Cubs manager Lou Piniella hastily announced yesterday morning that he was stepping down sooner than expected from his post immediately following yesterday’s 16-5 drubbing by the Atlanta Braves to deal with family issues, and despite the team’s infuriating mediocre 2009 and bottom-of-the-barrel 2010, it’s clear this man deserves all the accolades being tossed around.
And, of course, I have to look ahead at the floundering team’s future, which could be bright, given a few good breaks and a couple of years of player development.
But first, I want to thank Piniella for his almost four years managing Chicago’s National League ball club. His first two years, 2007 and 2008, were excitement at its finest and despite the team’s poor playoff showings, it’s clear Piniella — and in some ways, his predecessor, Dusty Baker — changed the culture of the team. Losing is no longer tolerated by the fans or front office. Look at all the players jettisoned in recent weeks: Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Ted Lilly, and last week, Derrek Lee, and you get the idea that nobody in the organization will put up with the underperforming team and everyone wants to reload the minor league system to start from scratch.
And nearly all of that can be attributed to Piniella’s influence. The man has always been a winner, with the exception of his tenure managing the once-awful Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays (and honestly, that was a no-win situation, no matter how you looked at it), and it showed while he was in Chicago. He expected the most out of his players and punished them when they weren’t performing, like his demotion of opening day starter Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen at a couple different times this season. Despite the team’s floundering throughout this season, I felt a tinge of sadness when Piniella announced last month his plans to retire following this season, but yesterday’s announcement shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given his two leaves of absence in the last month to be with his ailing mother.
However, Lou is gone and he’s not coming back — and who could blame him? Taking over for him is former third base coach Mike Quade, who has the dubious role of ushering this rookie-laden, offensively mismatched monstrosity into a very important offseason, during which the team will find his own replacement.
The team does have some interesting storylines to finish this lame-duck season. Besides the ongoing managerial search (does anyone truly believe it’s going to be someone other than Ryne Sandberg?), we Cubs fans can look forward to seeing the possible first baseman of the future, rookie Tyler Colvin, transition from his roving position in a crowded outfield as he attempts to reclaim his grasp on a position he hasn’t played since his teens. Rookie shortstop Starlin Castro could conceivably be the first rookie since Ichiro Suzuki to win a batting title — it won’t happen, but he’s definitely in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year award. And, with September callups looming, prospects like starting pitcher Jay Jackson and outfielder Brett Jackson (trust me, no relation) could be on the field in coming weeks.
After the season’s over and Sandberg is installed as the next manager, some interesting things could happen. The team has made no bones about the fact they’d like to be rid of the head case known as Carlos Zambrano, as well as light-hitting right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. If the former is dealt, even in a desperation “if you take him, we’ll pay for everything” kind of deal, Jay Jackson might get his shot in the rotation next season, and if Fukudome’s out the door, Colvin could go back to his natural position and open the door for a lefty-swinging free agent first baseman like power hitters Adam Dunn and Carlos Pena.
No matter how you slice it, change is afoot for the Northsiders. With their soon-to-be Hall of Fame manager, Piniella, out the door, it just goes to show how much different this team will be in the coming years.