With veterans gone, young Cubs are on their own
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter August 21, 2013 10:09PM
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Updated: September 23, 2013 2:47PM
The Cubs have talked about culture change and a new Cubs Way since Theo Epstein took over as team president nearly two years ago.
But one look around the clubhouse suggests little confidence anyone knows which way that is — never mind the way to October.
In fact, when David DeJesus was traded to the Washington Nationals this week, the young, wayward Cubs lost their last mentor, their last peer counselor in a season only 10 losses from turning into the Cubs’ fourth straight losing season.
“Guys who have been there and done it for 10 years — there’s really no one left,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who leaned on DeJesus for the last year, sporting identical “Breakfast Club” T-shirts and following him for early workout sessions every day.
Now he has DeJesus’ old locker nameplate affixed next to his own on his stall and an Alfonso Soriano baseball card pinned up on the other side.
Starlin Castro had Soriano and their early batting-practice sessions and long talks. Now he has phone calls with Soriano “every single day.”
Jeff Samardzija had Ryan Dempster last year until the trading deadline. Darwin Barney had DeJesus, Junior Lake had Soriano, young pitchers had Scott Feldman early in the season. And even high-wired Matt Garza was a tone-setter — and the only guy in the clubhouse who could claim a Game 7 playoff win.
All are gone in trades over the last seven weeks.
“We lean on each other now. We learn from each other,” said Rizzo who went 3-for-4 with two home runs in an 11-6 loss Wednesday to the Nationals.
Maybe it’s about time.
As manager Dale Sveum said, “The bottom line is we’re all grown men. . . . There comes a point where you have to do things yourself.”
But maybe not. That DIY thing doesn’t seem to be working too well, either.
Some say that’s a significant loss the team risks for the gain of prospects in those trades — whether it’s about the faith a kid can put in the words of a seven-time All-Star like Soriano or the work ethic inspired by a 10-year big-leaguer like DeJesus or the cool-hand wisdom from another postseason veteran like Feldman.
“The way we look at it, it’s important,” said Nationals president and general manager Mike Rizzo, who built a 98-victory division winner last year from a multiyear process of raising young core players. “I don’t discount the mentoring that a veteran player can give a young player.
“An important part of the developmental process is learning how to play the game the right way, on the field and off the field.”
Which has nothing to do with some vague notion of “leadership” that has become an overused term for lazy journalists and meathead fans.
“I mean, we’ve got guys on this team that don’t know how to tip the clubbies,” Mike Rizzo said. “These rookies that come in, they don’t know how to dress like a big-leaguer or act like a big-leaguer or tip like a big-leaguer. So these guys are vitally important for the growth of young players.”
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer says, “It’s a valid point and one that it’s our job to address this off-season. But getting that value back in [young] players for the future, in our opinion, outweighs that intangible quality you’re talking about over the short term.”
Meanwhile, a young team already headed south searches for the Cubs Way without a compass.
“This team is in the process of building its own identity,” Barney said. “We don’t necessarily know who the true veteran leaders are going to end up being. We don’t know what kind of team we’re going to be.
“We definitely lost all those veteran presences. . . . It’s just that time of your career where you’ve got to hope that you’ve figured it out by now.”