CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum on Monday after finishing last in the NL Central for the first time in seven years, ending a two-year run that produced more losses than any other in the team’s cursed history.
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said Sveum was not the “scapegoat” for the team’s struggles.
“Today’s decision to pursue a new manager was not made because of wins and losses,” Epstein said. “Our record is a function of our long-term building plan and the moves we have made – some good, a few we would like back – to further this strategy.”
He added: “I believe a dynamic new voice – and the energy, creativity and freshness that comes with this type of change – provides us with the best opportunity to achieve the major league environment we seek.”
Sveum’s dismissal likely will ramp up speculation surrounding the status of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a Peoria, Ill., native who played college ball at nearby Northwestern. Epstein said he expected to complete the search process by early November.
The Cubs went 61-101 in Sveum’s first season, and things weren’t much better this year. The Cubs dropped 41 of their final 59 games, including six of their final seven. They finished 66-96 and Sveum went 127-197 in his two seasons at the helm. He had one year left on a three-year deal signed before the 2012 season.
The Cubs had just hired Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer when Sveum was tabbed to replace Mike Quade following the 2011 season.
He had little experience as a manager, other than an interim stint for the Brewers late in 2008 after Ned Yost was fired, when he took this job. But he did have a history with Epstein and Hoyer. Sveum served as Boston’s third-base coach in 2004 and 2005 and was part of a championship team there while they were in the Red Sox’s front office.
Sveum knew what he was getting into, that the Cubs were in the early stages of a top-to-bottom overhaul that they hoped would transform them into perennial contenders. That hasn’t happened yet. And if there is a payoff, Sveum won’t be around to see it.
With talented prospects such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant now in the system, things are looking promising at the minor league level. At the majors, it’s a different story.
With the Cubs shedding long-term prospects and dealing anyone with trade value in an effort to build the farm system, losses have been piling up at a staggering rate even for a franchise that last won a championship in 1908. The Cubs have dropped at least 91 games in three straight seasons for the first time, and they appear to be at least a year or two from making any jump in the win column.
They’ve taken mostly a frugal approach in free agency, going for players with low financial risks rather than making big splashes.
They did make a big-ticket player purchase last offseason, signing starter Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract, but he’s been a flop. They also traded away veteran pitchers Matt Garza and Scott Feldman and longtime left fielder Alfonso Soriano.
Through it all, the front office insisted Sveum would be judged on development rather than record, and that probably was his downfall. Castro and Rizzo, who have long-term contracts, took steps back this season.
Castro continues to be a head scratcher, prone to lapses in the field, and he couldn’t make up for it at the plate. The two-time All-Star’s average has been in a steady decline.
Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija didn’t quite deliver the way the Cubs hoped, either. At times, he can look like an All-Star but he gave up five or more runs eight times.
Sveum did not appear to be in any real jeopardy until late in the season, when things got tense.
Jackson had words with Sveum in the dugout over being pulled after four innings in a game at Milwaukee. The next day, Samardzija got into it with third-base coach David Bell over defensive positioning. That, too, happened in the dugout, and later that week, Kevin Gregg nearly was released following a rant to reporters after he thought he lost the closer’s job.
After all that, Epstein let Sveum dangle when he was asked about his status, saying the manager would be evaluated at the end of the season.
Epstein insisted the overhaul is on target.
“Soon, our organization will transition from a phase in which we have been primarily acquiring young talent to a phase in which we will promote many of our best prospects and actually field a very young, very talented club at the major league level,” he said. “The losing has been hard on all of us, but we now have one of the top farm systems in baseball, some of the very best prospects in the game, and a clear path forward. 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.”