The dynamic skipper could be the key piece in Theo Epstein's North Side rebuilding project
The characters in that long-running Windy City disaster known as the Chicago Cubs’ World Series Disappointment are well known to all baseball fans. There is the Billy Goat. And Bartman. The Miracle Mets. Leon Durham and his “Gatorade glove,” not to mention a supporting cast both great (Ernie Banks) and small (Ernie Broglio, part of the infamous Lou Brock trade), all of whom have contributed to American sports’ most celebrated failure. If you don’t know that the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908, you must be a soccer fan.
Over the past few months, there have been some names added to the marquee, and hope has returned to soon-to-be-renovated Wrigley Field. It actually began in 2011, when Red Sox architect Theo Epstein took over the team’s front office, spawning a small delirium among those who expected he could erase the goat’s curse, just as he had made the Bambino’s go away. Since the first three years of Epstein’s regime produced a record of 200–286, North Siders weren’t exactly camped out along the parade route in anticipation of a championship celebration.
That changed during the fall, when Epstein took advantage of a crack in Joe Maddon’s contract and extricated the Tampa Bay manager from baseball’s discount store. Maddon made friends immediately by promising to talk of contending in 2015 and even tried to curry favor with the media with an offer to buy a round of drinks. (Q: What are a reporter’s favorite two beers? A: Free and Free Lite.) Suddenly, that magic touch Epstein was supposed to possess looked a little more legitimate. Maddon’s ability to keep the Rays in contention — and reach the 2008 World Series — with an ever-changing roster of young players whose contracts never reached luxury levels would no doubt help the Cubs grow.
“What does it mean to have a dynamic manager?” Epstein asked at the November press conference announcing Maddon’s arrival. “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 the game, knowing you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things … it’s really nice to just 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 sounds pretty good, and in Maddon the Cubs have a manager with the kind of track record guaranteed to attract respect in the dugout and wins on the field. In December, the party continued when Chicago outbid Boston, among other suitors, for the opportunity to pay 31-year-old left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester $155 million over the next six years. It was the kind of splashy signing the Cubs hadn’t had for a while, and Lester’s decision to join the team demonstrated the faith he had in the organization’s push for success. He wanted to play for Maddon. He wanted to be with a club that had an abundance of young talent. And he didn’t seem one bit worried that it has been 107 years since Chicago last won it all.
Lester has posted a career mark of 116–67 in nine seasons with Boston and the A’s. He’s a three-time All-Star who has won 15 or more games six times, and he gives Chicago the No. 1 starter it has lacked. More than that, his decision to be a Cub validates Epstein’s efforts and provides a big reason for the team’s fans to get excited. When he was introduced, Lester sounded as if helping the team win a championship would be as satisfying for him as it would be for those Chicagolanders who have experienced so much diamond anguish over the past century-plus.
“It’s one of those things you put at the top of the list,” Lester said, referring to winning a World Series title. “To be a part of something like that would truly be special and unbelievable. Obviously, that’s our goal, to do that.”
Most baseball fans — even some on Chicago’s South Side — would agree that a Cubs World Series title would indeed be special. But after so many seasons, the unbelievable part is more appropriate. The franchise hasn’t just had a short run of misfortune, or even a long stretch of despair. This has been 107 years of misery. Sure, teams like the Mariners have never won a championship, but they have only been around since 1977. By then, the Cubs had endured 69 seasons of disappointment and at times comic failure. Their Wrigley home is “friendly,” but decades of day-only baseball might have contributed to the trouble. Then again, the Bartman playoff debacle took place at night. No one can pinpoint a reason for the failure; we just know the Cubs haven’t won it all for more than a century. Maddon and Lester are the biggest names on the latest edition trying to change that.
“Why wouldn’t you want to accept this challenge?” Maddon asked at his press conference. “In this city? In that ballpark? Under these circumstances, with this talent? It’s an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but also in baseball. This confluence of all these items coming together is pretty impressive.”
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Maddon’s talk about contending for the NL Central title in 2015 is great Hot Stove fodder, and his track record and confidence have made the Cubs’ sales staff’s jobs much easier during the offseason. That’s what December and January are all about: the possibility of success. Maddon’s tenure in Tampa Bay gives him the bona fides in the dugout. But signing Lester and pitcher Jason Hammel — whom the Cubs traded away last year — and acquiring catcher Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks aren’t necessarily enough to guarantee contention for a team that finished 2014 with a 73–89 record and was outscored by 93 runs.
That’s the reality behind the celebration. Chicago is headed in the right direction, but to herald the arrivals of Maddon and Lester as the final answers to a championship riddle simplifies the Cubs’ plight. There is really only one top-shelf hitter in the lineup — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit .286 with 32 homers and a robust .527 slugging percentage (.913 OPS) last year. Fans may point to the excessive accumulation of talent in the Chicago farm system, and indeed Epstein has been hoarding young studs for future use or as trade bait. Names like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell may not mean a lot to fans in other cities, but Cubs supporters invoke them regularly as evidence of future success. The trouble is that they aren’t ready to be key pieces of a winner yet, and while Rizzo, Montero and shortstop Starlin Castro comprise a solid nucleus, too many of the others on the roster are not championship pieces. Even with Maddon in the dugout, it’s going to take some time.
“I like where we are as an organization,” Epstein says. “It’s nice to have an eye on competing, and we’re going to try to build it the right way and not force it or rush it. We’re mindful of the next offseason, as well as this offseason to find the right fits and the right moves and compete.”
If that doesn’t sound like a man who has job security, nothing does. Perhaps Epstein believes that if a city has waited more than a century for a championship, another few years won’t matter. But he is right that it’s important to build the right way. When quick fixes don’t deliver, a franchise is often left with a collection of underachieving veterans and no young talent on the horizon. By constructing a farm system that has been rated the majors’ best, Epstein has given the Cubs plenty of options. He can wait for the youngsters to blossom, or he can dish them for established stars. More likely, he will create a hybrid of new and old that is capable of winning for a while.
That’s why the Lester signing is so important. Chicago didn’t have to sacrifice any of its key pieces to get the top-of-rotation pitcher it needed. Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past seven seasons. Last year, he had a career-best 2.46 ERA with Boston and Oakland, and his 3.58 ERA in a career spent exclusively in the American League would indicate that the Cubs won big by signing Lester.
“This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago,” Epstein said at Lester’s introductory press conference. “It’s a great day for our fans. They’ve been so patient with us, incredibly patient, over the past few years, and they truly deserve a pitcher and a person of this caliber to call their own.”
Epstein’s comments about a new chapter demonstrate that it is no longer time for assessing and accumulating potential future stars. This is his fourth year with the Cubs, and despite his praising the fans’ tolerance, it’s unlikely they will remain so docile if the next couple seasons don’t bring real progress. At a time when Pittsburgh can end a 21-year postseason drought with back-to-back playoff appearances, and Kansas City can reach the World Series, fans don’t want to hear too much talk about building, even if the Pirates and Royals did have long journeys to the postseason. There is a feeling that the NL Central is not as formidable as it once was, what with Ryan Braun’s post-suspension drop-off, Cincinnati’s pitching fire sale and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina’s mortality-proving injury providing evidence that there is room to grow.
Make that win.
When Epstein took over the Cubs, he invited former Chicago pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star, to spring training and asked Sutcliffe to evaluate the team’s pitchers. Epstein probably wasn’t expecting a glowing report, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what he heard.
“I thought he would hit me when I told him the truth,” says Sutcliffe, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I told him that of the 60-some prospects I saw, there might have been three of them who could pitch in the majors.”
Sutcliffe has since seen the Cubs’ farm system develop into one of the best — if not the best — in the business. “I don’t think Theo would trade his farm system for anyone else’s,” Sutcliffe says. But someone has to take that talent and translate it to a successful team on the field. That’s where Maddon comes in. It’s not an understatement to say that he did some remarkable things in Tampa Bay. Five of his nine teams won 90 games or more, and four reached the postseason. And it was all accomplished without big-money stars or collections of proven veteran winners. Tampa Bay would hold on to its young talent as long as it could before free agency and then try to get something for it to avoid paying big money. Trying to win consistently under that constriction is not easy, yet Maddon did it.
“Being able to bring Joe Maddon is way above signing Jon Lester,” Sutcliffe says. “He has a proven ability to evaluate, and someone has to evaluate for the team to evolve. Nobody did it better or quicker than Joe Maddon did it in Tampa Bay.
“He has his five steps of success, and the fifth step is, ‘All I want to do is win.’”
Managers don’t hit or pitch. They don’t field or throw, but they are responsible for everything else on a team. During his time in Tampa, Maddon developed a reputation for knowing how to handle players, individually and as a group. He never showed up his team, and he always appeared — and by all accounts was — in control. Sutcliffe is right that adding Maddon is much bigger than signing Lester. First off, Lester only throws every fifth day. Maddon is in the dugout, clubhouse and office every game — and on off days, too. Secondly, without Maddon, there is no Lester in Chicago.
“When you make a statement like bringing in a Joe Maddon, that just adds to the decision-making,” Lester said about his choice to join the Cubs. “Makes it that much more interesting.”
Plenty of people in the Rays’ orbit groused about Maddon’s departure, since it came during a tiny window of availability. For many people, he was the franchise’s personality, with his northeastern Pennsylvania working-class sensibility, serial unflappability and ability to keep Tampa Bay in contention no matter how elastic his team’s roster was. He is now the Cubs’ face, and the team is elated that he has taken on that responsibility.
“Joe is a combination of just about everything we look for in a manager,” Epstein says. “Everyone associates him with new school, because they’ve used analytics in Tampa, and he’s so open-minded and progressive. But this is an old-school baseball guy with a wealth of knowledge. It’s hard to find that. It’s hard to find old-school and new-school in the same package.”
The Cubs have found that in Maddon. Now, all he has to do is lead the team to a World Series title.
What could be so hard about that?
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports