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Monday, September 30, 2013
Through firing, Cubs explain what they want

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs had too much respect for former manager Dale Sveum to get into specifics about the reasons he was fired on Monday, but in detailing what they want in a new manager -- with a plethora of young talent on the way to the big leagues -- they told us all we need to know.

“In order for us to win with this group -- and win consistently -- we must have the best possible environment for young players to learn, develop and thrive at the major league level,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “We must have clear and cohesive communication with our players about the most important parts of the game. And, even while the organization takes a patient, long view, we must somehow establish and maintain a galvanized, winning culture around the major league club.”

The implication is Sveum failed to provide at least some of these things. Epstein said the troubles began in the first half, and a heart-to-heart meeting with Sveum after the All-Star break put him on notice. As the season wore on, Cubs brass obviously believed the changes they were seeking weren’t going to materialize with Sveum at the helm, so they fired him one year earlier than most people thought they would.

So what wasn’t working in the first half of 2013 that set off the alarms? It might have just been something in the air about the culture in Year 2 of the Epstein/Sveum regime, or maybe it was something more specific. After all, you don’t fire someone for something in the air unless a mutiny is about to take place. There was nothing so outwardly dramatic to be concerned with, so maybe it did come down to the on-field progress -- or lack thereof -- by core players.

There’s only one really important aspect that transcended the entire season, from star player to benchwarmer: The Cubs couldn’t get on base. Getting on base is the centerpiece of an Epstein offensive attack. The Cubs ranked 14th in the National League in that category. Their core players, such as Starlin Castro (.284), Anthony Rizzo (.323), Darwin Barney (.266) and even newcomer Nate Schierholtz (.301), were abysmal at reaching first. In the end, only the catchers -- Welington Castillo (.349) and Dioner Navarro (.365) -- stood out in this category.

It’s not necessarily that Sveum is directly responsible for the lack of on-base percentage -- he wasn’t going up there with a bat -- but maybe the issues were in the message. For such an important aspect of Epstein’s building process, the Cubs were making no headway. This is just one tangible example, but it provides some perspective on Sveum as a leader: The messages weren’t getting through to the liking of Epstein and the front office.

Or maybe the losing had just beaten Sveum down and the Cubs were afraid the culture change they were seeking wasn’t coming as their crop of young talent made its way to the big leagues.

Either way, there were tangible and seemingly intangible reasons for Sveum’s firing. Unless he turned out to be one of those special people who grew into an elite manager, the odds were against him staying here long term. There was just too much to do, too much to overcome, and it cost Sveum his job.