I don’t want to get all Robert Frost here. Poetry is definitely weird energy for a Friday. But as I watched the Cubs manager search finally reach its conclusion with the team hiring former backup catcher David Ross over Astros bench coach Joe Espada the line that kept popping into my head was: “two roads diverged in a yellow wood...”
Everything about this It feels like the Cubs front office ultimately had a choice to make - they could double down on “The Cubs Way” or bring in an outsider. They chose to do the former. Today I wanted to take a look at why they might have made that decision.
The Cubs Way
Tom Verducci wrote the definitive book on the 2016 Cubs, it’s partially a story of the season but it’s also a story of rebuilding the organization. The blueprint for the rebuild, how to transform a team from the “Lovable Losers” to a perennial powerhouse. It’s a great book and when it was published shortly after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years it seemed prescient.
That was before the team fell short of the World Series in 2017. Before they got run down by the Brewers forcing a game 163 and a Wild Card loss to the Rockies in 2018. Before injuries, long offensive droughts and inconsistent pitching led to them not making the playoffs at all in 2019.
By the time the Cubs announced that Joe Maddon would not be back in 2020 the Cubs Way looked broken, or at least on life support.
The Joe Espada path
I think this signal, that the Cubs way needed a reboot, or at least a fresh set of eyes from the outside was what made the possibility of Joe Espada as the next Cubs manager so intriguing. In a lot of ways it made perfect sense. After all, the Astros took roughly the same path the Cubs did to their 2017 World Series victory, even following it up with a loss in the ALCS in 2018. However, unlike the Cubs they seemed to actually keep improving.
They didn’t miss on the trades they made in 2017-19. Whereas the Cubs traded for Jose Quintana, the Astros traded for Justin Verlander . It wasn’t just trades, either. Former Cubs reliever Héctor Rondón has had a close up look at both teams and he did not mince words when asked to compare them in 2018:
“These guys are way better,” Rondon said about a comparison of the skills of the Astros and Cubs. “That is not because I am here. It is just the way they play the game. The way they focus and prepare. That is the difference in these guys here. I just think they are better than the other guys.”
When asked again about his response, Rondon was adamant about the difference in team strengths. He wasn’t dissing the Cubs, but he was making sure everyone knew he plays for a better team.
”I am just telling the truth,” Rondon said. “I say the truth. I don’t have to be fake. I say what I see. I think those guys (Cubs) are really good too. It is what it is.”
So what makes these Astros better?
”We have everything,” Rondon said. “We have power, we have speed, we have great pitching, defense. Everything. It is also about more preparation, and that we believe in here we can do it. They have that in here. They show that to me, and I see the hard work and preparation. That is huge for us.”
Tell us how you really feel, Héctor.
But he’s clearly not wrong, the results for both teams in the last few seasons speak for themselves. The Astros are in their second World Series in three years and the Cubs didn’t play a game in October. What better way could there be to right the Cubs’ ship during the championship window than to hire Houston’s bench coach, Joe Espada? After all, on its face that might appear to bring more of that energy, preparation and skill set to Chicago.
The David Ross path
I’ve seen a lot of people characterize the Cubs hiring David Ross as a sentimental decision. I’ve seen more than a few people scoff a bit at the idea, as if it’s a chance to grasp whatever magic there was in 2016 and recapture it for 2020. Even worse, I’ve seen people suggest that Ross is there to be a yes-man for the front office, a young, less-experienced manager who they can control more than they could control Joe Maddon. I agree with a portion of this line of thinking. David Ross is Theo doubling down on the Cubs Way, but not out of sentiment over 2016, and certainly not out of a desire to have a yes-man as his manager.
In fact, Theo told all of us exactly what he’s thought about David Ross years ago, in a different book. I reminded myself earlier this week that Theo wrote the foreword to David Ross’ book, Teammate. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but a particular passage jumped out at me. In 2008 the Boston Red Sox needed some catching depth and they signed Ross as their “break glass in case of emergency third catcher.” As Theo describes it, despite only having eight at bats over six weeks, Ross made a huge impact. Below is an excerpt in Theo’s words:
By the time the playoffs came around, he was respected enough that we invited him into our advance scouting meetings along with [Jason] Varitek and [Kevin] Cash. Again, I didn’t expect much from David. These are big, important meetings with the front office, manager Terry Francona, and the whole coaching staff. Typically, advance scout Dana LeVangie and Varitek - both expert in this role - would take the lead breaking down opposing hitters, and pitching coach John Farrell, Tito, and a few of the front office would chime in. The third-string catcher was not usually present, let alone vocal. Except for David. He spoke up early and often, in a strong and authoitative voice, making insightful points about every opposing hitter. He wasn’t afraid to disagree, even with Varitek, and quickly won over the room. Bythe third or fourth hitter we discussed, others were deferring to Ross, the backup’s backup who up until the last six weeks had spent his entire career in the other league.
“That was impressive,” I remember telling Assistant General Manager Jed Hoyer. “We should keep an eye on him... might make a good scout or coach when he’s done playing.”
I bring this up mainly because the “it’s all about sentiment” and “Ross is inexperienced and therefor malleable” line of arguments seem completely off-base to me. It is true that Ross has less experience coaching than other managers Theo has hired in the past. It is also probably true that the recent success from less-experienced managers such as Aaron Boone and Alex Cora contributed to his willingness to hire a first time manager. It seems decidedly wrong that Theo is looking for a yes-man in Ross. In fact, it seems like one of the things Theo values most about David Ross as a leader is his willingness to push back.
The more I re-read both books the more I concluded that Ross has probably been the long-term “Cubs Way” plan for a while now. I strongly recommend reading (or re-reading) both books with recent moves/actions in mind.
Will it work? Time will tell. Could this be another move that backfires on the front office? Absolutely. And don’t get me wrong, if in three years Joe Espada is managing a team with more World Series wins than the Chicago Cubs I’m sure we’ll all be groaning about that as much as the Verlander miss. But Theo has been here before, he’s hit reset on a championship team and made it work again. Critically, hiring David Ross wasn’t a sentimental ploy — it was a long term plan. I, for one, am pretty excited to see how it all works out.