A Look In the Dugout

Who will be leading the Cubs in 2007?

(Queue “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie) Pressure, Merriam-Webster defines pressure as the burden of physical or mental distress but they should clearly add what the manager of an organization that has not won a world championship in nearly a century deals with on a daily basis. The last manager to win the prize was Frank Chance and the last one that was invited to the dance was Charlie Grimm but Dusty Baker has come closer than anyone else since and because of achieving such a feat in his first season anything short of a trip to the Fall Classic would have and has been judged as a failure.

Over recent weeks Jim Hendry has given Baker a “stay of execution” and his team has responded with their best string of baseball this season. Many have speculated due to the improvements made on the field, the amount of injuries he has had to deal with and the fact that many of the rookies are starting to respond that Dusty would be given an extension and return for at least one more year. But after last Monday’s articles in the Tribune and Sun-Times it is back to the speculating game. Dusty has begun to show signs of burnout, so where will the Cubs turn for leadership?

Part 3 of Rounding Third…. and ….Heading for Home

A Players’ Manager

When Dusty came to Chicago he did with a reputation of being a players’ manager. Guys supposedly wanted to play for Baker….well, where did all of those free agents go? Seth Everett from MLB.com recently said, “Players want to play in Chicago. They want to play for the Cubs. They love the city and the Cubs have great fans plus they can treat it as a 9-5 job because of all the day games.” With that being said, again, where are all of those free agents? The Tribune Company has the money….could it have anything to do with the recent comments by Scott Williamson? Williamson said, right before his trade to San Diego, that Dusty plays “his guys”. What does that mean? “His Guys”….Is that a farm team that no one knows about? Dusty has said he does not play favorites but how can anyone explain repeatedly playing sub-par players instead of unproven talent? Dusty has shown time and time again that he will play his entire roster even if that means quieting a hot bat or not rewarding a player with extra time that has just had a break through game, just to see if he can do it again. A recent example would be pinch hitting for Ryan Theriot who was 3-3 on the day….Theriot was lifted for Izturis in the 9th inning against the Brewers on August 10th. Baker seemingly rewards players that are not “his guys” with a day on the bench instead of on the field and then makes excuses for them not performing.

Dusty has won a lot of games in the past with this philosophy but times have changed and regular season wins are important to get to the post-season and beyond. Dusty seemingly does not have the fire to motivate a team at this point in his career, if he did he would have gotten more out of this group of guys when he needed them the most….in May and June. Does anyone realize if the Cubs would have just won 5 more games in each of those months they would be in the middle of the Wild Card race instead of fighting to stay out of the cellar? A manager has to be able to “fire-up” his team and a good manager with all of his team behind him, just not “his guys”, can respond in a positive way a put a few more wins on the board.

Baseball players, like most professional athletes, are creatures of habit. Most have their pre-game rituals and many are superstitious….they have patterns and habits they feel make them successful, whether it is a undershirt or a particular pattern taken to their position or not stepping on the line…. Players like consistency and forming habits. Dusty’s daily “tinkering” with the lineup goes against traditional baseball logic that allows a player to get comfortable and perform to the highest of their ability. While that may sound like a little thing, remember baseball is a game of inches. While many may point to the amount of injuries this team has had the past two seasons, even when they were healthy or as close as any team gets, Dusty’s inconsistent lineups does have an effect on productivity.

Use the recent trade of Neifi Perez as an example. Just about everyone that is associated with and or follows baseball knows that Perez is no longer an everyday player and some question if he ever was. But Dusty kept finding ways to use an obvious bench player on a daily basis, continued to hit him in the 2-hole and made it nearly impossible for Neifi to succeed in Chicago. A good manager must play to a player’s strength and not their weaknesses, that is a players’ manager….not one that repeatedly puts a player in position to fail and in turn makes him a scapegoat for the failure of the entire club. Many blame Neifi for a lot of this team’s trouble, but Dusty is the one that fills out the lineup card.

The Dusty Era….4 Years and Counting?

The most troublesome parts of the Dusty era have to be the misuse and abuse of the pitching staff and the inability to develop talent. Jim Riggleman has taken credit for Kerry Wood and while Riggleman did over use him, under Dusty’s watch Wood’s career has turned to shambles and he has spent more time on the DL than on the mound….and the same can be said about Mark Prior. Dusty rode his horses all the way to Game 7 and they have not been the same or healthy since. Carlos Zambrano is on the same track, but instead this time, it is for a losing team. Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus, who broke the story last off-season about Prior’s arm troubles, on Wednesday broke the story that Prior has the same shoulder problem that Kerry Wood did in 2005 before the surgery, no matter how much everyone attempts to get past 2003, the Cubs continue to pay for that season and it looks like, with little end in sight.

Do the names Hee-Seop Choi, Bobby Hill and Corey Patterson ring a bell? The Cubs ran Mark Grace out of town for Choi; he did not develop and was traded for Derrek Lee. Bobby Hill’s greatest accomplishment as a Cub was being traded for Aramis Ramirez and Corey Patterson was not put in a position to succeed. The Cubs needed Patterson to be something he was clearly not, they were unable to teach him and finally had to cut ties. Now, did the Cubs just miss on all three, not to mention several others….Jason Dubois….did they scout those players wrong, or were they unable to teach/coach them enough to take them to the next level?

The youth movement appears to be in Chicago to stay with a hopeful mix of proven, hard working veterans. The Cubs must find a manager that is capable of teaching as well as motivating both the young and the old. After Lee’s injury most of the team appeared flat and uninterested, Dusty appeared to show little change, took everything in stride and kept making those famous excuses. A manager has to be able to lead by example, show some fire, get tossed out from time to time just to get their attention….remember “Attitude Reflects Leadership.”

Here are a few quotes from Dusty after Thursday’s game from Cubs.com:

“On-base percentage is great if you can score runs and do something with that on-base percentage,” Baker said. “Clogging up the bases isn’t that great to me. The problem we have to address more than anything is the home run problem.”

“We have to address power and we have to address pitching,” Baker said. “Is [Mark] Prior going to be back? Who’s going to be here? Who’s going to be themselves? We built this team when the season started on who’s available. Our pitching’s been injured.”

“I’ve always said since I started managing that I’d like to have a team full of young guys and young players who you can teach to play the game the right way,” Baker said.

Who’s in the Dugout?

Everyone remembers the classic Laurel and Hardy skit….but truer words may never have been spoken about the 2007 Chicago Cubs. It looked like for a while that Dusty and company or the “Dusty Bunch” as they have been nicknamed would return but another year without change in the coaching staff and the same win-loss totals could mean the end for Jim Hendry and possibly Andy MacPhail, so changes are inevitable and here are a few of the names being discussed.

Ken Rosenthal from Fox Sports recently said that Lou Piniella will be the biggest and most talked about name to fill many of the coaching vacancies at the end of the season. Rosenthal does not think Dusty will be at the top of anyone’s list if he does leave Chicago and Rosenthal mentioned that the San Francisco Giants could be interested in Baker. The other rumors surrounding Dusty continue to include the Washington Nationals. Rosenthal down played the Nationals possible interest in Baker because of the youth movement that is going on in D.C. but XM Radio has stated that the Nationals could be a very good fit for Baker if Frank Robinson retires. The names that are being discussed the most are Piniella, Joe Girardi, Fredi Gonzalez and one name from the past….Whitey Herzog.

The Cubs have tried to hire “big names” to fill their managerial roles in the past and they have not worked out. Don Baylor and Dusty Baker are the most recent to have tried and failed. Recycling another manager is not the way to go and thus the Cubs should pass on Lou Piniella. While his fire is what the Cubs need, when was the last time a manager won the series with one team and then won it with another? While Jim Leyland has a very good shot at accomplishing that feat this season, the last one to do so was 22 years ago….Sparky Anderson and by no other over the past 35 years.

Joe Girardi is a very interesting name especially with all of the press that he and Jeffrey Lorria have received as of late. But all indications are (from Girardi) that he is happy in Florida and has even sold his home in the Chicago area. The conspiracy theorists out there think that the riff between Girardi and Lorria is a “made-up” feud and is an attempt by Girardi to get out of a 3-year contract that has 2 seasons left on it. Girardi has done a remarkable job with a lot of unproven talent this season in Florida and learned how to manage under Joe Torre.

Girardi’s style seems to be a mix between the calm and cool demeanor of Torre but he has the fire when needed, like Piniella. Girardi would be a good fit with the Cubs especially considering what he has done in Florida this season. The Cubs must find a Girardi-like manager that can take the preverbal “bull-by-the-horns” and put wins on the board. From all indications it is unlikely Joe will come home to manage the Cubs in 2007.

The name that is being mentioned most is that of Fredi Gonzalez, currently the 3rd base coach of the Atlanta Braves. While Gonzalez does not have any big league managerial experience, he does have a track record with two winning organizations, the Marlins and the Braves, and has ties with Jim Hendry when he was in the Marlins’ organization. Hendry in fact interviewed Gonzalez for the Cubs’ job before hiring Dusty in 2002. Gonzalez managed in the Marlins Minor League system for 7 seasons, progressing through their organization (1992-1998), served as their 3rd base coach from 1999-2001 and has been with Bobby Cox since 2003 after managing the Braves Triple-A team in Richmond (2002). Gonzalez won manager of the year honors from Baseball America, three times, 1993, 1994 and 1997. Does any of this sound familiar? And remember this, not only have the Braves won, until this year, they have done it with a revolving door of talent, with a mixture of proven veterans and promising rookies. Look at what the Braves did last season with basically their Triple-A Richmond roster….a Division Championship and the pieces were there this season if ownership would have spent the money and given Bobby Cox a bullpen.

The mainstream media in Chicago, as well as the independents, such as this site, have picked up on the promise of Gonzalez. Last week the Rocky Mountain News became the first outside of the Chicago area to also mention his name as a possible replacement for Baker. Gonzalez appears to be a legitimate candidate and a well-deserved one at that. The Cubs must try something new….98 years is long enough. The last intangible that must be mentioned is the fact he is of Latin decent and being able to fully communicate with all of your players is a must.

While right now any replacement is a guessing game and like most trade rumors the new manager of the Cubs, if there is one, will probably be one that has received little attention to this point. But any names thrown out by the mainstream media must be mentioned, and this site will continue to do so, but one of the most surprising names would have to be former Cardinals’ skipper Whitey Herzog. The St. Louis Post Dispatch recently mentioned his name, and while he is a winner, how would a 75-year old man (Herzog will turn 75 in November) be able to relate to today’s athlete? The name of Leo Durocher came to mind but Durocher was only 61 when he took over the Cubs in 1966 and that was a different time. Herzog has an impressive resume, he was the last Cardinal manager to win a World Series but he has not coached in the big leagues since 1990….a lot has changed in the past 16 years.

The final piece of this very long puzzle will be run soon. There is no way you can mention the problems around the Cubs and leave out Larry Rothschild and the pitching staff. Thanks for being patient, I know this was later than I promised, just a lot to talk about and if you thought this was long, you should have read the first draft. Leave your thoughts, if you choose, tell me I’m crazy, but remember these last few weeks are very important….their future depends on it.

Check back for “Rotating the Arms”….coming soon.

Quote of the Day

"Build up your weaknesses until they become your strong points." – Knute Rockne