What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

What the Cubs are looking for in their next manager

In the 28 or so hours after the Cubs officially announced they were parting ways with Joe Maddon as a manager, Theo Epstein made it a point in several instances to mention the Cubs aren't looking for an anti-Joe or anything along those lines.

There's no doubt this result isn't fair to Maddon, whom Epstein called the "perfect guy for this team at the perfect time." 

But the Cubs want change and that started with not offering an extension to the man that helped bring the organization a championship just three years ago. 

So what do the Cubs want in their next manager? What qualities and traits would the ideal candidate possess?

Epstein attempted to answer that question in his end-of-season presser Monday, but he didn't want to get too specific (and he didn't mention anything about the next manager needing "Dancing with the Stars" experience). 

Again, Epstein emphasized the qualities he and the Cubs front office are looking for are not a knock on Maddon, but rather focusing on what can help this team now and in the future.

"We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major-league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts," Epstein said. "I think we had a lot of good individual performances; we had a lot of talent and ability. I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs. 

"The next manager has to create an environment that turns that into wins. And that’s not solely on the manager at all. That’s roster construction and everything else. That’s what we’re looking for in a manager, is to try to help our group. Any team is looking for that in a manager. Come together and make sure the whole is as good or exceeds the sum of the parts. 

"I think the next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player. That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players that we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."

Epstein has mentioned several times that — for whatever reason — the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts with this Cubs team in 2019. 

He's right. As a whole, the Cubs won only 84 games and missed the playoffs by 5 games. But break it down individually and there are a lot of good things:

—Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras had resurgent seasons and both made the All-Star team.
—Yu Darvish was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half of the season.
—Kyle Schwarber and Victor Caratini had true breakout campaigns. 
—Anthony Rizzo maintained his steady production.
—Javy Baez was an All-Star starter and one of the best players in baseball before he got hurt.
—Nicholas Castellanos notched an OPS over 1.000 in his two months in a Cubs uniform.
—Jason Heyward had his best offensive season in Chicago.
—Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck emerged as reliable relief options.
—Brandon Kintzler and Tyler Chatwood had impactful bounceback seasons.
—Steve Cishek struggled in some big moments but still wound up posting an ERA under 3.00.
—Kyle Hendricks couldn't quite find consistency yet finished 13th in the NL in ERA and WHIP.

That's 16 players who can head into the winter with a pretty high level of pride in their own individual seasons. 

So, again, how did this team fall short?

The Cubs don't quite know and while they insist they're not pinning that on Maddon, they want the next manager to make sure history doesn't repeat itself in 2020 and beyond.

"Cultivating a winning culture behind the scenes," Epstein said. "We’ve obviously had a winning culture [and] Joe did an unbelievable job creating that. Again, at this moment in time, I think it’s important for us to pick certain areas of emphasis that will reach this group and help us meet our current challenges, not the challenges that we’ve had over the last five years. Picking priorities and values to emphasize work, I think is gonna be really important. 

"For this group at this time, we need to find a way to create a culture and environment that compels every player to push himself, to be the absolute best version of himself, to be the absolute best player that he can be. It's a culture where that’s expected. If a player joins our culture, he's lifted up by the culture in terms of the amount of work, the habits, leaving no stone unturned to be the best version of himself that he can be. Joe, again, was wonderful at this. 

"But it’s gonna be important for the next manager of this particular group at this time to find a way to foster a team identity. I think this group, our routines tended to me more individualized. There wasn’t a lot of work as a team, and I think it’s gonna be important for this group that we find time to work as a team, that we find time to assemble as a team, that we find ways to deliver messages to the team so that there can be a greater sense of team identity and purpose for this group. I think that's something that we need."

The Cubs could certainly use a team identity. What was it in 2019? If anything, it was inconsistency, as Baez admitted they couldn't get hot for even two consecutive weeks.

Again, that's not a knock on Maddon. If anything, it's a knock on the "winner's trap" this organization has fallen into over the last couple seasons.

That also moves into accountability, which was another point of emphasis Epstein has in searching for the next manager of a Cubs team coming off a season in which they ranked at or near the top in both outs on the basepaths and fielding errors.

"We were pretty mistake prone this year," he said. "Again, [this is an] organization-wide challenge, not on the manager, but the next manager should be a part of this — helping to create a culture of accountability. There’s a sense that sloppy mistakes, mental mistakes, aren’t tolerated. There's an expected level of focus that we all work together to establish that mitigates the amount of mistakes like that. A sense of grind, grinding from the first pitch of the season through the end. 

"With the last couple Septembers, our team sometimes, we just expected to get it done in September and the second half 'cause we always have. I think the last two Septembers have proven that you can't take that approach. You have to find a way to grind from the beginning. It's a challenge, and certainly some years we were better at it than others. It's not something that falls solely on the manager, but I think that's a unique challenge for the next manager of this group going forward."

Of course, that accountability needs to happen from inside the clubhouse, too. Maddon always said players should police themselves to a certain extent, and he's right. 

David Ross excelled at that in his two years with the club. Pedro Strop has done a great job of that with Baez, in particular. Epstein said veteran Daniel Descalso filled that role well in 2019 despite his difficult season on the field.

That's not to say Ross would find similar success in that area if he were named the next manager, however. It will ultimately be up to the players.

As for the players, what do they want to see from the new guy running the ship?

"I think at the end of the day, you want a genuine person that will shoot you straight and try to win every game," Jon Lester said simply. 

Communication was also a central focus for Rizzo when asked what he wants to see in the next skipper.

"For me, it's just different because I'm usually playing first base and hitting third every day," he said. "I can't relate more to the guys who split playing time. I know how hard that is for them. So being able to communicate with your bullpen and guys that aren't playing every single day, just keeping them up because it's not easy to have good games and not play or bad games and sit for a while. That line of communication is very important just to keep everyone oiled up and in sync."

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

Cubs looking to unearth core relievers with low-cost, high-upside acquisitions

The Cubs bullpen is going to look a whole lot different this season.

Gone are the reliable Steve Cishek (signed with White Sox) and Brandon Kintzler (reportedly signed with Marlins). Pedro Strop remains a free agent, though a recent report said the race to sign him is down to the Marlins and Rangers.

Assuming Strop doesn’t return, the Cubs will have lost three of their four most frequently used relievers from 2019. Replacing the trio will be no small task, considering a bulk of their appearances came in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Cishek and Kintzler didn’t sign back-breaking deals (one-year, $6 million; reported one-year, $3.25 million), but the luxury tax has been a factor in the Cubs offseason. They aren’t in a position to commit big money to top-of-the-market arms and have instead been stockpiling low-cost relievers with upside.

“It’s become such an unbelievably important and difficult part of our job,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention of assembling a bullpen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go into a season and our goal would be ‘Hey, can we get a thousand innings out of our starting pitching staff?’ You think about your five starters, if you could get some combination of close to a thousand innings, that was always a goal, out of roughly 1,400 innings.

“And now, that’s gone away. You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers. It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"You've got to take a lot of chances. There's no more volatile aspect of the game than the bullpen, and that's league wide. You’ve got to constantly take chances on guys and realize that sometimes, what appears to be a guy that’s struggling may just be simply a bad seven innings or bad 10 innings.”

Volatility was a main theme of the Cubs bullpen in 2019. Strop is one of the best relievers in team history, but early season hamstring injuries impacted his performance — a 4.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were the worst figures of his Cubs career. Strop finished the season strong (2.00 ERA in September), though he was largely a low-leverage option by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the additions of Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick last offseason didn’t make waves among the fanbase. The former signed a major league deal after a solid 2018 season with Triple-A Iowa, and the Cubs acquired the latter in a low-key November trade. Both emerged as key contributors in 2019.

“Rowan Wick was a good example,” Hoyer said. “When we traded for him and we got him into the pitch lab and we improved his curveball, I think that had an enormous impact on his year last year. Brad Wieck, we traded for and immediately made some adjustments. Our pro scouting staff does a good job with that.”

Ryan and Wick are two of only three locks for the Opening Day bullpen, along with closer Craig Kimbrel. Wieck, acquired at the trade deadline for Carl Edwards Jr., is potentially another. That leaves five, maybe four spots up for grabs in what will be an open competition in spring training. Incumbent options include:

-Adbert Alzolay
-Tyler Chatwood
-Alec Mills
-Colin Rea
-Dillon Maples
-Duane Underwood Jr.
-James Norwood
-Brandon Morrow (reportedly re-signed on a minor-league deal)

Morrow and Chatwood are the most tenured options of the group, though the former has battled injuries throughout his career and hasn’t pitched since July 2018. If he’s healthy (and pitches well in spring training) Morrow will likely claim a bullpen job.

Chatwood is a candidate for the final rotation spot, along with Alzolay, Mills and (potentially) Rea. Mills and Underwood are out of minor-league options. New reliever candidates include:

-Dan Winkler — signed to one-year, split deal
-CD Pelham — claimed off waivers from Rangers
-Trevor Megill — Rule 5 pick (Padres)
-Ryan Tepera — signed to one-year, split deal
-Casey Sadler — acquired from Dodgers
-Travis Lakins — acquired from Red Sox
-Jeremy Jeffress — reportedly signed to a one-year, big-league deal

Winkler, 29, spent the previous five seasons bouncing between the major and minor leagues with the Braves. Last season, he posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and a 2.93 ERA in the minors (30 appearances). He made 69 big-league appearances in 2018, sporting a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings while tallying 69 strikeouts.

Winkler isn’t a flamethrower — his four-seam fastball averaged 92.1 mph last season — but it ranked in MLB’s 93rd percentile, meaning he generates swings and misses. Sadler ranked in the 90th percentile and posted a 2.14 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 33 games. The 29-year-old struck out 31 batters in 46 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Rays, though he sported a whopping 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A (38 2/3 innings).

Pelham, 24, was recently outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Iowa. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 2019 and struggled with command in Triple-A (18.3 walk rate) but throws hard. Megill, 26, throws a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and sported a 12.7 K/9 in Triple-A last season.

Worth noting: Pelham (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Megill (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) are big dudes.

Tepera holds a career 3.64 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and made 73 and 68 appearances in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The 32-year-old missed a chunk of 2019 with a right elbow impingement, finishing with a 4.98 ERA in 23 games.

Lakins, 25, is a former sixth-round pick who posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 last season and holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons. His curveball ranked 66th in spin rate league-wide among pitchers who threw at least 50 last season.

Jeffress reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday worth close to $1 million. He’s coming off a rough 2019 with the Brewers in which he sported a 5.02 ERA, dealing with a shoulder injury out of the gate. The 32-year-old also hurt his hip in August and was released on Sept. 1.

Jeffress is a season removed from posting a 1.29 ERA and 15 saves in 73 appearances. He’s another example of the budget-driven moves the Cubs have made this winter, and while he struggled in 2019, his career 3.16 ERA makes him a prime bounce back candidate.

There’s a lot of positives in the group, and the Cubs will use their pitch lab to make any necessary adjustments. They also realize not every guy will be as successful as Ryan or Wick, and some options won’t pan out. Their goal is to unearth as many contributors as they can.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle,” Hoyer said. “Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy." 

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Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

Cubs reportedly agree to deal with reliever Jeremy Jeffress

The Cubs bullpen is undergoing an overhaul with Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler already heading to other teams and perhaps more changes coming.

One incoming change is apparently Jeremy Jeffress. According to reports, the Cubs have agreed to a one-year deal with the 32-year-old reliever.

Jeffress was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round back in 2006 and has had three stints with the team since. He made his MLB debut with the Brewers in 2010, but left the team the following offseason as part of the Zack Greinke trade with the Kansas City Royals.

Years later, he re-signed with the Brewers in 2014. The Brewers then dealt him to the Texas Rangers in the middle of the 2016 season, only to re-acquire him from Texas the following trade deadline.

In his most recent stint with the Brewers, Jeffress was streaky. He was an all-star in 2018 (1.29 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 27 walks in 76 2/3 innings), but had an ERA north of five in 2019. That 2018 season was the best of his career in many ways so the Cubs will be hoping to recreate some of that magic as opposed to his lackluster 2019.

Either way, the right-hander gives the Cubs a much-needed veteran presence in the bullpen after the losses of Cishek, Kintzler and possibly Pedro Strop, who is still a free agent.

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