Is Theo Epstein Right to View Dale Sveum as the Long-Term Cubs Manager?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2012

Dale Sveum is in his first season as Cubs manager.
Dale Sveum is in his first season as Cubs manager.Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein beat out his former team in one key acquisition last offseason when he hired Dale Sveum to be his manager.

Sveum was reportedly the preferred choice of Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, but ownership (particularly team president Larry Lucchino) pushed to bring in Bobby Valentine. 

Valentine is on his way to getting fired after his first season in Boston, but Sveum looks like he'll be sticking around for a while with the Cubs. Epstein apparently views as him as a long-term solution to provide some stability in the dugout during his rebuilding project.

But is Sveum really the best guy for such a job? Has he shown enough in his first season with the Cubs to warrant that sort of commitment from the front office? What is it about Sveum that makes him the right fit for what the Cubs are trying to do over the next few years?

Leading a 100-loss team isn't the most impressive start to Sveum's managerial career (the Cubs have 98 losses as of Sept. 27 with five games remaining). But this season was always more about development and adjusting the roster to accommodate prospects like Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson.

Established veterans like Ryan Dempster, Geovany Soto and Paul Maholm were going to be traded for young talent that could help build the pitching depth in the minor leagues. Had Epstein been able to trade Carlos Marmol, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, those three players would have gone as well.

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So, it's obviously unfair to judge Sveum on wins and losses when the Cubs weren't going to field a team that was competitive in the NL Central.

That's why a veteran manager like Terry Francona wouldn't have been well-suited for this job (it's also why he shouldn't become the manager of the Cleveland Indians, in my opinion). The Cubs needed someone who could grow into the position as his team developed into a major league competitor. 

Sveum earned his major league bona fides as a coach with the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers, initially as a third-base coach but also as a bench and hitting coach. Sveum is familiar with most roles on a major league coaching staff.

However, he was best suited for this job because of his background in development. Perhaps the most important item on his resume in the Cubs' view was his three-year tenure as manager of the Double-A Altoona Curve in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization.

Players at the Double-A level are typically the most talented in a team's minor league system, the prospects projected to be future major leaguers. That put Sveum in position to help get the team's young players ready to contribute at the big-league level. It was more important for him to develop the Pirates' top prospects than win games in the Eastern League.

Sveum's experience in player development has been especially utilized during the final months of this season as the Cubs attempt to determine which players are keepers and what holes need to be filled on on next year's team. 

One example of that has been Sveum's handling of third baseman Josh Vitters. Vitters' defense has been so poor that he didn't warrant playing time. Some managers might write Vitters off and never let him anywhere near the field again. Others might show too much patience and keep Vitters out there to continually make mistakes, letting his confidence erode and hurt the team's ability to win games.

Sveum realizes it's important for Vitters to be held accountable for his play, yet he's still received enough plate appearances to get a feel for major league pitching and develop as a hitter. While Vitters hasn't hit enough to compensate for his poor glove, Sveum is giving him enough of an opportunity that his time in the majors hasn't been wasted. 

A similar approach has been taken with shortstop Starlin Castro. Castro has become infamous for spacing out on the field, relying on his physical talents rather than focusing on the game at hand. Sveum has benched Castro at times to wake him up and let him know that sort of play isn't acceptable (veterans such as Soriano have also helped out in mentoring Castro). 

As the season nears its end, Sveum is still staying on Castro, not letting him fall into bad habits. For instance, as ESPN Chicago's Doug Padilla reports, Sveum wants Castro to stop playing at the edge of the grass, believing that his arm is strong enough to make up for not charging a ground ball. That can be the difference between an out and a hit, especially against good baserunners. 

Speaking of base running, Sveum has seen enough mistakes from his players—notably Dave Sappelt and Joe Mather, recently—in that department that he's already thinking about the drills he and his coaching staff will employ during spring training next year. 

The Cubs won't get better simply through development. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have to bring in some outside help to boost the talent level on the roster, especially on the pitching staff. The front office has made it known that it intends to pursue free-agent pitching in the offseason. 

That has to be reassuring to Sveum, who knows he can concentrate on teaching and development, while Epstein and Hoyer look at filling key holes with some veteran stopgaps. This is another indication that the front office believes in Sveum and will give him the help he needs to succeed. 

It's too soon to say for certain whether or not Sveum is a good major league manager. He just doesn't have a competitive product to manage on the field. But he was a smart hire by the Cubs because of his development background and experience with all facets of an MLB coaching staff. He's the right guy for a team that will need a few years to build itself into a potential contender. 

As Cherington gets ready to conduct another managerial search in Boston, he surely still laments the one that got away and was snapped up by his old boss. That's one instance in which Epstein got to stick it to his old team. 

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