Continuing on with our progress report series, I'm going to move on to the off-the-field acquisitions...
In the past several days, the Cubs have made some big changes, moving Tim Wilken and Ari Kaplan while letting Oneri Fleita and a few others go, including 6 scouts just 2 days ago. I expect more changes to come.
In less than a year as President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein has made already made some key additions as the Cubs seek to modernize their front office, adding important pieces such as GM Jed Hoyer, VP of Scouting Jason McLeod, Asst. to the GM Shiraz Rehman, Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer, and Director of Amateur Scouting Jaron Madison.
Closer to the field, the most obvious addition they've made is manager Dale Sveum, but they've also brought in a new pitching coach in Chris Bosio, a new defense and baserunning guru in 1B Dave McKay, bench coach Jamie Quirk , and most recently, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was fired and replaced for the moment by James Towson.
In case anyone still had any doubts about what direction the Cubs are heading, the most recent firing of scouts was telling. All were of the so called "old school". It's not that the Cubs don't value old school ways of thinking, but not to the point of being so old-fashioned that they aren't able to adapt to some of the advantages that the modern game provides, such as the use of technology and advanced statistical theory.
You wonder if that was the impetus behind the Wilken move. The Cubs, as do most in the industry, have tremendous respect for Wilken as a pure talent evaluator, but I speculated at the time that it had less to do with his baseball mind and more to do with how they want to organize things, particularly when it comes to managing the vast amount of information that Epstein has been known to accumulate. Wilken's new position as a special assistant would seem to give him all the benefits of having Epstein's ear, but the Cubs would likely prefer that someone more modern manages all that info.
Modernizing the Cubs front office is job number one and by far the biggest reason for all the changes. There's also some thought that the Cubs may be trying to tighten things up, plug some leaks, as that has been a problem for a front office that likes to keep things close to the vest. Of course, leaks are going to happen, and sometimes you can't necessarily control them, as what happened in the Atlanta trade, but I expect things to continue to tighten up in the next few years.
We won't specifically evaluate the moves this front office made because that will be done in the other segments such as ones I've already done on the trades and free agents , and later we'll have pieces on the draft and the farm system.
As far as on the field, I've been pleased for the most part with Dale Sveum. Yes, he could use some work on game management, most new managers do, and I really hope that he won't have to use as many platoons in the future, at least not with mediocre players. But I'm very pleased at the renewed effort and how he focuses on things such as OBP and getting good at-bats. The Cubs have let this slide for too many years and though it will take time, it's good to know that it won't be tolerated much longer.
The move of Castro down the lineup is indicative of this. We all know Castro can hit, but he doesn't necessarily always have the best ABs. By moving him down to 5th, and even suggesting he should hit 6th or 7th, sends a not so subtle message that it isn't batting average or number of hits that is important, but quality ABs and getting on base. This is what's paramount to me and, I presume, to many of the readers here. It's pretty safe to say that it's what the Cubs brass values as well. Get good ABs and everything else will follow. If you can get on base, make the pitcher work, expose the opposition's bullpen...then suddenly your offense looks a whole lot better and we don't have to hinge on every managerial decision.
That being said, the firing of Rudy Jaramillo came far too late. The Cubs rank at the bottom of the NL in both walks and OBP, and not surprisingly, dead last in all of baseball in runs scored. Jaramillo was never a fit and I wonder if delaying the inevitable may have delayed the change in philosophy. I'm not sure it's fair to grade new coach James Towson yet, there's not much you can change mid-season, but rumors are always swirling that the Cubs will bring on Dave Madagan when he becomes available. If it happens, the Cubs will have a guy that is every bit as respected as Jaramillo was, but one that actually fits into what the Cubs are trying to do. Rowson can then slide back to the being the minor league hitting coordinator, where he helped several players improve their approach, most notably Matt Szczur.
It's tough to grade Chris Bosio because of what he's had to work with, but we can safely say that, in the first half, starting pitching was the strength of the Cubs team. He also helped turn Carlos Marmol around and turned Alberto Cabrera from borderline 40 man roster guy to a legit closer candidate down the road by tweaking the grip on his fastball. Of course, Cabrera has yet to see that success in the majors, but the stuff is there and Bosio will have to find a way to get him to pitch with the same kind of command he did at the AA and AAA levels.
One of my favorite hires this offseason was 1B coach Dave McKay. He had a tough job ahead of him trying to get the Cubs to unlearn their extreme passivity on the bases and their sometimes half-hearted effort on defense. Nowhere has that been more apparent with, of all people, veteran Alfonso Soriano. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Soriano has been aggressive on the bases, even stealing a few, and his defense at age 36 has been perhaps the best of his career. As McKay gets more time to work with younger Cubs players, I think we'll continue to see more consistency in two areas that have been a big problem for the Cubs over the years.
Progress Report Grade: Incomplete
This is not cop out. I like what the Cubs are trying to do, but I think the real changes are just starting to happen,and while the philosophy has been sound, we're far from seeing any actual results on the field. It's as if the Cubs were asked to write a huge paper but just completed the outline. I like the outline, but a lot has to happen before this is anywhere near a finished product. There was a lot to sort out and the Cubs spent most of the season gathering information. We'll get a much better idea of where the Cubs stand by this point next season.