Fixing Cubs requires proper tools

CHICAGO -- Wanted: One Chicago Cubs manager.

Criteria: Must be a strong leader, a nurturer of young talent and a highly skilled communicator.

Important qualifications: Must be able to hit third, field flawlessly and pitch in high-leverage situations. Major league experience preferable.

As the Cubs' managerial search officially takes off when team president Theo Epstein starts smiling and dialing Tuesday morning, it would be helpful for everyone to repeat that knockoff of the old Bill Clinton election axiom:

It's the players, stupid.

We obsess about coaches and managers, the personalities, the name brands, the leaders. But as former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen used to remind us, good players made a good manager. Bad players made a bad manager.

Maybe it's not quite that simple. But it's true.

So remember that Cubs heartthrob candidate Joe Girardi doesn't wear catcher's gear anymore, and that binder doesn't have any magic beanstalks on which to grow good hitters.

A new Cubs manager is necessary, because they fired poor, stubbled Dale Sveum on Monday. But they're not hiring a miracle worker to replace him.

With no mandate (or budget) to address the major Lleague club the last two seasons, Epstein and his staff have assembled a passel of young talent in the minors. After watching Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Co. stumble this past season, Epstein decided he needed the "right" manager to help these players succeed.

And by right, I mean -- not Dale.

Two years ago, Epstein was lauding Sveum for all the reasons it seems they fired him.

Epstein blamed the "environment" for the regression, or failure of development, for their "young players" -- which means Castro and Rizzo -- but find me a major league clubhouse where everything is sunshine and lollipops as the team gets stripped away for prospects every season en route to a last-place finish.

The players aren't stupid. They knew the situation. Forget the rah-rah "we're not rebuilding" speech they got two years ago. This wasn't a rebuilding of the major league organization; it was a tear-down.

"You feel like you've sort of let him down," Cubs reliever James Russell said Monday on the "Carmen and Jurko" radio show on ESPN Chicago 1000. "Managers are the ones that get blamed for losing ballgames. It's unfortunate, but essentially we're the guys out there on the field that really didn't play that well ... and it kind of falls down on the manager, which kind of sucks."


"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very disappointed," Sveum said to reporters outside Wrigley Field. "You're optimistic, but you know what can happen."

The Cubs contend the move to fire Sveum after two years and 197 losses wasn't about the actual team results. It wasn't about the hackneyed 105-year drought, which has nothing to do with the current predicament.

The front office has been crystal clear that it had no expectations about major league results. But it's harder to live through those seasons when the only young talent you have isn't getting better.

"We're at a critical point in our building process where our very best prospects are going to be young big league players," Epstein said. "And it's absolutely imperative that we create the best environment possible for young players to continue to learn, to continue to develop and to thrive at the big league level. And to win, ultimately. That's not an easy thing to do."

Epstein wouldn't name Castro and Rizzo, but the list of important core players on the current roster basically begins and ends with those two.

Castro led the National League with 207 hits in 2011, but he's regressed in the last two years as the Cubs have extended his contract and tried to get him to adopt a more patient persona at the plate.

Castro hit .245 with a .284 on-base percentage and a .347 slugging percentage. His defense ranged from exciting to passive-aggressive.

Rizzo had a strong Cubs debut in 2012, but was very inconsistent this year. His 23 homers and 80 RBIs look good on paper, but he had long power droughts. His .233 average was bad, and his .191 average with runners in scoring position was worse.

"There are some specifics I'm not going to get into because they wouldn't be appropriate," Epstein said of the problems with the clubhouse environment. "It's tricky to develop young players at the major league level. They have to be supported along the way. There has to be tough love, but there has to be love before there's tough love. You have to be patient with them. There has to be a clear, unified message. They can't be getting different signals from different directions. Collectively, collectively, myself included, we failed to provide that."

Earlier this season, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer admitted that Castro and Rizzo might be struggling because they were asked to do too much on a weak team, and that the losing had slowed their development as hitters.

"You bring up a guy like Rizzo and bat him third every game as a pro, Castro ever since day one is batting top of the order, I think it's a difficult thing as a young player," Hoyer said in August. "Your assimilation process is more difficult when you're the guy they're focused on getting out as opposed to hitting seventh in the order. It's a difficult thing for guys to break into a team that doesn't have a lot of offensive depth."

In order to save the babies, they had to throw out Sveum. Epstein said this process really began in the first half of the season, when the front office first had concerns about Sveum's viability going forward, based, I presume, on Castro and Rizzo's struggles, not to mention the overall lousiness of the team. They met with Sveum about those concerns after the All-Star break. Epstein met with Sveum before meeting the media in Milwaukee two weeks ago and explained he wouldn't be guaranteeing Sveum's return in 2014.

Epstein then met again with Sveum over a "couple beers" Sunday night before he formally fired him Monday. Epstein sent out perhaps the longest press release statement in recorded history -- 592 words of carefully crafted Theo-speak.

"I didn't want to be here today," Epstein said. "It would've been a lot more convenient not to make this move, just to continue with the status quo. But when you have an issue like that and you feel like you can do more to put your young players and your best prospects who are soon to come up in a better position to succeed, to thrive at the big league level and then win, then you have to make that move."

So now the Cubs have to decide who can be the manager that takes this young talent and molds it into something representing a major league team.

How good is this job? Why would a proven manager like Girardi want it? Every manager takes this job with the dream of being the guy to win a World Series at Wrigley Field. And every manager leaves unhappy, full of recriminations and regret.

"We're asking a manager to develop and establish a winning culture [on a team] that just lost close to a 100 games a year for the last couple years, while the front office has been very transparent about taking a long-term view," Epstein said. "That's something that requires a lot of leadership, a lot of energy, a lot of creativity. It requires a dynamic person who can handle that."

Oh, and they need a background developing young talent, he added. Anything else? Maybe a 6,000-square-foot video board in his backyard?

I didn't know Wrigley Field moved to Fantasyland. Did anyone call the rooftops to alert them?

Seriously, Epstein said this is a great job, and everyone knows it.

"I think there's a real dichotomy between how we perceive things here in Chicago living through this every day, and I'm not just saying the media, but us in the front office too," Epstein said. "It's tough to lose 100 games; it's painful, it's a burden, it hurts. Because of that it feels like it's not coming quickly enough. ... I can tell you, and you don't have to take my word on it, outside the organization, outside the city, the story is the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong. That's the reality. When you take a step back and assess the talent in the organization, that's accurate."

Epstein can deservedly crow about their "clearly top-five" farm system, but the real problem is that the major league team needs some serious attention. No one expects a new manager to deal with the same grind.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has already backtracked from the idea that the home clubhouse would be remodeled this offseason. But there is still other work to do.

As Epstein said, the foundation they talked about two years ago has been built. Time to start constructing a real big league house.

After they hire a new manager, the Cubs need to address their fundamental problem by adding veterans, not just young hitters. Veterans they're not going to trade away at the deadline. Veterans who have been on winning teams. Enough with the losing.

Spend and overspend, maybe not at all once. The money is there, but Epstein said again Monday not to expect a big jump in payroll.

You might think that spending is just a band-aid, but it's not. It's the environment, stupid.

At the home opener, Epstein called the notion that all of these minor league studs would come up at the same time and tear it up an "unrealistic panacea." He's not wrong. The worst thing the Cubs could do is put the pressure of their painful history on some 22-year-old kids.

If the Cubs are serious about building a contender, starting tomorrow when they make official calls on managerial candidates, they need to give him a real team to manage.

I know, I know. Who's living in Fantasyland now?