As Jed Hoyer and David Ross face mounting questions about the Cubs’ downward spiral, Theo Epstein posed for pictures while reclining in Wrigley Field’s outfield basket. The symbolism — and the smile on Epstein’s face — became hard to miss on Cubs Twitter the day the team snapped a recent 10-game losing streak. Epstein drew inspiration from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” according to Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan, enjoying a farewell bash before his family moves out of Chicago and closer to their roots on the East Coast.
Epstein’s resignation after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — with nearly a full year left on his contract — changed the dynamics within the organization. As the new president of baseball operations, Hoyer inherited an underperforming farm system, a shrinking budget for baseball operations and a bundle of expiring contracts. All those issues enveloped Ross, the manager hired to squeeze more out of the talent remaining from the 2016 World Series. After guiding the team to a division title in 2020, Ross oversaw the double-digit losing streaks before and after last year’s trade deadline.
With the 2022 Cubs sinking toward last place, you have questions about what management is thinking. Part 1 of this mailbag looked at The Cardinals Way, the pitching development pipeline and spending in baseball operations. Part 3 will run later this week and focus on the upcoming draft and targets in free agency. Questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It appears that David Ross’ performance is a bit more challenging to evaluate compared to his peers. How should we be measuring if Ross is performing at, below or above expectations? — Dan L.
Looking forward, is Ross the man for the job? — Tom S.
Why does Ross get a pass on this dumpster fire of a team? — Brandon M.
Is it possible we see a Cubs team in 2023 without Hoyer or Ross? — Shawn E.
Let’s review the circumstances that typically lead to a manager being on the hot seat and eventually losing his job:
• A team with a top payroll fails to perform up to World Series expectations.
• Major changes in the executive ranks or at the ownership level, such as a general manager getting fired or the team being sold to a new investment group.
• An expiring contract that becomes a referendum on the manager’s leadership style and how that philosophy fits into the franchise’s vision for the future. This is the lame-duck situation that Epstein and Hoyer created when they declined to discuss an extension with Joe Maddon heading into the 2019 season.
• Misconduct that calls into question the manager’s judgment — see the fallout from Houston’s sign-stealing scandal — or personality conflicts that interfere with the ability to lead multiple groups and serve as the team’s daily spokesman.
Now let’s apply those broad guidelines to Ross’ situation:
• Even if they wouldn’t label this as a full rebuild, Cubs officials understood this would be a transition year and authorized a long-range rebuilding program. The Cubs went into this season with a $143.4 million Opening Day payroll that ranked 14th out of the 30 major-league clubs, according to Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
• When Hoyer replaced Epstein, he signed a new five-year contract that runs through the 2025 season. After Major League Baseball’s lockout ended, the Cubs announced an extension for Ross through the 2024 season and includes a club option for 2025.
• Ross is largely aligned with the rest of Hoyer’s baseball operations group, open to receiving new information, aware of the bigger picture and willing to collaborate. Ross’ two World Series rings and 15 seasons as a major-league catcher give him credibility in the clubhouse and the experience to question some of the organization’s initiatives, in the hopes of trying to find the right balance between scouting and analytics.
• Ross surely has his moments of frustrations, things that he knows but can’t say when the TV cameras are rolling. Still, those moments of tension are mostly kept out of view. Ross also generated a substantial amount of goodwill — both inside and outside the organization — during his time as a role player on those enormously popular Cubs teams in 2015 and 2016.
“We play every single day, so when you are struggling, the treadmill does not stop,” Hoyer said. “You keep going. The nature of that grind is you have to be positive. You have to come in every day and find those things to be positive about because this is a game of failure. And it’s even more of a game of failure when you’re in a losing streak, right?
“When you’re dealing with those things, you have to find (the positives). Coming in with a negative mindset every single day, it’s too long a season and it’s too much of a game of failure to do that. Every day, you’re trying to (figure out): How do we get these guys better? What pieces can help us going forward? That’s really the mentality you have to take. I think Rossy does a fantastic job of that. I think our coaches do a great job with that.”
Do the Cubs view Christopher Morel as a significant long-term piece or do they think his production will drop significantly once the league adjusts? — David H.
Manny Machado thought he lined his 1,500th career hit into the left-center field gap — until Morel made a spectacular diving catch that forced the San Diego superstar to wait another night before reaching that milestone last week at Wrigley Field.
“He’s a hell of a stud out there in center field,” Machado said, per Dennis Lin of The Athletic.
Ross also believes Morel has the defensive skills to competently play shortstop at the major-league level as well as the offensive approach to hit leadoff. Players with that much versatility and athleticism are hard to find. The overall package — which comes with a seemingly endless supply of positive energy — will give Morel more ways to contribute when he inevitably slumps and more runway to make adjustments to major-league pitchers.
The regression or stagnation of the young hitters from the 2016 World Series team is an obvious cautionary tale. But the organization’s international scouting group identified Morel as a top target before the teenager signed with the Cubs in 2015. The organization’s hitting department worked with Morel to make certain tweaks to his right-handed swing. Ross’ coaching staff trusts him at premium defensive positions and at the top of the lineup. A player with that history, profile and attitude should be in Chicago for a long time.
“He’s been a real bright spot,” Hoyer said. “That’s something I look forward to watching. He’s going to face some downturns here at some point. That’s just the nature of our game. You’re not going to maintain that kind of pace. How he deals with those things will be really important to see.”
Do you get the sense that the business side is concerned or cares about the quality of the programming being shown on Marquee Sports Network before and after the actual game telecast? — Kimberly F.
You have to remember that regional sports networks don’t exist to win Emmy Awards. These ventures are supposed to make lots of money for the teams and corporate partners. The balance sheet is always the scoreboard. It’s also probably useful to think of Marquee as more of a placeholder — while MLB examines blackout rules and direct-to-consumer options — than the groundbreaking idea that club executives once sold at Cubs Convention. Breaking away from WGN, NBC Sports Chicago and ABC-7 meant the Cubs could better control their destiny as the media landscape continued to change.
Until a new business model fully emerges, the games will fuel a regional sports network far more than the ancillary programming. The Cubs cared enough about their broadcasting portfolio to instruct Marquee to retain Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies as the primary pairing in the TV booth when the cable channel launched in February 2020. That was bad timing with the sports world about to shut down and the team’s competitive window closing.
You can’t please everyone all the time on Twitter, but Kasper’s replacement, Jon “Boog” Sciambi, is widely regarded as one of the best broadcasters in baseball and is consistently assigned to some of the sport’s biggest games through his work at ESPN. Marquee employs many talented, accomplished professionals — and also answers to the team it covers — a structure that inevitably creates awkward moments.
To get a sense of how to cover an iconic team in a big market — and navigate some of those politics — read the obituaries of John “Moon” Mullin written by Dan Wiederer for the Chicago Tribune, Melissa Isaacson for the Daily Herald and K.C. Johnson for NBC Sports Chicago. Mullin, 74, died on Father’s Day after a long battle with cancer and a distinguished run as a Bears beat writer for those media outlets.
Mullin’s varied background — he worked odd jobs and in corporate communications before making the leap to journalism — gave him empathy and perspective while covering the drama at Halas Hall. Always generous with his time and insights, Mullin helped younger reporters learn the mechanics of beat writing, stressing the importance of trusting your instincts, treating sources with a sense of fairness and not making the criticism personal. Mullin saw the world far beyond NFL Sundays, yet his curiosity and competitiveness drove him to connect with coaches, agents and players buried on the depth chart. Mullin played the long game and forged meaningful relationships, which showed in the authoritative voice he used in his columns and TV appearances. That conversational tone in print or on air didn’t change much when Mullin sat down for lunch or met colleagues for drinks, telling old stories about the Bears beat, the inner workings of Tribune Tower or his antics as a student at the University of Dayton. RIP Moon.
(Photo of David Ross: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)