It's lucky Dale Sveum isn't being judged on wins and losses. If he were, he'd be in big trouble.
While no manager likes to lose, Sveum was at least afforded the luxury to do that. The new front office came in with no illusions about the Cubs ability to compete. It's a long way from last year when Mike Quade was managing to save his job, in part because GM Jim Hendry was trying to win and save his own job.
Instead, Sveum will be evaluated by different criteria. His job was to change the Cubs losing culture, making sure the team played hard regardless of the circumstances. He understands Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's philosophy as well as anyone, so it fell on him to impart that on the players. He was also there to help in the development process. Little did he know there was so much work to be done -- even at the MLB level.
So how did he do?
Although they've looked awful of late (bad pitching can do that to you), the Cubs have played hard all season. We've seen them make late comebacks (often falling short) when it seemed the game was over. That's a marked change from last year when Sveum noted from the opposing dugout in Milwaukee that the Cubs would lie down and quit once they were down. Said Theo Epstein,
“He’s done a fantastic job, to be honest. For a team that’s where we are in the standings, this is one of the best clubhouses I’ve been around. They show up every day, they like each other and they prepare.
‘‘Except for a few rare exceptions, we played hard all season. Usually when you have a losing team on the field, it starts to seep into the clubhouse. I haven’t seen that this year.’’
That's high praise considering that Epstein presided over two championship teams in Boston. The Cubs may still be losing, but they are taking steps toward eradicting the losing culture that often accompanies it.
Teaching the Cubs Way and Player Development
Effort and attitude in the clubhouse is only part of the battle. There needed to be changes in the way the Cubs played the game. They didn't grind out ABs, they didn't play good defense, they didn't throw strikes...the list goes on and on. It's hard to do this at the major league level. Players don't often want to change what got them there, but there were some success stories: from Starlin Castro's more selective approach late in the season to Alfonso Soriano's defense to Welington Castillo's improvement as a receiver. The Cubs have seen some flashes from some of their young arm and they took a proactive approach to working with promoted prospects Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. They won't always accomplish their goals, but it seems Sveum and his staff will do whatever they can to give players every chance to succeed.
We've seen that if a Cubs player wasn't ready to perform with the approach the Cubs wanted to see, they simply didn't play. There was a lot of frustration among Cubs fans that Luis Valbuena kept playing while some players such as Tony Campana, Josh Vitters, and Bryan LaHair did not. But the fact was that Valbuena exemplified some of the things the Cubs wanted to see, namely good defense and a disciplined approach at the plate. In a perfect world he wouldn't be a starter, neither would David DeJesus for that matter, but until the Cubs can find more all-around players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, then a good approach at the plate in the field and at the plate will trump superficial contributions that look better on the back of a baseball card.
In game strategy:
I don't know how much a first year manager should be judged from play to play. I think it's a hard thing to judge because we tend to remember the blunders. It's easy to say when a starter has been left in too long or taken out to early, for example, but it's harder to remember all the times it was done at the right time. Once we believe the manager does something poorly, we tend to engage in what's called a confirmation bias. We will selectively remember all the times it's gone wrong. I've been guilty of this myself.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Sveum was the all-righty lineup vs. lefties. I was definitely not a fan. But we should consider the hand that Sveum was dealt. Players like Ian Stewart (.405 OPS), Bryan LaHair (.292 OPS), and David DeJesus (.447 OPS) were very weak vs. LHP while Jeff Baker (.771 OPS) and Reed Johnson (.890 OPS) hit lefties well this season.
Was it really such a bad idea to platoon those players? None of them were considered long term solutions, so there wasn't as much to worry about in terms of development. Looking back at the numbers, I'm not sure Sveum didn't do the right thing here.
Final Grade: I'll let all of decide...