In early 2013, Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum, then entering his second year at the helm after being selected by the new Cubs front office, got into some hot water.
With the Cubs struggling out of the gate at 5-12 – recall, the 2013 club was built with a “chance” at competing in mind, but also with flippable assets – Sveum was asked about the performances of his young players, and didn’t exclude two of the team’s young stars-to-be, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, from his comments.
“If people keep playing like that, you have to find options,” Sveum told the Tribune in late April of that year. “Give people playing time at Triple A to figure this stuff out …. The bottom line is you’ve got to perform. Whether they need more development or you decide all those kind of things … there’s still that accountability. Many, many people throughout the history of the game [have been demoted]. It’s a performance-laden occupation. That’s what makes the world go ’round. That’s what makes this country what it is …. I don’t think anything is invincible if you’re not performing,”
At the time, Castro was 23, but playing in his fourth big league season. Rizzo was also 23, and had played in only parts of two prior big league seasons.
Possibly speaking to that point, Sveum added: “It’s not about what we think can happen in three or four years from now. Guys have played a lot of baseball. It’s time to perform on a consistent basis — not a good game and then three bad ones. That’s not what we want. That’s why there is player development. When guys are rushed to the big leagues, sometimes you see a lot of this stuff happen. That’s why it’s very important to play 500 minor league games.”
Given the importance of the development of those two key players, Sveum’s comments were not well-received at the time. Although “you’ve got to perform” sounds great in theory, even for a competitive team, that’s not the only consideration when it comes to long-term organization-building. Player development – especially back then – was also paramount.
Fast-forward to today, and you’ve got a struggling Cubs team, albeit one with much great expectations than the 2013 club, and it is buttressed but a young core of talent that is not performing.
Against that backdrop, Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was asked by The Score about the possibility of sending struggling youngsters down to the minor leagues to work things out, and his response had echoes of Sveum’s comments, but with a characteristically more nuanced contour.
The short version is that no one is totally immune to the possibility of needing time in the minor leagues, but that comes only if the organization believes it’s going to be the right move for the big league team AND for the player’s development.
But Epstein cautioned that sometimes it’s even better for a young player to be able to get out of that funk while still in the big leagues: “It’s really rewarding when they can work themselves out of it up here – for them, not for us, for them and what it means long term. The next time they go in a slump, they can lean on what they did up here to get out of it.”
Because that’s not always possible, the option of being sent down is always still on the table, especially if there’s something specific that can be fixed. Even if it means disappointment for the player, sometimes it has to be done.
“[There is a long line of guys who have gone down and fixed things. If that happens to one or two of our guys, I know they’ll respond the right way,” Epstein told The Score. “But we’re not there, we’re not there yet. There’s no rules. There’s no blanket statements. There’s no ultimatums. We want our guys to work out of it here if they can, but it may or may not happen for everybody. If it gets to a point where they need it, just because it might be a disappointment doesn’t mean you steer away from it. It’s a break. It can be a mental break and a chance to work on things.”
To be clear, Epstein was speaking broadly about young players, struggles, development, and competitiveness. But it’s not hard to put names to faces with this particular team, as guys like Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are mired in especially deep and pronounced periods of struggle.
Despite lofty and deserved expectations for their performance this year, Schwarber is hitting just .165/.286/.341 on the season, while Russell is not much better, at .216/.298/.351. (For context, Jason Heyward’s nightmarish season in 2016 featured a .230/.306/.325 slash line.) Each has definitely been impacted by some bad luck, but, generally speaking, they are not making consistent, quality contact, and their plate discipline rates have been slipping as the year has gone on. There are real issues here.
But is a trip to the minor leagues actually in order?
I think it’s much easier to say that a guy like Ian Happ – who was not expected to be a big league regular at this point, and started the season in the minors – could be optioned back down to AAA in the near future than guys like Schwarber and Russell, who’ve not been in the minor leagues in two years. Unless the need for a mental break is there, as Epstein mentioned, I question how much value Schwarber and Russell would get from beating up on minor league pitching.
On the whole, I don’t know that it’s likely we’ll see either of Schwarber or Russell sent to the minors for any stretch, primarily because they’ve already demonstrated so much big league ability that I believe the latitude for them to work through this slump in the majors is going to be very wide. I’m sure the organization is also sensitive to anything that might put additional public pressure on these young players, who are undoubtedly already putting a ton of pressure on themselves.
But, as Epstein himself confirmed, it’s not off the table if it seems like working through things at the big league level is not going to happen, and a more significant change is necessary for their development.
Hopefully it won’t come to that. The Cubs just lost six in a row, had an off-day, and return to Wrigley Field today to take on the rival Cardinals. I don’t know what kind of trigger can help a young player break back through, but, from a narrative perspective, today sure sounds like a possibility, right?