As if there wasn’t enough emotional rubble smoldering from the Cubs surprising and shockingly quick exit from the season, before the wild card game started there were irksome smoke signals that Joe Maddon could be out of a job if the Cubs were out of the playoffs. One came to pass, the other did not. And it’s the right call that Maddon remains, even though I’ve been a complainer in the past.
Let’s take the arguments for why the Cubs would have considered letting Maddon go in order from Ken Rosenthal’s report on The Athletic yesterday.
The first, or near the top, is that there’s friction between Maddon and Theo Epstein. And I doubt this can be denied. Theo himself said he doesn’t want a yes-man as a manager, and he wants that discussion of ideas going both ways. What’s clear about the Cubs is that they have a clear line of authority. The owner picked this president and GM, and then lets them do their jobs. The president and GM picked this manager, and they let him do his job. They aren’t calling for hit-and-runs on the phone from the suite.
We know Theo hasn’t always agreed with Joe’s moves in real time. We know he wasn’t a fan of the way Joe handled the pen in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. He’s said as much. But he still believes that’s Joe’s job and he should be free to manage as he sees fit while he’s the manager. So friction goes with the territory.
The other branch to that is that Maddon would have been fired for said moves and the more recent ones. We can stay here for a minute and see it. Some I would agree. Some I wouldn’t.
One mentioned is pitching Brandon Morrow three days in a row at the end of May, which may or may not have caused his season-ending injury. Pardon me for being a touch callous, but if your closer can’t pitch three days in a row once when near the beginning of the season when he should be in his best shape without becoming a stoneman for the rest of the year, then that’s a crappy signing. To me, that’s on the front office.
If it was known that Morrow would be that fragile, that he couldn’t go more than three times a week and would be so inflexible that it can only be for the ninth inning, then he shouldn’t have been brought in. Surely there were more stable and stronger options. This wasn’t April, fresh out of spring training. This wasn’t at the end of the season when an innings total might have been leaving his arm dragging around his ankle. This was at the end of May, right when the cylinders of the team should be pumping full strength. I don’t know if Theo and Jed feel that way, but I do.
That doesn’t mean Joe escapes scrutiny. There was letting Pedro Strop bat in Washington that led to the bullpen being scuttled for the rest of the season. To me, it appeared the Cubs decided they had to have that game (turned out they did). When they took the lead in extras, there was no one else to close it out other than Strop, who hadn’t been asked to go two innings all season. He could have done it.
Now, I’ll listen if you say he should have been up there with specific instructions to not swing. If you get a walk, you get a walk. I don’t know if you can actually convince Strop to do that, but given the state of the pen and where they were in that game and what had let up to it, I wanted Strop getting the last three outs. I know I’m not alone.
That doesn’t mean I cared for, in the least, how Joe handled #163. While Quintana’s numbers third-time through the order are icky, he was still the best option when weighed against a bullpen that simply had nothing. There was also a safety net in another game. Which is how Craig Counsell managed it. Josh Hader was only coming into the game if the Brewers got a lead. Which they obviously did. Had Maddon kept Q out there and he kept it tied, it is likely the Cubs never see Hader and maybe they get one run off another reliever who isn’t Doomsday with lettuce. I know I know, but I’m not sayin’ I’m just sayin’.
Another cudgel to beat Maddon with is the development of some younger players. Again, here for that. Ian Happ and Albert Almora especially did not take a step forward. Willson Contreras took one, or maybe closer to a half-step, back. But that doesn’t include the obvious leap of Javy Báez or the bounce-back from Kyle Schwarber. If he’s responsible for half of this equation he’s responsible for the other, or he’s not responsible for any of it. If it’s the latter, you can’t pin that on him to fire him.
Some have suggested players are starting to make the frown-y face emoji at the rotating lineups. But that method led Ben Zobrist to produce one of his best offensive seasons at 37. It allowed most everyone to shine for at least a month, like Heyward or Almora or Happ, which get the Cubs through the jungle of injuries and inconsistencies they had. And if those players wanted to play more, maybe they should have hit more.
One aspect of dissatisfaction I will totally agree with is Maddon’s handling of the Addison Russell case. Whether he likes it or not Maddon is basically the mouthpiece for everything above the players, and he talks every day. And we know Maddon loves talking every day. But it made not only him but the entire Cubs organization seem out of touch at best, callous and evil at worst. Someone should have gotten to Maddon long before he shared his opinion, but there was no way to know it would be that craven.
However, Epstein can’t skate on that either. Because his initial reaction, which I covered here, is no better. Epstein tried to save himself by claiming he only knew Russell in a baseball sense, which came long after he had boasted about how much character meant to the Cubs and how much it was evaluated in players that were brought to the Cubs. Both of these simply cannot be true. If Theo were going to hang Maddon for that crime alone, it would be hypocritical.
After four years, you can see how Maddon grates. He loves to hear himself talk, which is no indication he has anything to say. His game management can be finicky at times, downright annoying at others. The Cubs young players that weren’t sure things like Bryant have had uneven development, and that’s part of Maddon’s job.
However, and I feel like I write this somewhere on a daily basis now, the Cubs won 95 games despite all they lost and endured during the season. And that list is one you know by heart by now. That’s simply a great managing job.
My biggest fear with Maddon, other than what thoughts come marching out of his open maw with unwarranted confidence, is that he manages games out of fear. And that fear stems from Game 5 in 2008, when the Rays blew a seven-run lead to the Red Sox. Theo mentioned it during 2016. It’s why he pulled Arrieta with a five-run lead in Game 6 and went straight to Aroldis Chapman. I feel like it’s influenced every decision in a big game from there on out. Maybe it’s why Morrow was out there with a 7-1 lead on a third-straight day. Maybe it’s why in that Sunday win over the Cardinals Cishek was summoned for a second-straight day of four to get the Cubs out of a jam when still up big. Maybe it has influenced a ton of other decisions. I don’t know, but I see it in a lot of changes.
Still, I don’t think we’re talking about any of this if Kris Bryant is healthy the whole year. And if that’s the case, then that’s not grounds enough to let Maddon go.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports