Before David Ross took the job as Cubs manager, he knew change was coming for the organization.
As he went through the hiring process, Ross said, then-president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were open about the likelihood that Epstein would step down in the next couple years.
“Obviously, it's a little faster than was expected,” Ross said in his Winter Meetings press conference last week, a month after Epstein resigned and Hoyer took his place. “Theo's laid out his reasons for that. And I respect all that stuff and have a ton of respect for Theo for making the decision a little earlier than I think he anticipated.”
Even if it weren’t for Epstein and Hoyer’s transparency, Ross should still have anticipated a shift. His hire marked the beginning.
Before the Cubs non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, initiating a breakup of their championship core; before Epstein resigned, citing a need for the president of baseball operations to be committed for the long haul; the Cubs parted with manager Joe Maddon.
If six years ago, Maddon’s hire signaled the beginning of a championship push, Ross’ hire last year also marked the beginning of a new era. It just may take longer for this era to take shape, after the Cubs largely stood pat last offseason.
“Retool, re-whatever, rebuild,” Ross said, “none of those terms are even on the radar for me.”
Both Hoyer and Ross have insisted that the goal remains to win and win in October. But because of the cyclical nature of professional sports, the roster as it stands doesn’t have the kind of ceiling it did back in 2015 and 2016. Then, the Cubs were making playoff runs with a core of pre-arbitration players. Now, many of those same players have just one year left of club control.
Leading the Cubs’ morphing roster will be Ross, who is himself is growing in his role.
“The one thing I saw from other managers,” Ross said, “and I always thought if I got a chance to manage, I would definitely be patient, and you don't ever want to feel panic from your manager or change in a small sample size.”
Ross’ patience was best quantified in his pitching rotation management and lineup construction. On average, Ross left his starting pitchers in for 5.4 innings per game, the most in the National League. He also stuck with a largely consistent batting order, despite the heart of the order’s struggles at the plate. Other than Ian Happ moving to leadoff, he waited until mid-September to begin tinkering.
“Moving those guys around constantly, I don't know that that would have helped either,” Ross said. “I'm satisfied with the way I went about it.”
The added challenge was finding the right balance in 60-game season, which is a small sample size itself. If he were to redo the season, Ross would be less patient in some areas. Communicating observations about, for example, how opposing pitchers were approaching one of his hitters, was one of them.
“You see it for a week straight, and there's no adjustment right away,” Ross said, “I can take that to the hitting coach, but maybe I should just go straight to the player and tell the story of, this is my experience at something, these are your numbers in this area. Instead of waiting two weeks where they fell flat on their face, now they're completely lost.”
Would that have changed the Cubs’ overall underperformance in the batter’s box? Maybe. Maybe not.
“But it would have made me feel a little bit better,” Ross said, smiling.
In Ross, the Cubs got a first-year manager who led them to a division title. But they also got a 43-year-old former player who agonizes over his own mistakes the night after a game. They got a man with the kind of self-deprecating humor – “I don’t even know if I have a (managing) style” – that reveals a humble approach to his job.
They got a manager who embraced the coming change, both in the organization and himself.