CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs have fired manager Dale Sveum after finishing last in the NL Central for the first time in seven years.
The Cubs closed the season dropping 41 of their final 59 games, including six of their final seven. They finished 66-96, and Sveum went 127-197 in his two seasons at the helm. He had one year left on a three-year deal signed before the 2012 season.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very disappointed,” Sveum said to reporters outside Wrigley Field. “You’re optimistic, but you know what can happen.” The move came after a morning meeting with team president Theo Epstein.
“We had hoped that Dale would continue to grow with the organization and see it through here,” Epstein said in a news conference.
Sveum’s job security was undoubtedly hurt by the slow development of shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who appeared to regress this year.
“Things like this have to settle in. I don’t like sitting out,” Sveum said of what he’ll do next. “I’m a baseball guy and love being around it and part of it.”
His dismissal likely will ramp up speculation surrounding the status of New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a Peoria, Ill., native who played at nearby Northwestern.
Girardi’s contract with the Yankees expires at the end of October. He’ll talk with the Yankees before exploring other opportunities.
Speaking before Sunday’s season finale in Houston, Girardi said, “It’s not my personality to drag things out.”
Epstein said in the news conference that the Cubs “need certain things we are more likely to find outside the organization at this point.”
“We are clearly going to prioritize track record and managerial experience or, in lieu of extensive managerial experience, leadership,” Epstein said. “There has to be someone that is a proven leader.”
Epstein was effusive in his lauding of Sveum’s effort in a morning news release to announce the move.
“In his own authentic and understated way, Dale always put the team first and never complained about the hand he was dealt,” Epstein said in the statement. “He and his staff helped us excel in game planning and defensive positioning, contributed to the emergence of several players, and helped put us in position to make some important trades.
“I have no doubt that — much like Terry Francona, whom we hired in Boston after his stint with a losing Phillies club — Dale will go on to great success with his next team.”
Cubs reliever James Russell also praised Sveum.
“You feel like you’ve sort of let him down,” Russell said Monday on the “Carmen and Jurko” radio show on ESPN Chicago 1000. “Managers are the ones that get blamed for losing ballgames. It’s unfortunate, but essentially we’re the guys out there on the field, that really didn’t play that well … and it kind of falls down on the manager, which kind of sucks. “Even last year, losing 100 games, which, it’d drive a lot of people crazy, he showed up to the field and was the same person day in and day out. He was great, he handled it awesome, it showed a lot to the players in the locker room and to the staff, I’d think, as well.
“Nobody ever had a problem with him. He’s one of the most even-keeled guys I’ve ever met. He was fun to have around, and he was awesome to play for.”
The Cubs had just hired Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer when Sveum was tabbed to replace Mike Quade after the 2011 season.
Sveum had little experience as a manager other than an interim stint for the Milwaukee Brewers late in 2008 after Ned Yost was fired. But he did have a history with Epstein and Hoyer, having served as the Boston Red Sox’s third-base coach in 2004 and 2005 while Epstein and Hoyer worked in the team’s front office.
Sveum knew what he was getting into, that the Cubs were in the early stages of a top-to-bottom overhaul they hoped would transform the team into a perennial contender. That hasn’t happened. And if there is a payoff, Sveum won’t be around to see it.
With talented prospects such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant in the system, things look promising at the minor league level. At the majors, it’s a different story.
With the Cubs shedding long-term prospects and dealing anyone with trade value in an effort to build the farm system, losses have been piling up at a staggering rate even for a franchise that last won a championship in 1908. The Cubs have dropped at least 91 games in three straight seasons for the first time, and they appear to be at least a year or two from making a significant jump in the win column.
They’ve taken mostly a frugal approach in free agency, going for players with low financial risks rather than making big splashes. The Cubs did make a big-ticket player purchase last offseason, signing starter Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract, but he’s been a flop. They also traded away veteran pitchers Matt Garza and Scott Feldman and longtime left fielder Alfonso Soriano.
Through it all, the front office insisted Sveum would be judged on development rather than record, and that probably was his downfall, as Castro and Rizzo, who have long-term contracts, took steps back this season.
Castro continues to be an enigma, prone to lapses in the field, and he couldn’t make up for it at the plate. The two-time All-Star’s batting average has been in a steady decline.
Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija didn’t quite deliver the way the Cubs hoped, either. At times, he can look like an All-Star, but he gave up five or more runs eight times.
Sveum did not appear to be in any real jeopardy until late in the season, when things got tense.
Jackson had words with Sveum in the dugout over being pulled after four innings in a game at Milwaukee. The next day, Samardzija got into it with third-base coach David Bell over defensive positioning. That, too, happened in the dugout. Later that week, Kevin Gregg nearly was released following a rant to reporters after he thought he lost the closer’s job.
After all that, Epstein let Sveum dangle when he was asked about his status, saying the manager would be evaluated at the end of the season.
Epstein, in the extensive news release, insisted the overhaul is on target.
“Soon, our organization will transition from a phase in which we have been primarily acquiring young talent to a phase in which we will promote many of our best prospects and actually field a very young, very talented club at the major league level,” he said. “The losing has been hard on all of us, but we now have one of the top farm systems in baseball, some of the very best prospects in the game, and a clear path forward.
“In order for us to win with this group — and win consistently — we must have the best possible environment for young players to learn, develop and thrive at the major league level.”