The NFL Wild Card playoff round of games came and went this past weekend. Mean while in Chicago, the talk of the town has been the Bears search for a new head coach after Lovie Smith was dismissed. Being more of a baseball fan than a football fan, I could not help but look back on the Cubs very own manager search last off season. The Cubs of course ended up hiring Dale Sveum, but remember some of the interesting names that popped up during the process last year?
The most popular name in the minds and hearts of Cubs fans that had made the front office’s short list at the time was Mike Maddux. A successful pitching coach with the Brewers and Rangers, a shot at a manager gig was the next location progression of Maddux’s care. The fact that he could make that jump at Wrigley Field where his Hall of Fame bound brother Greg spent several years as a fan favorite was an added bonus. For Cubs fans, the dream as to maybe see the Maddux brothers working side by side in the dugout along the third base line. Mike eventually pulled out of the running, reportedly citing family reasons, and remained with the Rangers, overseeing a pitching staff that made its way into the playoffs for a third straight year. As it stands, older brother Mike will proceed to work with the Rangers on making it four years in a row in 2013 come February when pitchers and catchers report.
Pete Mackanin was another name that was a finalist for the Cubs job along with Maddux and Sveum. The Chicago native had the longest resume in terms of years of coaching and managing experience of the remaining candidates, having started as a third base coach in 1997 for the Expos. Mackanin got his first taste of the top dugout step in 2007 as interim manager of the Reds. At this time last year, Mackanin was serving the Phillies as a bench coach, a position he returned to after not being selected for the Cubs job.
Other names such as Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Terry Francona were also thrown about during the process, but in the end Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer went with Sveum. Now it is too early to judge the quality of Sveum, considering he has only had one year under his belt as Cubs manager. Furthermore, the win loss record (particularly the 100 losses) on the field is more a reflection of rebuilding pains than the former Brewer’s leadership ability.
While wondering whether Maddux, Mackanin, or another candidate would have made a more positive impact on the 2012 Cubs is a moot “what if” exercise, there are a couple points that lead me to believe Mackanin would not have been a right fit while still leaving me curious to see how Maddux would have fared. Mackanin turned 61 this past year. While still several years younger than Lou Piniella, an AARP candidate was probably not the route to go when it came to a rebuilding year centered around young players like Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija, Darwin Barney, and eventually Anthony Rizzo. While Mackanin’s history of experience would have been a plus, there would have been an age gap with the talented young core that could have posed player manager relationship issues. For what it is worth, the Phillies did not retained him as a bench coach this off season after his contract expired.
Coming from an extensive pitching background as both MLB player and coach, Maddux would have been an interesting selection. At the end of the day, the importance of quality pitching cannot be stressed enough, and the hire of a former pro pitcher would certainly not hurt that approach. Pitchers and catchers are typically the more cerebral players on the field of play, considering their constant involvement in the run of play during a game, and that has translated very well for former players looking to make the transition to the coaching and managing ranks.
In the end, as we all know, Sveum is the one that won the job. Known for playing the game the right way as a player, Sveum also had the privilege of playing under managerial greats like Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland, and Gene Lamont. Sveum’s coaching resume has positions ranging from third base coach and bench coach to interim manager and hitting coach. Just as Sveum and the coaching staff do not deserve full credit for some of the positives of 2012 (Alfonso Soriano’s revival, the emergence of Jeff Samardzija, and the return of a dominant Carlos Marmol late in the season), the former infielder also does not deserve the brunt of the blame for the ugly 100 plus loss season.
The only real issue I had of Sveum from his debut season as Cubs manager was his double standard handling of youngster Castro and veteran All Star Soriano when it came to mental lapses on the field. This inconsistency was one bullet point that Cubs fans were under the impression would be addressed compared to the player “too friendly” policy regularly seen under the past Cubs front office and staff. The issue is not to take anything away from the resurgence of Soriano’s career or the leaps and bounds the veteran has made both on defense and in the clubhouse as a leader. The issue is to ensure that all players understand that the Cubs way going forward is to be held accountable regardless of age or paycheck size.
Fans concerned with the “X’s and O’s” side of Sveum need to be a little patient with Sveum and at least give him another year to see how he handles a team that continues to develop a foundation of talent to work with. Whether or not the Cubs have found the manager that will lead an eventual talent rich team to a World Series title remains to be seen, but for the time being it appears they have not made selection that will impede the rebuilding progress.