CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs fans had their first “What?!?” moment of the offseason, when the club announced former Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler would interview this week for its managerial opening.
No one believes Kapler will get the job, but these interviews can have many layers to them, as the Cubs’ front office will be able to garner plenty of useful information by talking to people from other teams, or even to someone from the broadcast booth. The candidates get an obvious boost from the process as well, especially when it’s publicly known they’ve come in to talk about the prestigious position.
Simply put — and with absolutely no disrespect to anyone involved — the Cubs aren’t replacing Joe Maddon with Kapler or first-base coach Will Venable. And probably not with bench coach Mark Loretta — or even Joe Girardi or Astros bench coach Joe Espada, who by all accounts has been very impressive in the interview process. Industry sources continue to indicate that this is David Ross’ job to lose.
Here’s a look at those still in the mix:
The Cubs have missed Ross’ presence in the locker room — granted, that was as a player in 2015 and 2016 — but there’s no reason he can’t lead in the same way from the manager’s office. How much do the Cubs miss him? They said how much at the winter meetings last December, when he was a special assistant with the team.
“His mere presence is helpful,” general manager Jed Hoyer said then. “Those guys trust him. The timing of David Ross being on this team was perfect in that those guys were 21, 22, so he had such an influence on those guys. I think they still look up to him. When he’s around they will gravitate toward him and talk to him in a way — we couldn’t hire someone from the outside that could have that kind of influence.”
Sounds like a ringing endorsement from, well, the guy who is making the hire. To be sure, Ross, 42, is not a perfect candidate, for no other reason than he’s had no in-uniform coaching experience. But he has been in the front office for two years, and of course, was essentially a player-coach in his two seasons with the team.
“I’ve always looked at Rossy as a coach when he played here,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said. “Yeah, it was goofy, it was fun, it was energetic, but when he needed to tell you something, he let you hear it. From the very get-go, I felt like this guy will be a manager some day for sure.”
All of that puts Ross on the list of candidates, but why has he been considered the front-runner for so long? It comes down to one attribute Ross is guaranteed to have over every other candidate: accountability. The team has used that word several times this offseason, and if Maddon’s dismissal can be boiled down to one thing, it would be that.
“At this moment in time, with this group, I think accountability is important,” team president Theo Epstein said at the end of the season. “We were pretty mistake-prone this year. The next manager should be part of this. Helping to create a culture of accountability.”
Using running into outs on the bases as a barometer, the Cubs were “mistake-prone” in 2018 as well, leading the league in that category each of the past two years. But the most telling thing said this month actually came from ownership. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is no Jerry Jones. He doesn’t meddle, nor is he outwardly aggressive with his rhetoric, no matter how the team is doing. But he played the company line very well in his postseason statement to fans.
“We are focused on strengthening our roster, defining our team identity and fostering a culture of accountability to help us return to championship-caliber form,” Ricketts said.
The first couple of things there are cliché enough that they don’t merit much attention, but the fact that Ricketts mentioned accountability means it’s been discussed with him behind closed doors. Maybe once or maybe 100 times. We don’t know. But it’s obvious that this accountability issue is as important as anything in terms who the next manager of the Cubs is going to be. There aren’t really any of those in-your-face, “tell it like it is” guys in the clubhouse, so the Cubs aim to have that presence in the manager’s office.
Maddon used to tell stories of players who made a mental error on defense avoiding Ross as they came off the field. But they listened to him and still respected him.
As for the question of whether Ross can manage his friends, those close to him believe those relationships will be an asset.
“They will play for him,” one source said. “He has their respect already, so if he needs to get in someone’s face, they know exactly where it’s coming from.”
Of course, Ross isn’t the only candidate with a skill set that might work for the Cubs. He’s simply the one they know best, who has exactly what they need. But Girardi has experience, having managed in New York for a decade and won a World Series with the Yankees. For better or worse, it also makes Girardi the only one of the Cubs’ candidates with a track record as a manager worth analyzing — in this case, by some of his former players.
“He’d be my choice,” said someone who played for Girardi in New York. “His track record speaks for itself.”
Could Girardi be a better fit for the New York Mets, where he would work with a general manager with just one year under his belt? He might be a guy who inherently wants control, at least according to another player who played for him.
“Everything that you’ve heard about the ending in New York [with the Yankees] is true,” this player said. “Very poor communicator. By the end of the season, he will have driven everyone in the organization, including players, nuts, because of intensity and lack of court awareness, so to speak. He wants total control.”
Those might be harsh words, but the same player identified some Girardi positives as well.
“Joe is extremely prepared,” he said. “You’re not going to catch Joe in a situation that he hasn’t been in before. The experience of managing in New York is a huge plus. There probably won’t be another more stressful job.”
And one current Cub, who also played for Girardi in 2012, endorsed him.
“When we found out that Joe [Maddon] wasn’t going to be back, one of the first names that popped into my mind was Joe Girardi,” reliever David Phelps said. “He’s had a lot of success. One of the things, for me, that made my time in New York so enjoyable and allowed me to pitch and not worry about other things is Joe had my back. Knowing you manager has your back, and will go to war for you, makes competing that much easier.”
Maddon was extremely prepared and had players’ backs as well, but that didn’t stop the Cubs from letting him go. Neither of the first two players mentioned the accountability factor, at least with the right nuance, as a Girardi strength. Again, that’s the Cubs’ greatest need.
There’s little doubt the Houston Astros‘ bench coach is an up-and-comer. Various industry sources agree he’ll be a manager someday, as he’s “analytically driven” and comes from an excellent organization, one which also helped groom Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora. In fact, Espada is so impressive, say those in the game, that if the Cubs were starting a team from scratch, he might be their choice for manager. And he might very well finish second in the running this time around.
But as Epstein repeated numerous times in his postseason news conference, his team, at this particular time, has particular needs. First and foremost, the Cubs want someone who can manage their players, not necessarily be an in-game expert. Espada is likely to be better at the latter than the former, say those who know his strengths. That might not be right for the Cubs right now.
Loretta also has a good baseball mind, but he and Venable are just starting out their careers back in uniform. They probably don’t possess the “it” quality the Cubs are looking for at this time. And Kapler just isn’t a fit right now, either.
So, when you add it all up, all signs point to Ross being named the next Cubs manager, though Espada could be giving him a run for his money. Ironically, though the team wants to move on from 2016, it seems the front office believes bringing back a player from that championship team is the right choice.
“David Ross has a lot of great things going for him,” Epstein said. “His connection to the players on this team, and especially his connection to the 2016 team, are not necessarily assets that distinguish him or are important to us. … Ross is an attractive candidate and he’s going to be evaluated on the merits.”