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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