To no one’s surprise, David Ross will return as Chicago Cubs manager for a fifth season in 2024.
President Jed Hoyer lauded Ross again Tuesday during his postmortem at Wrigley Field, crediting the manager for getting the Cubs back into contention after falling 10 games under .500 in early June.
There was never any indication Ross’ job was in jeopardy during the 7-15 free fall that ended the season, unlike San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler, who paid the price Friday for his team’s fade.
Ross has a .480 winning percentage (262-284) in four years on the job with one postseason appearance in 2020, when the Cubs lost both games of a wild-card series to the Miami Marlins. Kapler had a .543 winning percentage (295-248) in four years with the Giants, including a 107-win season in 2021.
Ross obviously is held to a different standard than his predecessor, Joe Maddon, who won a championship in 2016 in the second year of a five-year deal and didn’t receive an extension. When the Cubs didn’t get back to the World Series in 2017 or ‘18, Maddon was a goner by the middle of the final year of his deal, no matter what he did. Blowing a playoff spot with a late September collapse gave former Cubs President Theo Epstein cover for a decision that was already made.
Ross, who spent several days at the end of that 2019 season watching the team from Epstein’s suite at Wrigley, was the one Epstein wanted all along. On the final day of the season, a Cubs player told a friend to put all his money on Ross being hired.
After the 2021 sell-off signaled a rebuild, Hoyer gave Ross a three-year extension before the 2022 season with a team option for 2025.
“It’s always been a little funny to me that you sign a three-year deal but yet you’re a lame duck the last year,” Ross said that day with a laugh. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. But you guys write what you write and you’re under contract for however long you’re under contract. And that’s the job you’re scheduled to do.”
We’re still writing what we write, and Ross once again enters a lame-duck season coming off an epic collapse. How important will 2024 be for Ross to continue as Cubs manager?
Hoyer went into a long-winded answer about the “strides forward” the Cubs made before he finally addressed the question.
“He’s not a new manager anymore,” Hoyer said. “He’s going into his fifth season. I think he’s really matured in the job and developed. Like all of us, I think he wants to get better every year.
“One of his greatest skills is he’s self-critical. He wants to continue to get better. And I know he’s going to spend the winter thinking about how he could have done things differently.”
Hoyer droned on for a while longer before saying, “It is a very important year next year for him and for all of us.”
It should be make or break for Ross. Most managers don’t even get four years, much less five. Accountability matters in that chair.
But it wouldn’t be a shocker if Hoyer picked up the 2025 option before the ‘24 season begins to avoid the speculation Maddon faced during his final year in Chicago. Hoyer brought up the criticism Terry Francona got in Boston early on, making an unfortunate comparison between a certain Hall of Fame manager and Ross.
Ross is well-liked by management, players and the media. But no one should be immune from blame for the stunning downfall. As Chairman Tom Ricketts said Sunday, the Cubs don’t play for a “consolation prize.”
Getting into the postseason should be the only goal, and the Cubs had a wild-card spot in hand before letting it slip away.
“It’s hard to define exactly what went wrong,” Hoyer said. “Do I think that part of it was fatigue, part of it was regression? Do I think part of it was a bullpen that ultimately was injured and unable to perform at the same level? Do I think part of it was the way we performed in the clutch, the way we played defense? It’s going to be hard to figure out exactly what proportion of those things led to our demise.
“All of those things contributed in one way or another. We have to put it under a microscope and tease out exactly what went wrong.”
It doesn’t take a microscope to see that the Cubs were fatigued or that trotting out the same position players every day contributed to that loss of energy. It’s what manager Leo Durocher did in 1969 that led to the most famous collapse in Cubs history, and it’s what Ross did 54 years later.
Defensive lapses down the stretch by usually reliable fielders such as Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki and even Nico Hoerner were evidence of the fatigue factor. Ross rarely utilized a bench with rookies Alexander Canario, Pete Crow-Armstrong and Miguel Amaya, and Crow-Armstrong and Amaya failed to perform when they did get in.
“The future is bright for a lot of our minor-leaguers that are coming up,” Ross said in early September. “But now is not the time to get those guys at-bats.”
So Ross trusted his regulars to the last drop. And then they dropped hard. On the final road trip the Cubs hit .236 with a .306 on-base percentage, going 1-5 in Atlanta and Milwaukee to blow their last chance at the third wild-card spot. Despite an All-Star season, Swanson was 1-for-17 (.059) on the trip and will have to wear it this offseason.
You could point to many things that contributed to the Cubs finishing one game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks and 1 1/2 behind the Marlins. The gut-wrenching, 13-inning loss Sept. 16 in Arizona. Suzuki’s lost fly ball Sept. 26 in Atlanta. The decisions to keep Christopher Morel in the minors until May 9 and to stick Marcus Stroman in the rotation for the stretch run without being properly stretched out.
Your head hurts knowing how close the Cubs came to making the postseason — and how many things could’ve gone the other way.
Ross is fortunate he’ll receive another opportunity to get the Cubs to where they should be, and maybe he learned something from the brutal ending. We’ll see.
But he still needs to prove himself before the Cubs pick up that option for 2025.
No manager survives forever.