When it comes to rewarding production, Cubs not playing by their rules
Team president Theo Epstein often calls the Cubs a meritocracy, which is exactly what everyone should want in his or her professional life. Your performance should decide your reward, whether in the form of salary or, in the case of sports, salary and playing time.
The Cubs don’t have a meritocracy right now. If they did, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell would be working on their swings in the minor leagues, and Tommy La Stella, who manager Joe Maddon says can get a major-league hit by rolling out of bed in the morning, would be with the big-league club instead of with Class AAA Iowa.
Circumstances play a role here, of course. Schwarber is 24 and Russell is 23, and the Cubs are allowing lots of room here for youthful struggles. But entering the 11th week of the season, neither player has shown that he’s close to really breaking out of a slump.
La Stella might not be the answer to the Cubs’ problems, but he merits a chance when he gets off the seven-day disabled list in Iowa. Merit — that’s the root of meritocracy. The team’s offense has been poor lately, so bringing up someone who hit .270 last season and .304 before he was sent down this season seems like a no-brainer.
But there sure seems to be some players who are favored over others, despite the Cubs’ stated goal of rewarding those who are most productive. No matter how good Jason Heyward was in right field last season, his .230 batting average screamed that someone else deserved a shot. Apparently, his $21.6 million salary had something louder to say in response.
Part of the problem here — and what a problem to have — is that the Cubs won the World Series last season. You might have heard about that. Schwarber and Russell are household names in Chicago because of their help in getting the team the title. Schwarber came back from a knee injury that kept him out most of the season and hit .412 in the Fall Classic. Russell hit a grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series.
But Schwarber is hitting .170 and Russell .216.
Perhaps there are other managers who would’ve tried putting a power hitter in the leadoff spot, as Maddon did with Schwarber. But there’s only one who would’ve kept him there for two months during a monumental slump.
Maddon’s defense to any challenge to his decision-making is that every time he makes a move, it has been well thought out beforehand. Nothing rash, he says, and thus no regrets. It’s what he said after Aroldis Chapman threw 35 pitches in Game 7 of the World Series, after the closer had thrown 42 pitches in Game 5 and pitched the seventh, eighth and part of the ninth inning of Game 6. When he came out for the ninth in Game 6, the Cubs were up by seven runs. The Game 7 move almost blew up in the Cubs’ face. Maddon said the decision was sound because he had thought of it well before the game began and had discussed it with Chapman.
That’s like saying because I planned to smoke a cigarette while filling up my car with gas, the resulting explosion pales in importance to the careful thought that went into my decision. And I don’t know where my eyebrows went.
Even after Maddon finally relented and moved Schwarber out of the leadoff spot three weeks ago, his surrender flag hardly flapped. He put him in the seventh spot for one game, then realized the kid wasn’t going to see good pitches there. He moved him to ninth in the order, where the pickings might be better. Why would a .170 hitter deserve such consideration? Certainly not because he merited it.
Maddon has been much more willing to sit a struggling Russell the last few weeks, and you wonder if that has something to do with the shortstop’s marital problems, which became public last week when a friend of Russell’s wife accused him of physically abusing Melisa Russell. Taking him out of the lineup for not playing well, on the other hand, doesn’t seem part of Joe’s strange modus operandi.
The Cubs are constantly talking about the embarrassment of riches they have in terms of talent. To keep his players happy and to give everyone enough at-bats, Maddon shakes up his lineup every game. There is continuity for Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo but for nobody else, no matter how any other player is doing. It’s a formula that worked last season. It’s not working this season.
I’m not sure why it’s so beyond reason for the Cubs to consider a regular lineup with Javy Baez at shortstop, La Stella at second and Ben Zobrist in left field. The poor play of Russell and Schwarber should make them prime candidates to be benched or sent to the minors. Yes, it is possible either move could retard their development. It’s also possible it could give them a breather or a reset and help them. It’s very possible the Cubs would be better than the .500 team that has bounced up and down all season.
Nobody should be untouchable, especially two players who have just begun their careers. Nobody wants to hurt their confidence, but it’s fair to say that their confidence is in pieces right now. If you’re saying that they can’t find that confidence in the minors, it’s not saying much for your minor-league managers, coaches and instructors.
What have you done for me lately? That’s the basis of sports teams. It’s called a meritocracy.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrissseyCST.