Dale Sveum on Jake Arrieta and Cubs rebuild he didn’t see coming


Dale Sveum on Jake Arrieta and Cubs rebuild he didn’t see coming

This is how Dale Sveum pictured it: The city buzzing about the Cubs again, a 90-win team playing in front of 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field and gearing up for a potential World Series run.

The roar of the crowd on Monday night sounded like October – except Sveum watched from the visiting dugout as the Kansas City Royals hitting coach.

“I don’t know if anybody would have saw it coming that fast,” Sveum said before the Cubs beat the Royals 1-0 on Chris Denorfia’s pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning, giving them 13 walk-off wins during this unbelievable season.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein fired his handpicked manager over drinks at a Lakeview bar after the final game of the 2013 season. But Sveum’s fingerprints are all over this team after hiring impact coaches like Chris Bosio (pitching) and Mike Borzello (catching/strategy).

Together, their game-planning system and pitching/scouting infrastructure boosted short-term assets like Scott Feldman and Jeff Samardzija, leading to franchise-altering trades that yielded building blocks like Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell.

“It might have been the reason we didn’t lose 125 games,” Sveum said.

[MORE: Where Tom Ricketts sees the payroll going from here]

Sveum still has that sense of gallows humor, but he doesn’t sound bitter or get defensive after finding a great landing spot with a team that won the American League pennant last year and already clinched a division title this season. Kansas City manager Ned Yost offered Sveum a job over the phone a few minutes after his exit press conference outside Wrigley Field.

At that point, the Cubs hoped Joe Girardi might leave the New York Yankees, seeing his value as an on-field leader and in-game tactician. The business side also would have loved the marketing potential with an ex-Cub out of East Peoria and Northwestern University.

The Cubs tried to change the conversation after 197 losses in two seasons. Epstein wanted someone with a softer touch around young core players Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Epstein wound up hiring Rick Renteria and fired him after an up-and-down season once Joe Maddon became a free agent.

Sveum could be brutally honesty with the media, and that didn’t always go over well inside the clubhouse or with the front office. He also had strong opinions about how things should be run, and that caused friction behind the scenes.

The idea of the Cubs winning the second wild card in 2015 sounded overly optimistic, yet not completely impossible. But winning 90-plus games and having one of the best records in the majors by this point?

“You probably didn’t see that quick a development in (Kris) Bryant, Addison Russell,” Sveum said. “The whole thing – it all just came together. But it still comes down to their pitching, getting (Jon) Lester, (who’s) one of the best in baseball. And then Arrieta’s development is obviously off the charts.

“The bullpen has always been a nice mix of arms. (Hector) Rondon has obviously turned into one of the better Rule 5 guys you’re ever going to come across.”

The entire Epstein administration deserves credit for making those moves and turning this into a playoff team by Year 4. Maddon will probably be the National League’s Manager of the Year, but even he admits a lot of the heavy lifting had already been done before he got here.

With tattoos covering his arms, Sveum brought a no-nonsense attitude into the clubhouse and the took the heat during his media sessions before and after every game, trying to explain the big picture.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

Like when the Cubs cashed in 15 Feldman starts in the middle of the 2013 season and wound up with hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop and Arrieta, a fringe pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles.

“When we got him, (we knew) we might have gotten something pretty special here,” Sveum said. “It sounded like it came down to just letting this guy be an athlete instead of mechanical.

“He’s a great athlete and has phenomenal stuff. But that was one of those things where you’re like: ‘Wow, how could somebody give that up?’

“I know they were in the race and Feldman was doing a great job, too. Sometimes it’s risk/reward when you make trades like that.”

Sveum and Bosio grew up together in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and remain good friends. Sveum is also tight with Borzello, a central figure in breaking down video, analyzing data and putting together scouting reports that highlight hitters’ weaknesses and lay out how to pitch away from slugging percentage.

That gym-rat culture and be-yourself philosophy has helped Arrieta develop into a 21-game winner and a leading Cy Young Award candidate, an evolution that now makes the Cubs a very dangerous playoff team.

“I don’t know if anybody can envision that it would have happened that quick,” Sveum said. “You knew it was going to happen because of the pieces. But it all fell together.”

Sports Talk Live: Cubs convention edition

Scott Changnon

Sports Talk Live: Cubs convention edition

On the latest Sports Talk Live Podcast we join David Kaplan and Kelly Crull at the Chicago Cubs Convention for interviews with Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Kris Bryant and many more.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast


Cubs understand fans' angst over slow winter, but insist they're working behind the scenes

Cubs understand fans' angst over slow winter, but insist they're working behind the scenes

Theo Epstein isn't trying out his hidden ball trick this winter.

He admitted as much during his annual press conference at Cubs Convention Friday evening at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, saying "it continues to be extremely unlikely" the Cubs will add a mega free agent this winter.

No, that wasn't one more ruse before the Cubs had Bryce Harper hop out from behind the curtain and run across the stage to surprise Cubs fans at Opening Ceremonies (a la Kerry Wood earlier this decade).

The only Harper descending upon Chicago was the winter storm creating Convention travel issues.

Obviously that's not what fans want to hear.

Epstein understands that. Joe Maddon understands that. The Cubs players understand that.

After a one-and-done playoff appearance last fall, Epstein sat at the podium during his season eulogy and passionately promised change coming for the team.

But we're three months into the offseason and the only notable addition to the roster is Daniel Descalso, a 32-year-old utility player.

"I'm not blind to that," Epstein said. "I get it. We've had meetings the last few days internally talking about the guys that we do have and the incredible talent that does exist in this organization and how we can learn from last year and continue to get the absolute most out of guys or take it to another level. 

"We have to be excused for being excited, because we are really optimistic about this season. But I completely get it from a fan's standpoint and I know there are a lot of questions out there. I actually appreciate that. Just to have fans that are as passionate about baseball and about winning and about the Cubs as we are, you can't take that for granted. 

"Even if the tone isn't what you always want sometimes, it's coming from the right place and it also reflects the fact that standards have been raised around here quite a bit. We're coming off a 95-win season, we've won more games than any other club the last four years and yet there are loud, legitimate questions from our fans. I think that's a good thing and I'm happy to provide answers the best I can. It just means there are fans who probably were with us through some pretty thin times who enjoyed the really good and even historic times with us and are eager for those to continue, as we are."

Epstein stopped short of calling fans "impatient" and corrected a reporter who used that term, instead calling the angst from fans "passion" and "expectations." 

The Cubs president of baseball operations has a reputation of being very aggressive during the offseason and not making a habit of resting on his laurels even after a successful season. 

Epstein and the Cubs have referenced their 95 wins in the regular season last year a lot this winter, but they also acknowledge they were caught from behind by the Brewers and didn't even make it to the National League Division Series.

This winter hasn't resulted in almost no change to the roster, but that doesn't mean the team won't be able to improve on last season.

"I understand the way things look from the outside in, especially in the winter," Epstein said. "We can't go out and win games in the winter and we can't go out and play hard in the winter. All we can do for the fans in the winter — in terms of public-facing — is adding players, and we haven't added as many players as we normally have. 

"But behind the scenes, there's an awful lot we do. I promise you and I promise our fans this is as hard as I've ever worked in an offseason. The results in terms of adding players aren't there. We think we've done a lot of good behind the scenes to learn some lessons from last year and try to put our best foot forward."