Piniella's reputation taking a beating
The marriage between Lou Piniella and the Cubs wasn’t supposed to unravel like this, with losses and controversies and the inevitability of a quiet October.
With the postseason a mere rumor, and his team closer to last place than first, Piniella is trying to protect the one thing these Cubs haven’t ruined yet.
I suspect that’s why Lou couldn’t wait to offer his critique of Steve Stone’s reportorial acumen before Friday’s series opener against the White Sox.
The BP Crosstown Cup was in the house – the trophy was booed lustily during a pregame ceremony – which meant a media quorum. Piniella had a megaphone, and he used it to respond to Stone’s recent criticism that he “doesn’t have a great grasp on what to do with young players.”
But outfielder Tyler Colvin, the young player in question, wasn’t the real issue. Nor was Stone, the former Cy Young Award winner and current White Sox television analyst. This was a simple case of Piniella wanting the world to know just how good his baseball bona fides were, are, and always will be.
He could have stood before the scribes and shouted, “I’M LOU PINIELLA, DAMMIT!” That would have accomplished the same thing. Instead, the 66-year-old felt compelled to rattle off some of his Hall of Fame credentials.
“I get tired of being nitpicked and criticized unjustly,” Piniella declared, before a 10-5 loss to the White Sox that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. “I won over 1,800 games as a manager. I’m not a damn dummy. … I know what the hell I’m doing.”
He forgot to mention the 1990 World Series title with the Reds. Oops.
And once he becomes a “former manager,” Lou loses the bully pulpit. (I don’t recall a Bruce Kimm or Jim Lefebvre presser at Wrigley Field in recent weeks.)
Piniella doesn’t want to be remembered in this sad, frustrated state. I don’t blame him. But he only has so much control over that. Barring a miraculous second half, his tenure on the North Side will be known as much (or more) for the disappointments of ’09 and ’10 as the divisional triumphs of ’07 and ’08.
Of course, Piniella is working hard to fix his team, shaving his beard and hoping it would bring a change in luck. In fact, he is “managing his a** off,” according to one member of the organization. And that’s good. With a $4 million salary, effort is kind of expected.
But we can’t confuse managing fervently with managing effectively. The Cubs have used more lineup variations this year than all but two clubs in the National League, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com. And those two teams are the youthful Padres and Pirates.
So, no manager of a veteran NL team has changed his lineup more often this season than Lou Piniella.
Perhaps the batting-order-by-Boggle is a sign of Piniella’s frustration. Or maybe it’s his first instinct when he doesn’t know what else to do.
Whatever the motivation, the strategy hasn’t worked. During a season in which Cubs hitters were supposed to get better under the discerning eye of hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, they rank in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored.
When people in the industry refer to the Cubs as “dysfunctional,” as happened twice in my conversations Friday, this is what they mean. The Friendly Confines are now home to Exasperation Nation.
I do believe that Stone’s initial criticism missed the mark in one regard. If Piniella can’t handle young players, then how can we explain Carlos Marmol’s successful first season as the team’s closer? Or the contributions of Ryan Theriot (2007) and Geovany Soto (2008) to division-winning teams as first-year everyday players?
The problem, as Stone correctly pointed out during a Friday interview, is an overcrowded roster. And although Stone didn’t say it, that is the responsibility of general manager Jim Hendry.
Hendry’s signing of Marlon Byrd, the league’s top hitter, was obviously a good move. But the Cubs made a costly mistake last fall when they underestimated Colvin’s preparedness for the big leagues.
Had they determined that Colvin was ready to be an everyday outfielder, perhaps they could have traded Kosuke Fukudome during the winter. Instead, more often than not, Colvin and his .581 slugging percentage can be found on the bench.
But managers, not owners or GMs, are responsible for making out lineups. Piniella should go with the best players, not necessarily the most expensive ones. If he prefers Colvin to Fukudome or Xavier Nady, then he should play Colvin.
Piniella, who had his greatest success in smaller markets, is obviously tired of having his competency questioned in the nation’s third-largest city. He doesn’t want people to think he’s losing his mind – or his clubhouse.
Fine. Then it’s time to stabilize the batting order and offer an explanation that goes deeper than “We put out a lineup. The players have to perform.” That’s one motivational gem, straight from Friday’s pregame news conference.
Piniella shouldn’t delve into his Ejection Playbook for a hat-kickin’, base-throwin’, umpire-rippin’ showcase. He simply needs to worry less about Steve Stone and more about what works for this team, which includes a shortstop (Starlin Castro) who was born during the year of Piniella’s great triumph in Cincinnati.
I will be shocked if Piniella guides this team to a postseason berth. If this is indeed going to be his final season in uniform, he won’t go out on top – or anywhere close to it. That’s sad. But there is a way for Piniella to keep the team competitive and exit gracefully. I suggest he find it now.