011 and had just swept the Houston Astros. (No one knew chairman Tom Ricketts secretly fired general manager Jim Hendry that weekend.) Quade looked at the next 13 games – all against National League Central opponents – and said “Why not?”

“I’m not a lunatic,” Quade said that day at Miller Park. “I understand there’s a lot of work to do ahead of us. But we’re playing the right clubs and let’s see if we can’t get something together.”

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A few minutes later, Quade had to leave the visiting dugout and deal with Marlon Byrd, who was causing a scene and yelling at a heckler in a Cubs T-shirt, all part of the bad clubhouse vibes that could be felt when Carlos Zambrano cleaned out his locker 16 nights later in Atlanta.

Dale Sveum has done a good job of minimizing the distractions and limiting the Cubbie Occurrences. (Then again, most of his players are fighting for jobs and don’t have the stature to complain to the media or throw tantrums or blast the front office.)

Sveum doesn’t show his emotions. He hasn’t gotten defensive or picked fights with the media, shrugging off questions about his job security. He has that monotone voice, a sense of gallows humor and a hired-to-be-fired understanding of how the business works.

So this isn’t a “lunatic” moment, even though team president Theo Epstein has left open the possibility that Sveum won’t return to manage the Cubs in 2014.

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After watching the Pittsburgh Pirates clinch their first playoff spot since 1992 – and doing all this grunt work across the last 22 months – Sveum believes the Cubs are a lot closer to popping champagne bottles than people think.

“That’s the message you try to send – that this thing’s not that far off,” Sveum said Tuesday at Wrigley Field. “It happens pretty much every year in every sport.”

Until the Cubs are putting on Oakley goggles and handing out hats and T-shirts for the celebration, it will be an open question whether all the losing will toughen up core players like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo or make them softer and complacent. But Sveum is being judged on how he handles the crisis moments in between.

“There’s the ability to develop solid, trusting relationships with players,” Epstein said, “so that you can get through periods when you don’t see eye-to-eye, so that you can get through adversity together. That’s something that’s fundamentally important. It’s not just wins and losses. There’s a number of factors that go into it.”

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Like not floating the idea that an All-Star shortstop and a face-of-the-franchise first baseman could be demoted to Triple-A Iowa three weeks into the season?

Castro has watched the Cubs lose more than 350 games since his promotion from Double-A Tennessee in May 2010. Rizzo’s North Side experience has been a 101-loss season and what will be a last-place finish. The organization has invested more than $100 million in those foundation pieces.

“Who really knows what kind of people you have,” Sveum said. “But you hope you have the people that get tired of it and appreciate winning and understand how things can turn around, from the Pirates to the Nationals. That’s what you want to produce.

“The Pirates have done a nice job the last three, four, five years of the draft and with some of the trades and some of the people they already had. But it’s not that far off.”

Of course, what else is Sveum supposed to say?

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But even Kevin Gregg gave a glass-half-full answer when the closer was asked how far the Cubs are away from contention – in the middle of last week’s rant against the front office.

“A few moves here, a few moves there,” Gregg said. “Our starting pitching has been outstanding all year, even after losing guys like (Scott) Feldman and (Matt) Garza. You still were able to put together some quality starts by a lot of guys. It’s a good foundation with the pitching, the way the bullpen came around.

“There are pieces here and there that they’re going to have to move and try to get right. But you’re also looking at Castro having a down year. And Rizzo, I think, is a better hitter than he’s shown. So two of your cornerstones aren’t playing up to par this year. You hope that bounces back the following year and that snowballs into other guys playing a little better at the same time.”

Something got lost in translation when Sveum tried to explain to Gregg that he wouldn’t be losing his job – Pedro Strop would simply get a save opportunity or two in late September. The bigger issue than a veteran player popping off to the media would be Sveum’s communication skills.

Now Sveum says the Cubs aren’t that far off from winning in a division that has three playoff teams. The only question left to answer this season is whether he’ll be around next year to see if he’s right (or a lunatic).