This could get messy for the Cubs. Theo Epstein’s front office is still trying to figure out if they should fire Dale Sveum and pursue Joe Girardi or another free-agent manager.
The buzz would be all about Girardi coming home as the ex-Cubs catcher who grew up in Peoria and graduated from Northwestern University. But it’s not simply connecting the dots because his contract with the New York Yankees is about to expire.
Team sources and industry officials describe a complex situation that could end with a new Cubs manager being introduced in October at a stadium club press conference — or Sveum coming back in 2014 with a reshaped coaching staff and an evolving perspective.
Concerns about how Sveum communicates with young players and the way he uses the roster have been building. It will still be a conflicted decision because this is the guy Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer handpicked in November 2011.
Just think back to last season’s postmortem inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon, where Epstein predicted playing for Sveum would be a big selling point for free agents.
The morning after 101 losses — the first time the franchise had hit triple digits in 46 years — Epstein talked about how a wired generation of players stays connected. The president of baseball operations saw Sveum’s reputation growing as a straight shooter who runs a no-nonsense clubhouse, the kind of guy you could have a beer with in the manager’s office.
“Players want to play for certain managers,” Epstein said on Oct. 4, 2012. “The word gets out on who you want to play for really quickly, because players all know each other and text with one another and they understand.
“I guarantee you starting today and throughout the whole winter players will be talking about how great it is to play for Dale Sveum.”
But 358 days later, Sveum Watch moves to Busch Stadium, where the manager will be on the hot seat all weekend. The Cubs could watch another clinching party — this time the St. Louis Cardinals celebrating their National League Central title — before getting answers on Monday.
Epstein didn’t lie when asked a point-blank question during a session with beat writers on Sept. 17: Will Sveum be back next season?
But months before that noncommittal answer, Sveum was already said to be wondering about his future, a natural reaction for someone who has spent three decades around the game and understands how the business works.
The Cubs aren’t judging Sveum on the 66-93 record. They are focusing on his very specific ideas about hitting and how that philosophy may have impacted core players like Starlin Castro (.243) and Anthony Rizzo (.232) this season.
Threatening to send an All-Star shortstop and a face-of-the-franchise first baseman to Triple-A Iowa in April sent the wrong message — and created questions about how Sveum would respond when top prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant struggle in the big leagues.
Cubs officials have to be wondering why infielder Logan Watkins – the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2012 – has only 37 plate appearances since getting called up from Iowa in early August.
Sveum had his lost-in-translation moment with closer/free-agent-to-be Kevin Gregg. But if the Cubs think Pedro Strop can handle the ninth inning, why does he have only one save opportunity since getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in early July?
But Sveum also deserves credit for keeping his cool and being a baseball gym rat.
Sveum, pitching coach Chris Bosio and staff assistant Mike Borzello have implemented a solid game-planning system, building a reliable rotation highlighted by All-Star left-hander Travis Wood and helping sign-and-flip free agents like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman take their careers to the next level. Strong advance scouting and video analysis also helped turn Darwin Barney into a Gold Glove second baseman last season.
Sveum has fronted for the organization at a time when ownership has turned this into a mid-market team. Girardi’s story would appeal to the Ricketts family, president of business operations Crane Kenney and the marketing department, but that’s not going to drive this decision.
A front office that likes to study Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots and quote Bill Parcells has used this line before: If you listen to the fans in the stands, pretty soon you’ll be sitting with them.
So it’s not about winning headlines or energizing the base, even if the Cubs sold 2,642,682 tickets this season, their lowest attendance total since 1998, when Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs.
The Cubs don’t mind all the national speculation — Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia? Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire? Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux? — because they are believed to have more than one target in mind if they do decide to fire Sveum. The potential pool of candidates has turned up the heat on Sveum, who has one guaranteed year left on his contract, plus a club option for 2015.
Girardi pushed hard for the job when Jim Hendry, the general manager at the time, was searching for someone to replace Dusty Baker at the end of the 2006 season. Girardi was seen as former team president John McDonough’s first choice, while Hendry made the final call to hire Lou Piniella, who led the team to division titles in 2007 and 2008.
Girardi had clashed with Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and got fired after a 2006 season that saw him become the N.L. Manager of the Year and connect with Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez, another young shortstop who had his ups and downs.
Girardi guided the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009 and will have to decide if he’s all-in for life after Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and maybe Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. New York executives have repeatedly said they want Girardi back in The Bronx.
Firing Sveum could blowback on the front office. There could still be enough common ground from what was billed as such a thorough interview process. But there are definitely cracks in the Foundation for Sustained Success.