Cubs Should Try to Add Clubhouse Leadership this Winter

The Cubs have a lot of work to do this offseason, particularly if they’re working under budget constraints. But when I put together an earlier offseason checklist, I debated whether to include one particular item. That was “clubhouse leadership,” which I ultimately left off in the interest of length. However, it’s a topic that just keeps coming up this offseason both indirectly and directly.

First, team president Theo Epstein spotlighted the lack of daily urgency by the players. He saw this expressed in how the season ended and pointed to inconsistent effort on get-away days (14-13) and once up in a series heading into the final game (9-11).

Second, Joe Maddon mentioned recently he’s committed to spending less time with the media in order to be more hands-on with instruction prior to games. To me, this acknowledged the lack of effective self-policing by players and even some coaches being ignored or challenged by the younger players.

Then this weekend, I listened to NBC Sports Chicago’s podcast interview with Mark DeRosa. The conversation is fascinating from the perspective that DeRosa is slickly politicking as a possible 2020 managerial candidate. No crime there, but I chuckled each time he said he can’t criticize Maddon given his track record but then criticized something in his irresistibly friendly, slangy way.

But in between his faintly damning critiques, DeRosa did point out one non-Maddon deficiency. This was the Cubs’ lack of clubhouse leadership. Enjoy DeRosa’s misuse of the word “muse,” though his gist is perfectly clear.

“I can’t give [David Ross] enough credit,” DeRosa said. “When you have that kind of leader in the clubhouse that holds everyone accountable, that can be that muse to Joe Maddon, when that is gone it affects a lot of things. It affects how guys interact with the coaching staff. It affects the way guys question how Joe runs the lineup and bullpen and everything.”

And Epstein might add, it affects that sense of daily urgency.

This is no knock on Maddon. Motivational leadership is his superpower. But as a “players’ manager,” his success requires members of his clubhouse to police themselves and hold each other accountable. This was the key flaw in the Dusty Baker Cubs. Too often when fortunes turned against them, Baker’s teams failed to dig deep internally, preferring instead to blame announcers and fans.

As recently noted here, a lack of professional accountability also snakebit the Red Sox in Theo Epstein’s final year. I don’t blame Epstein for that, as sometimes you don’t know what you don’t have until too late.

In some ways, the Cubs’ last two years have been a small experiment in leadership development by Epstein and crew. They take great pride in their psychological evaluations of first-round draft picks and young acquisitions, one or more of whom they hoped might emerge as a leader by now. Or they at least hoped an early taste of championship success would drive them like the New York Yankees’ young core in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. But alas, this lightning did not strike twice.

I asked Ross directly about this leadership void in an interview before this year’s playoffs. (See second-to-last question here.) He diplomatically deflected the question, but it’s clear this deficiency now has the attention of Maddon and the front office.

We saw it in the disappointing end to the season when the Cubs controlled their playoff fate. We saw it on get-away days and final games of series they led. We saw it in Willson Contreras’ imprudent postgame comments about his battery-mates. And we saw when someone in the clubhouse probably succumbed to Alex Rodriguez’s celebrity and did not keep questions or complaints about Yu Darvish fully in-house.

The leadership gap arises from the players most respected in the Cubs clubhouse are either lead-by-example types – Jon Lester, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist – or glue guys like Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop.

As the longest tenured Cub, Rizzo would seem the natural successor to Ross. Rizzo is known for standing up for teammates on the field when other teams play dirty. But while he’s very good in these us-versus-them situations, but in the clubhouse, he seems uncomfortable being the red-ass traffic cop. He comes off as more of a fun-loving 28-year-old, and not always appropriately. Just ask Justin Wilson.

Not to overly criticize Rizzo here. He’s just not that guy, at least yet. But as Maddon often says, you can’t change a player’s DNA. So this leaves bringing veteran leadership in from the outside, as the Cubs did with Ross in 2015.

The good news is you only need one or two such guys, like Gary Matthews and Larry Bowa in 1984. A key move for the 2018 Brewers in replacing the Cubs atop the NL Central was signing Lorenzo Cain. The Red Sox credit J.D. Martinez with bringing leadership and daily focus to a distracted clubhouse that previously saw David Price confronting and mocking team broadcaster Dennis Eckersley.

This year the only free agent I see in the veteran leader category is Andrew McCutchen, and you know he is hungry to finish his career with a title. The other option is acquire such a player via trade. But in both cases, the usual questions arise about where to fit such a player on the field and the payroll.

Fortunately, Epstein and Maddon seem well aware of the problem. That should make this more of a where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way situation. Thus, with just the right amount of front office urgency and leadership (nudge-nudge) this is a void sure to be filled this off season.

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Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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10 Comments

  1. You are 100% correct. I did some sponsorship work with Mark DeRosa when he was with the Cubs. He was a clubhouse leader, and, by his own admission, a buffer between the players and manager Lou Piniella. One of the biggest mistakes Jim Hendry made was getting rid of DeRosa and Kerry Wood,the two clubhouse leaders. And, it showed up in the team’s record the following season. It’s one of those intangibles that few front office people understand.

    1. If memory serves, the DeRosa deal netted Archer, who could have been something special in the rotation with Arrieta, Hendricks and Lester later on. I believe if Archer had been a part of the rotation and could still be counted on, either signing Darvish or dealing Eloy/Cease for Quintana would not have happened. If the Cubs truly wanted to retain a leader, something tells me Rossy would have stayed one more year for 10 million…just sayin.

  2. Very perceptive analysis, Jeff!

    I’d suggest that the only reason Epstein took on Ross was that he had to, in order to sign Lester.
    Ross, and perhaps Matt Szczur, seemed to be a glue in 2016 even though, statisticallyy, they were far from being the best players.
    I noted that in the early 2017 season, Maddon on a couple of opportunities expressed his disillusionment of Travis Wood and Matt Szczur not being on the 2017 club (SZCZUR was let go as a needed DFA move in May, if I recall correctly).

    Epstein seems to have a hard time allocating roster slots to such guys due to his infatuation of stock piling piching.
    Thus, if he is to sign a guy, he also has to be a ballplayer that can contrbiute statistically.

    I believe that Maddon, as a manager, understands that; not sure if Theo does, however.
    If the Cubs have such a clubhouse glue in 2019, it will be by accident, not design.

    Back in August, I thought that perhaps Chris Coughlan would bee that guy being added to the 40-man roster in Sept.
    And that he would serve as a spark.
    No such luck, unfortunately.

    What we’re looking with this concept is good old-fashioned baseball; and simply put, Epstein has his modern mantra.

    He will sink or swim with his style in 2019; and my hunch is the former unless something dramatically changes.
    And if he sinks, either Epstein will move on to his next rebuild opportunity (and he will likely succeed in that) or the Rickets family will figure out a way to send him packing.

    but, back to your main point, that ingredient was not in the 2017 or 2018 club; and it may be a major reason that the season ended a bit earlier then it did both seasons.
    That glue would have been vital in the 2nd half of ’18’ where the team was dragging and needed a sparkplug.

    It’s becoming more and more obvious as to why Epstein wore out his welcome in Boston; and Red Sox management was happy when Tom Rickets and the Cubs came acalling.
    And the same could happen at the end of 2019; and Tom Rickets can always plant seeds with his fellow owners

    that his team president is available for the asking
    even though he has a contractual agreement through 2021.

    1. As I’ve said many times before, Theo Epstein very much understands the human aspect of the game and he is very well aware of how leadership is an important characteristic. But those leaders also have to be able to contribute statistically, or at least not be production drains. Chemistry is a tricky topic, and it’s not as easy as plugging and playing this or that savvy veteran. When it comes together in the right way, it’s magic.

      To assume Epstein doesn’t understand that would be incorrect, but you’re we’ll to continue thinking otherwise.

      1. Yup – you can’t force chemistry, or player leadership for that matter. Epstein isn’t deaf for blind to the need, I’m sure it’s always part of his player assessment. Ross was great in the leadership category of course, although he was also afforded a unique position to make an impact while playing 1 out of every 5 games and barely hitting his weight.

        There’s enough “savvy veteran” on the roster right now, but the tone of expectation needs to be set from the top. This is part of why Epstein has been so vocal on lack of urgency and performance over potential. He’s hitting the reset button for leadership.

    2. Epstein has always struggled with signing pitchers, this teams problems are not inherently Theos issue,it’s Maddon! Joe is a terrible I. Game manager, shoot he almost lost WS with his stupid moves, it’s like he out thinks himself. A fricken HS coach could win with 2016 team. Do you think lack of sense of urgency comes from Front office? Joes leadership or lack there of is the issue. Is Theo supposed to come clubhouse on Getaway days fire boys up? Come on man! Maddon laid back approach is problem, now it’s the approach of all these young guys who came up under joe, does Bryant play with passion? Javy gets fired up, Rizzo does, not many others, this team needs make over, Wilson and schwarbs would be good start, signing Hamels albeit not good move as probably more about leadership than anything else, picking up Quintana option makes zero sense Knesset you play brewers 162 times. Theos job is to acquire talent, and jettison talent or lack there of when needed m that seems to be his shot falling getting enamored with young guys and not forecasting caeeer years over sustained success. IMO

  3. I wish the Cubs would have brought back Rene Rivera last year. And yet. A solid vet backstop, and let him catch a game of four.

  4. After reading your column, It does make me question at least to some extent.
    As to whether the player in the clubhouse who let things slip to Alex Rodriguez about Yu Darvish did so on purpose. Maybe the player became frustrated, with Wilson Contraras, making ill advised comments to the media about Darvish and other pitchers. Excellent Column.

  5. That makes 2 of us on Rivera.
    To Epstein, back-up catchers need to be hitters first, and defense and game calling is secondary.
    That’s unfortunate; but short benches make back-ups a luxury.
    A generation or 2 back, a La Stella, Gore, Szczur would be highly sought additions to a bench.
    Now, no one seems to have room for them except in Sep’s expanded roster environment.
    And so would be a Rivera or any good defensive catcher regardless of bat.

  6. Russell Martin for chatwood, back up catcher and potential leader or Ciravelli from bucs, be nice to maybe ship Wilson and say Happ or Almora or schwarbs tomarlins for JT, bettered better at plate, Wilson is a gifted athlete, but maybe too dumb or immature, he’s not a good at framing pitches makes several mental gaffes a game, Hamels won’t let him catch him, his base running mistakes look like little leaguer, would break my heart to see him and schwarbs go. Maybe Ross comes back as pitching coach?

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