Losing a franchise-record 197 games in Theo Epstein's first two seasons as Cubs president didn't hurt the organization as much as Chicago losing confidence in Epstein's plan could.
Losses like that can be harder to quantify and recover from for sports executives selling hope.
Yet no matter whom Epstein introduces as his next manager, it will be perceived as an organizational letdown because the Cubs wanted Joe Girardi as badly as they needed him. For the first time since the baseball gods dropped Epstein out of the sky at Clark and Addison in 2011, he deserves healthy skepticism that he earned as much as the benefit of the doubt he brought to town.
Epstein didn't fire Dale Sveum with a year left on his contract because Girardi's Yankees contract expired. He fired Sveum to correct a mistake as his first Cubs hire. Girardi's availability simply offered a method to mask it, albeit expensively.
The Cubs' willingness to commit more than $20 million and offer at least four years tempted Girardi and coaxed the Yankees to add a year to their original offer, according to a source with knowledge of the process. Whether Epstein considered Girardi as vital to the Cubs' future as Chairman Tom Ricketts did remains impossible to know and ultimately irrelevant once Plan B was underway at Wrigley Field.
Or is it Plan C, D or E? Whether rebuilding the baseball team or the ballpark, lately the Cubs go through more plans than pitchers. Despite all the pomp and circumstance over a July agreement, overdue offseason renovation has yet to start because of Ricketts' demand that rooftop owners drop their threat of a lawsuit first. On and off the field, the Cubs Way guarantees something always getting in the way.
Whatever the next phase of the Cubs managerial plan includes, it will accompany fair questions. If Epstein could misjudge the baseball smarts and presentation skills of a manager he worked with in Boston, how can he promise anything about his next manager? What other miscalculations did Epstein make besides Sveum? Why not even talk to a World Series-winning manager like Bob Brenly, who knows the organization and whose staff would provide instant credibility? Any chance of trading for Padres manager Bud Black, who worked with general manager Jed Hoyer in San Diego? Is Rays manager Joe Maddon's contract really unbreakable?
Have the Cubs thought big enough?
Nothing about the names the Cubs have contacted — Manny Acta, A.J. Hinch and Rick Renteria — says yes. None say automatic solution. They say, huh?
Acta hails from the same Dominican Republic hometown as Cubs outfielder Junior Lake — San Pedro de Macoris. That bilingual background helps Acta connect with Latin players, especially important in getting through to Starlin Castro and developing Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, among others. But the Nationals and Indians each fired Acta before his 44th birthday. At least Acta's .418 winning percentage (372-518) will have prepared him well for 2014.
Hinch represents an inspired choice — if the Cubs are beefing up their boardroom. A Stanford graduate with a degree in psychology, Hinch possesses a pedigree more suitable for an office than a dugout. His touching personal tale reveals the strength Hinch required to overcome the loss of his father, Dennis, as an 18-year-old phenom in Oklahoma. But professionally, Hinch went 89-123 after taking over the Diamondbacks in May 2009 as a 35-year-old former major league catcher. Describing the atmosphere later to reporters, Hinch used the words "toxic, chaos" and "tension.'' What about that past makes Epstein inclined to hand Hinch the keys to the clubhouse? On the bright side, Hinch was a backup catcher on the 2003 Tigers team that went 43-119 so losing 95 games wouldn't faze him.
Renteria, 51, offers the least baggage and strongest narrative. One of nine children of Mexican parents growing up in Compton, Calif., the Padres bench coach sold shoes out of the back of a truck with his dad to supplement the family's income. He became a first-round draft pick of the Pirates whose major league career was limited to 184 games as a journeyman infielder because of injuries such as a hernia and shattered jaw. Renteria sold insurance and built homes after baseball but, once the game lured him back, he developed a knack as a manager one scout said was "as easygoing as can be.'' One of his successful minor league managing stints came at Kane County. His first major league opportunity could be at Wrigley Field in a job Epstein called "a gauntlet.''
The wrong manager risks getting caught in it like Sveum did. Can the Cubs still trust Epstein to find the right one?
Sure, once Epstein starts valuing winning experience over managing experiments.