Cubs

How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

David Ross is officially moving from "Grandpa Rossy" to "Manager Rossy."

The affable former backup catcher is not only a fan favorite, but he's immensely popular inside the Cubs clubhouse among the core group of players. 

However, that popularity has always come in a different form, as he now enters into a new dynamic as Cubs manager. Ross was first a teammate, then transitioned into a front office role with the organization, which included a vital role in recruiting Craig Kimbrel to Chicago.

Now that Ross has been tabbed as Joe Maddon's heir, how will his relationship with the players change?

The Cubs announced Maddon's departure on the final day of the regular season and in turn, immediately stoked the fires of the Ross-as-manager rumors. Players were asked how they'd feel if their former teammate became their boss, including Jon Lester, who was instrumental in bringing Ross to Chicago before 2015 as his personal catcher.

"I think that's something that you'd just have to learn as you go," Lester said. "I would like to think that [former Red Sox manager Tito Francona] was a good friend of mine, but still my manager when it came down to it. 

"Obviously the dynamic's different — I didn't play with Tito and that sort of thing, but when it came down to it, that's my boss. If he makes a decision, he makes a decision and you have to respect that."

Anthony Rizzo and Ross formed an immediate bond in 2015 and have grown very close over the last five years.

"If it's Rossy, we would obviously sit down," Rizzo said on the final day of the season. "I've talked to him about it before. He's in a really good place right now at home with his family and what he's doing and he's happy. He's my biggest mentor in the game player-wise, really, behind Joe [Maddon] and [former Cubs coach Eric] Hinske. Can it work? Yes."

Back in August, on the five-year anniversary of his MLB debut, Javy Baez crushed two homers in a Cubs win and after the game, shouted out Ross unprompted. Baez credited his former teammate for helping him understand how to keep things simple and just his natural abilities take over while allowing the game to teach him.

So it's no surprise Baez said in September he would be stoked if Ross were named manager.

"We all love David and he knows the team and the organization," Baez said.

In reality, it will be difficult to transition from teammate and mentor to boss. Maddon found a way to be both mentor and friend to this group of Cubs players, but he obviously never played with any of them and he came to Chicago with an already impressive resume as a manager and coach.

Ross doesn't have that same experience to fall back on, but the Cubs are confident he's up to the challenge because when it boils down it, so much of the job is based off communication. 

What Ross has working in his favor that the other managerial candidates like Joe Espada lacked was an immediate rapport with the front office and the core guys in the clubhouse. There's already a built-in level of trust between him and Rizzo, Baez, Lester, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and a host of others — including Kimbrel (the two were teammates in Atlanta). The guys he hasn't played with have at least seen him around Wrigley Field or the spring training complex in his front office role the last three years.

That preexisting relationship will be a huge advantage immediately, as it eliminates the time another candidate would've needed to earn the trust of the players on the roster. Plus, the relationship between Ross and Epstein's front office is already so far advanced for a first-year manager that there's an instant level of understanding and rapport before he's even officially introduced into the role.

During his time in the clubhouse, Ross was known to be direct and honest, holding his teammates accountable and helping the young players realize their potential without crushing their spirits. That's not an easy task for a backup catcher in the twilight of his career to accomplish.

Still, the Cubs' choice to go with Ross seemed at least somewhat contradictory when presented against the backdrop of change Theo Epstein emphasized in his end-of-season press conference. The Cubs president talked at length about the organization's need to stop looking back at 2016 and avoiding the "winner's trap" of sticking with things that worked years ago but might not be the best avenues to success today.

In that same presser, Epstein also insisted Ross' connection to the players left over from the World Series championship team was not the main reason they were considering the former catcher as manager. 

"His connection to the players on this team and especially his connection to the 2016 team are not necessarily things that are going to be important to us," Epstein said. "...It's not necessarily a detriment, either, as long as you trust the person to handle it the right way and trust the players to handle it the right way. It's something you have to consider.

"I'm just saying, what we're looking for is someone who's a great manager for the Cubs moving forward. Certainly not looking backwards and not with undue emphasis on a couple players there might be a personal [connection]. That's not a major factor for us." 

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Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

For the second straight offseason, Theo Epstein teased a winter of change after a disappointing end to the campaign.

And for the second straight offseason, the Cubs showed up for the annual fan convention without many significant changes to the roster. 

The fanbase has grown impatient and frustrated and itching for ways to improve upon a 2019 team that openly admits it did not perform up to its potential. 

"I understand the frustration," Epstein said Friday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "There's a lot of days I'm frustrated, too, where you look out and there's a great fit on a player who you know you can recruit and sign a reasonable deal that he's worth and you can't get that player and that's frustrating.

"But that's the reality. Every club every winter has a certain landscape, certain paramaters they have to operate under. There are going to be times that we're gonna be really aggressive and have a ton of flexibility and every player is a possibility for us. We knew this was gonna be one of those offseasons where we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency and so there are days where we wake up frustrated or go home at the end of a long day frustrated. 

"So I certainly understand that from the fans, but then, I also look at the talent that we have on paper and I talk to our players and I get excited about how good of a team we can be."

The parameters the Cubs are working under includes a payroll that is already projected over the luxury tax for a second straight season, which the club wants to get back under and reset. That means the Cubs have yet to commit one single dollar in guaranteed big-league money this offseason, instead operating on the fringes of the roster to take fliers on pitchers (like Casey Sadler, acquired Friday) or position players (such as Hernan Perez on a minor-league deal) rather than re-signing Nicholas Castellanos or adding a bullpen piece with a long track record of success.

Epstein knows this isn't an ideal way to build a contender, but the Cubs aren't blowing it up, either. They're stuck in something of a baseball purgatory, trying to win in 2020 but also recognizing the need to improve the long-term health of the franchise. That means resetting the luxury tax, adding long-term pieces and potentially trading away short-term assets.

"We were an 84-win team last year, but underlying stats projected out, we were probably a 90-win team," Epstein said. "Not to say we didn't have issues — we did. Not to say we don't have holes now — we do. But there's significant upside with this group of players. We're not gonna whistle past a graveyard. We're gonna carry more risk into this year than we want to. More risk into this year than we traditionally have in the past and it's our job to operate our way around that.

"...We're gonna carry risk in the 'pen this year and we have to find a repeat where we find value in guys and guys improve and step up. We have risk with our rotation health. We don't have the type of depth and redundancy you'd like to have. And then at a couple positions, there's gonna be some risk with guys with real upside, but guys who if things don't break our way, we could have holes out there. And so that's on us and something we have to continue to plan for every single day. But we have real upside at every position, too."

Fans can laugh and scoff as Epstein and David Ross and the players talk about the potential for the 2020 Cubs to win the World Series or exclaim they're hopeful for the season ahead. But what else do you expect them to say? It'd be silly for the president or a manager or the star of a team to say "No, we don't expect to win this year." Especially when a team has as much talent on the roster as the Cubs have...even if there are holes and risks and not an ideal amount of depth.

Epstein is right — the 2019 Cubs *should have* finished with a 90-72 record instead of an 84-78 record. That's projected based off the Cubs' +97 run differential. The 89-73 Brewers, meanwhile, were projected for only an 81-win season based on their +3 run differential. 

However, those numbers are ultimately meaningless. The reality is the Brewers were in the playoffs (even if only for one game) and the Cubs spent the entire last week of the regular season knowing they weren't going to be partaking in any October action.

After another disappointing finish, Epstein and the Cubs brass wanted change. In a perfect world, they'd already have it — a reshaping of the roster to shake things up and get a different mix than the team that has fallen short of expectations the last two seasons.

But this isn't a perfect world and the Cubs front office isn't going to force things. They won't make a change just for change's sake.

"We're not in a position where we have to do anything," Epstein said. "I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there. We're not at all in that position, but looking at the horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long term and a little bit less for the short term. But that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody.

"...What's most likely is status quo — it's hard to get long-term extensions done, it's hard to get trades done. We have what we feel is a pretty good club. We're trying to compete this year and we're not in a position where we have to do anything."

That's certainly a change from the tone set forth by Epstein in his end-of-season presser on the final day of September. But while the roster is essentially intact, the Cubs gave the rest of the organization a major face-lift, from the coaching staff to the scouting department to the strength and conditioning staff. 

Status quo is a good thing for those Cubs fans hoping Epstein's front office doesn't trade away their favorite player.

Kris Bryant is in attendance at Cubs Convention this weekend, but he's also dealing with a bout of the flu, so he did not speak to the media and had to pass on his now-annual segment on the Ryan Dempster show (which was anything but..."boring").

Epstein joked they might be doing a Muhammed Ali rope-a-dope where the Cubs lull everybody into the idea that nothing will happen this winter only for some major news to come down in the three weeks between the Convention and spring training. 

Things can change in a hurry when it comes to trade talks, but it's becoming more and more likely the Cubs will report to their complex in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 11 with a "status quo" roster.

Cubs add another pitcher to the bullpen mix

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USA TODAY

Cubs add another pitcher to the bullpen mix

A few hours before the 2020 Cubs Convention kicked off, Theo Epstein's front office was hard at work adding another pitcher to the bullpen mix.

It's not a big name fans are itching for, but the Cubs acquired right-handed pitcher Casey Sadler from the Dodgers Friday afternoon. The Cubs sent minor-league infielder Clayton Daniel to LA in return. 

Sadler, 29, was designated for assignment by his former team earlier in the week. He has 42 career MLB appearances under his belt, 33 of which came last season between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays (1 start). 

Sadler performed well in 2019, posting a 4-0 record, 2.14 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, but only had 31 strikeouts in 46.1 innings. He had more success missing bats in Triple-A, with 12.3 K/9 in 38.2 innings last year.

This brings the Cubs' 40-man roster to 39 with a little less than a month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The move fits the theme of the offseason where Epstein and Co. are taking fliers on all the buy-low pitchers they can as a volume-game approach to building a pitching staff.

Sadler is out of minor-league options, so he should get a shot at cracking the big-league bullpen out of camp.

At the moment, Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck look like the only locks for the Opening Day bullpen, but a host of others will be in the mix in Arizona, including:

Ryan Tepera (free agent)
Trevor Megill (Rule 5 pick)
Dan Winkler (free agent)
CD Pelham (waiver pickup)
Brandon Morrow (minor-league free agent)
Duane Underwood Jr. (out of minor-league options)
Alec Mills (out of options)
Adbert Alzolay
Dillon Maples
James Norwood

There are a lot of question marks building a bullpen out of that group, especially considering the proven names the Cubs lost from last year's club (Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler).

Daniel, 24, was the Cubs' 31st-round pick in 2018 out of Jacksonville State University. He reached Double-A Tennessee last season and hit .305 with a .799 OPS, 2 homers and 21 RBI in 67 minor-league games a year ago.