Any hopes for a surprise run from the 2014 Cubs didn’t last long. By May, most were already counting down to the inevitable moment that Jeff Samardzija would be moved. However, after the annual trade deadline dump, an event that in previous years had led to a sinking feeling, the atmosphere around the team surprisingly got more optimistic.
Chicago brought up multiple highly regarded prospects over the final few months of the season (Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kyle Hendricks), and, regardless of how they performed, people who had been hearing so much about these players over the previous few summers finally got to see them in the flesh. Add in that Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, and a few arms in the bullpen all proved to be major contributors at the big-league level and it’s understandable that doubters were suddenly starting to buy into the turnaround that’s actually been going rather swimmingly (if a little slower than some might have wanted) since Theo Epstein and company came aboard.
Suddenly, the Cubs were a hot sleeper pick for 2015. However, with Monday’s press conference introducing Joe Maddon as the team’s new manager, you can throw the sleeper label out the window. If their stocked farm system and much-hailed front office already hadn’t done so, this most recent addition firmly plants the Cubs on the national radar as a team to be feared almost immediately.
But how much value does Maddon actually add to the Cubs?
“Sometimes I think in today’s day and age we try to quantify too many things instead of just appreciating the essence of them,” Epstein told reporters on Monday. “What does it mean to have a dynamic manager? I think it means that you have the potential to have an edge in everything related to the events on the field. Whether it’s preparation, decision making in game, knowing that you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things, it’s really nice to have complete trust and faith that the person in charge of running that on-field operation is going to put you in the best possible position. That’s hard to quantify.”
That doesn’t mean people won’t, and haven’t already, tried to do so. I emailed Chris Jaffe, the author of Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, and this is one of the many things he told me on the subject:
I think Joe Maddon is one of the best managers out there, but aside from rare circumstances, I don't really think it's worth more than three to five wins in a year. On the one hand, that's not too much. On the other hand, there aren't that many players worth that much either. Also, left unspoken in all the talk about how much Maddon is worth—how much was (Rick) Renteria worth? If he really was a good manager—and the Cubs have gone out of their way to say he is a good manager and helped the team and doesn't deserve this—then that actually diminishes the impact of the Maddon signing. If Maddon is worth four wins a year and Renteria worth two, then the Cubs only improved by two wins.
Okay, so perhaps Maddon is only marginally more valuable to the Cubs than Renteria as far as wins and losses, and that’s even with a caveat that those win numbers are only a loose guesstimate. However, what Maddon definitely adds, as Epstein alluded to above, is a sort of comfort and trust from the front office. But it’s not just about feeling safe with the decisions he makes during a game.
More from Jaffe:
To be fair, under extreme circumstances a manager can be worth more. After all, there are two aspects to the game – 1) manage the game, and 2) manage the men. The latter is actually the more important of the two.
That’s something that some tend to focus on less, mainly because it’s almost impossible to measure and almost no one outside the team can see. But it’s often the strength of managers who appear to be poor at in-game strategy, but repeatedly find or keep managing gigs in the majors. Maddon has a track record of being able to establish a good rapport with his players, particularly young players.
And I’d add a third category to this: how a manger handles the media. It can be an overlooked aspect of it all, but the manager’s ability to deflect attention from his players during low points or strategically using the media to prod a player who might respond poitively to that type of motivation is an art form. It’s something that Ozzie Guillen did well at his peak on the South Side, though at times he would go overboard. Maddon appears to be much more level-headed than Guillen, and proved in Tampa Bay to be masterful at such tactics. Of course, Chicago is a different animal, but he certainly won many over with his entertaining and quote-worthy introductory press conference.
Another known factor with Maddon that makes this hire look better is his ability to be open-minded enough to take suggestions from not only his coaching staff, but others in the front office, including those in research and development. Maddon repeatedly mentioned that he wouldn’t have taken this job if he didn’t feel that he was philosophically aligned with the front office, something he knew was true with the Cubs from his first interview with Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, way back when they were searching for a new Red Sox manager prior to the 2004 season. Those feelings were only reaffirmed during their chat last week in an RV park next to Maddon’s 43-foot Winnebago. Maddon added that he used the information provided by the front office in Tampa Bay a lot, stating that the card in his back pocket during games was “just dripping with analytics,” and he didn’t expect that it would take him long to develop a rapport with the new personnel he’ll be working alongside in Chicago.
“You have to be able to utilize all that’s at your disposal,” Maddon said. “I’m a Blink kind of a guy, I believe in intuitive thinking. But I also believe that your intuitive thinking is the product of all this other stuff that you’ve accumulated over a period of time, including the analytics that you just picked up two days ago. Or maybe it was the session I had at Gene Autry Park with Mark McLemore in 1985. You have to draw on all those different experiences in order to come to a conclusion in that moment.”
Talk about winning a press conference. And it didn’t end there for Maddon, who likely swayed anyone who is sick of the battle between ‘numbers guys’ and ‘old-school folks,’ with a rather simple but very accurate statement about how—now get this—you actually need both sides of the equation to succeed in today’s game.
“To me, it’s not just necessarily about a number, but the numbers are really good and they really point you in the right direction,” Maddon pointed out. “But then again, there are human beings involved too. Sometimes when a player is not playing up to his abilities, that number means nothing, it means zero. When a player is pretty much around where he’s supposed to be and that number is corresponding to what he’s doing right now, I’m really into that number. And that’s up to me to have to make that determination in that blink moment.”
(Perhaps a little buried in all of the Maddon love over the past few days was that there appeared to be some sort of Dr. Frankenstein experiment going on in Tampa right before he departed.
“I think you need to balance it between the human being and the number,” Maddon said. “That’s something that we were really getting into in Tampa Bay right before I left, it was that interesting leap, trying to combine a number with a person somehow, and on a daily basis, trying to almost give that number life. I know that’s crazy stuff, but I think it’s doable.”
That’s not an area that I’m ready to dive into, but I have a feeling it’s the type of stuff my fellow BP colleagues would lose their minds over. Although, I have an awful scenario playing out in my head that if numbers actually came to life, they’d exact their revenge on Russell Carleton for all that GORY MATH he performs on them. Run while you can, Mr. Carleton.)
Maddon went on to hit all the right notes and win over any doubters during his nearly 40-minute press conference across the street from Wrigley Field at the well known watering hole, The Cubby Bear. Prior to wrapping things up by offering to buy everyone there a beer and a shot (“That’s the Hazelton Way!”), he talked about loving the city of Chicago and all the passionate fans. He repeatedly referred to Wrigley Field as magical and a cathedral, pointing out that oftentimes the sky is so blue and the surroundings so serene that it almost appears to be out of a digitally enhanced Hollywood production.
He used phrases like ‘mind’s eye,’ referenced Gladwell, and talked about building relationships with his players. He displayed an appreciation for the history of the game (he mentioned chatting with “Mr. Banks;” later, after hours of media interviews, he turned to Epstein and insisted they catch up with former White Sox great Minnie Minoso, whom Madden had heard was down the street at another bar), and referenced some of his previously effective catch phrases (“Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure” and “9=8”).
And of course, like many before him, he talked about reaching the ultimate goal with the Cubs.
“I can’t go to spring training and say any other thing, I’m just incapable of doing that. Why would you even report?” Maddon asked. “So we’re going to set our mark high, absolutely, and I’m going to talk playoffs and I’m gonna talk World Series, this year. I promise you, I am. And I’m going to believe it. And I’m going to see how this is all going to play out and it’s within our future, there’s no question about that. But, I don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, but in my mind’s eye, we’re going to make the playoffs next year and that’s how I’m going to approach the season.”
These things have been promised before. The Cubs have had Dusty Baker sitting in the same chair, with his Manager of the Year award in tow and fresh off a World Series appearance. They’ve had Lou Piniella, one of the most respected managers to ever wield a lineup card. Baker had a nicely stocked farm system to work with—though it’s debatable if he was the right man to be in charge of such a young team. Piniella was working with the highest payroll in the history of the organization. Neither reached the ultimate goal, but to suggest that their tenures, which accounted for three playoff appearances, were failures would be unfair.
It’s also unfair to assume that just because others before him didn’t reach the ultimate goal Maddon is doomed to repeat history. It’s as silly as suggesting that since Corey Patterson failed to cash in his top-prospect hype, Kris Bryant will do the same. Maddon might not win a World Series with the Cubs and Bryant might not become a superstar, but it won’t be because those before them failed to achieve those goals.
Like Baker, Maddon has the stocked farm system. Like Piniella, it appears he’ll have the strong financials to work with as well. He’ll also have one of the most respected groups of front office minds helping him along the way.
“I’m way too optimistic to worry about things like that, I’m kind of pragmatic, in a good way, I think,” Maddon responded when asked if he was concerned that others before him couldn’t bring that ever-elusive championship to Wrigleyville. “I don’t focus on stuff like that, I refuse to. Why would you not want to accept this challenge? In this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances with that talent. It’s an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but in today’s game, this confluence of all these items coming together at the same time is pretty impressive.”
And that’s why the Cubs are an exciting team. It’s not that they suddenly became a team to be reckoned with overnight. Epstein, Hoyer, and Jason McLeod have been working since day one to get every aspect of the organization up to their standards. Adding Maddon is just another rung up the ladder. Maddon brings the Cubs an obvious face of the organization, one that’s actually in uniform, until someone like Rizzo or Bryant is ready to take on that mantle.
“It underscores it,” Epstein said when asked how Maddon’s arrival relates to his comments from a few weeks ago that the Cubs could compete for the division next season. “You can’t force these things. We’ve made a lot of progress and if you kind of take a step back, we’re really happy with the scouting department now, the player development and our minor league system and some of the systems we have in the office and everything. And now we feel like we have our long-term manager, so it’s another great piece to feel really good about. All those things contribute to being a healthy, thriving organization. Now the next step is to compete with that organization.”
It’s important to remember that this one move doesn’t drastically improve the team; Maddon doesn’t suddenly catapult the Cubs from a team that narrowly avoided its fourth consecutive 90-loss season into a playoff spot. But that’s not to say that fans shouldn’t be excited about Maddon’s addition. Among other things, bringing Maddon into the fold is the first and most obvious sign to the fans, media, the league, and, most importantly, the players that, as Epstein said, the Cubs are finally “transitioning away from a three-year period where we were essentially only accumulating young talent, and now we’re competing.”
Maddon brings some legitimacy to the manager’s role on the North Side. Not that Renteria was necessarily bad at his job, but the best case scenario for Renteria was that someday he might reach Maddon’s level both in the clubhouse and the dugout, and that certainly wouldn’t have been expected immediately.
As Epstein pointed out, there were numerous things that have happened over the past three years that have aided in taking the Cubs from the butt of jokes to the precipice of contention. Most important among them is the influx of young talent, drafting players like Bryant, trading for the likes of Rizzo and Arrieta, taking a bullpen that was filled with question marks and stocking it with young, cheap fireballers who have a chance to instill fear into opponents immediately.
Yes, the next step is to take all of that and go out and win, but there is still more to do. Epstein and Hoyer have been careful in pointing out that it’s not just this winter that matters, but the next 15 months that will be key. That’s not an excuse for not spending money over the coming months; it’s just a reality that this process is ever-evolving and there are multiple paths to success. Adding Jon Lester would be great, but it’s hardly inevitable. And missing out on him—or Max Scherzer or James Shields—doesn’t mean the sky is falling on the North Side. There will be high-level talent that unexpectedly becomes available via trade this winter and into next summer. And of course next offseason has a potential list of free agents, especially pitchers, that would interest any general manager with excess cash.
“I’m not saying we’re all the way there, we may not peak in 2015, but we’re competing,” Epstein said. “And when you’re gonna compete, you have to set your sights high and we’ve already said our goal is the division this year. And Joe echoes that, and a World Series he added on top of it, which I like. Having Joe here doesn’t necessarily change our plans this winter. We’re out to add talent. It might make it a little bit easier. I know Joe’s got a great reputation in the game and players want to play for him. But we’re growing as an organization. We’re not going to speed it up because Joe is here and we’re not going to slow it down.”
The addition of Maddon isn’t the beginning of the process and it certainly isn’t the end. The Cubs might have finally garnered more attention, but those who have been watching closely have seen what this group was building. Last September, Epstein suggested that while many in Chicago are too insulated to see it, the chatter around baseball was that “the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong.” Maybe Epstein felt that he was opening some eyes with that statement, but locally, that was met mostly with laughter and even some derision. It might have taken another year, but nobody seems to be laughing at the Cubs anymore. It appears that a sleeping giant is on the verge of waking up.