CHICAGO - David Ross was already stepping into some big shoes when he agreed to replace Joe Maddon as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Now Ross is a first-year skipper trying to guide his team through a brand new experience full of testing and protocols and an unforgiving 60-game season. How well he navigates the unprecedented situation is an important slice of the Cubs’ hopes for returning to the playoffs.
“If we can stay focused on coming to work every day, grinding at-bats, executing pitches, playing great defense, supporting one another, rooting each other on, we’ll look up at the end and I think good things will happen,” Ross said.
While Ross has never managed before, he is surrounded by familiar faces. He was teammates with several of his players on the Cubs’ 2016 championship team. He was a special assistant in the Cubs’ front office for three seasons before he moved into the dugout in October.
Ross, 43, also has an experienced bench coach in Andy Green, a former big league infielder who managed San Diego for almost four years.
“Being a catcher for so long, he pretty much managed the games that he was in and even managed on the bench a little bit when he was there,” said left-hander Jon Lester, who is close friends with Ross. “I’m not worried about the managing side. It’s just nice to see the energy. It’s nice to see the excitement.
“He cares. He walks around with a pep in his step and, like I said, it rubs off on us and it makes us enjoy our day and coming in here and getting our work done.”
Ross took some good-natured ribbing from some of his players about which side of the field he favored and his enthusiastic reactions during some of the intrasquad games in summer camp. He insisted he wanted everyone to do well.
Even with his familiar surroundings, it was clear he was enjoying his new viewpoint.
“I get kind of some fandom at moments, where I’m just like, ‘Man this is really cool to watch a lot of this talent play out in front of me and we’re all on the same side,’” Ross said.
The rotation was a concern even before José Quintana had surgery July 2 to repair nerve damage in his pitching thumb, likely sidelining the left-hander for the start of the season. Lester allowed an NL-high 205 hits in 31 starts last year and finished with a 4.46 ERA, his highest number since he had a 4.82 ERA with Boston in 2012. Tyler Chatwood was much improved, but he started only five games in 38 appearances in 2019.
Look for the Cubs to lean on Yu Darvish, who had a 2.95 ERA over his last 14 starts last year, and steady Kyle Hendricks. Alec Mills could sub for Quintana after the right-hander had a 2.75 ERA in four starts and nine appearances last season.
Craig Kimbrel struggled in his first season with Chicago, finishing with a career-high 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances after signing a $43 million, three-year contract last June. If the seven-time All-Star closer stumbles again, Jeremy Jeffress could get a shot at some save opportunities. But Jeffress was hampered by injuries last year with Milwaukee.
Kris Bryant is the new leadoff hitter for Chicago, stepping into a role that has been an issue for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler signed with St. Louis after the 2016 season. The 28-year-old Bryant has a career on-base percentage of .385 and scored 108 times last year.
Jason Kipnis gives Ross another option at second base after the two-time All-Star signed a minor league deal in February. Kipnis, who is from suburban Chicago, spent his first nine seasons with Cleveland.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Nico Hoerner also is expected to see time at second. Hoerner played college ball for Stanford before he was selected by Chicago in the first round of the 2018 amateur draft. He made his big league debut in September, hitting .282 with three homers in 20 games.