In professional sports, a talented team struggling to live up to preseason expectations is an immediate call to sound the alarm. Usually, it also means bad news for the head coach or manager of said team.
The tension between Cubs manager Joe Maddon, the front office, and the rest of the fan base has been palpable for some time now. Even when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Maddon was (rightly) criticized for his extensive use of closer Aroldis Chapman in the Fall Classic.
Since that triumphant return to glory, there has been nothing but hype surrounding this Cubs team. The core–led by 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo–was young and still full of promise, and the pitching staff looked like one of the deepest groups in baseball. Seems like a recipe for success, right? Well, sort of.
The Cubs had a scorching second half in 2017 and even advanced to the NLCS for the third consecutive season, but they squandered early leads in Game 1 and Game 2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, eventually losing the series in five games.
Last year, the Cubs won 95 games, but the offense wilted down the stretch and the Cubs would lose a Game 163 to the Milwaukee Brewers, who unseated them as champions of the NL Central. Just days later, the Cubs were bounced in the Wild Card game by the Colorado Rockies.
What has happened since has hardly done much to make Maddon feel comfortable in terms of his own job security. The Cubs fell to 64-56 after an 11-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, with the St. Louis Cardinals pulling into a tie for first place in the division.
Maddon has been criticized endlessly for his lineups and bullpen management, and much has been made about the fact that his contract is up at the end of the season.
Plenty of fans have been calling for the organization to move on, and the front office has hardly made any statements that suggest a vote of confidence in Maddon. But the Cubs would be in a far better position if they offered Maddon an extension, rather than searching for a new manager.
Era of unprecedented success
When Maddon was hired as Chicago’s manager at the start of the 2015 season, it seemed like the Cubs were still a year or two away from reaching their full potential. Top prospects like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell were not even in the majors yet, and the pitching staff was full of question marks even with the addition of free agent signing Jon Lester.
The Cubs were a decent team in the first half of 2015, but they really took off after the All-Star break, going 50-25 and 42-18 over the final three months.
Chicago completely exceeded expectations by reaching the NLCS after winning just 73 games in 2014. Then, in 2016, they were practically the best team from wire-to-wire, winning their first World Series since 1908. Even in spite of marquee signing Jason Heyward flopping in his first season, Chicago’s young core continued to blossom under Maddon.
Though the following two seasons ended in disappointment, Maddon led the Cubs to 187 more regular season wins.
Maddon has the best winning percentage of any Cubs manager in history since the start of the live-ball era, and he already ranks fifth all-time in wins. So, why would the Cubs let him walk?
Sure, he has made some errors with the bullpen, and continuing to put Albert Almora at the leadoff position is inexcusable. However, Dave Roberts and Aaron Boone have often been criticized in a similar vein. Yet both managers that might win Manager of the Year in their respective leagues.
Instead of making Maddon the “fall guy,” perhaps Chicago’s front office–and especially ownership–should look inward.
What does he have to work with?
After Chicago’s Wild Card loss to the Rockies, Theo Epstein said that the offense “broke.” So, in the offseason, he went out by getting…Daniel Descalso?
The Cubs were also exposed during the 2018 season for their lack of bullpen depth, an issue that became paramount this winter given the uncertainty of Brandon Morrow’s condition. To remedy the situation, Epstein signed journeyman reliever Brad Brach and left-hander Xavier Cedeno.
Well, Descalso hardly ever plays anymore after hitting .094 in May. Brach was designated for assignment and Cedeno has made all of five appearances, missing practically the entire season due to injury.
Chicago stumbled to a 47-43 record before the All-Star break and were among the league leaders in blown saves while ranking towards the bottom of the pile in save percentage. Pedro Strop is having his worst year as a Cub, Carl Edwards Jr. was shipped off to San Diego, and the signing of Craig Kimbrel has hardly settled things down (Kimbrel is already on the Injured List, as well).
Nicholas Castellanos has been a major upgrade in the lineup, but Javier Baez has struggled immensely on the road while Anthony Rizzo’s power stroke has left him completely as of late.
Speaking of a lack of quality performances on the road, Kyle Hendricks’ home/road splits are egregious, and Jon Lester has also been less effective away from Wrigley Field. Cole Hamels had been Chicago’s ace for the majority of the year, but he has been shelled in consecutive road outings since coming off the IL, and does not seem quite right.
The Cubs parted ways with former pitching coach Jim Hickey (who left for “personal reasons,” though there is reason to believe he was pushed out by the front office) in the winter and promoted run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy (a big front office guy) to the main gig.
While Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood have had much better seasons, nearly every other member of the pitching staff has seen a drop in performance.
Last season, Cubs pitchers ranked third in ERA (3.65) as they made up the backbone of the team, especially when the offense shut down in September. This year, however, the staff has fallen to seventh in baseball while the ERA has climbed to 4.10.
With all of that having been said, the bottom line is that the Cubs did not do enough in the offseason. Epstein was firm in his belief that Chicago’s in-house improvements would make the difference, but that has not been the case.
Even if Epstein felt “strapped” by budget limitations, owner Tom Ricketts should have given the green light on more spending. The Red Sox went over the luxury tax to sign J.D. Martinez last season, but Martinez helped them win a World Series. Baseball is a business, but the first priority is putting a quality product on the field.
Who else would be better?
The simplest argument for re-signing Maddon is familiarity in addition to his track record of success. He helped nurture many of the young guys, who have come to respect him as a manager.
Besides, who would replace him at the helm? Joe Girardi has big-league experience, but he was criticized endlessly for his analytics and a failure to relate to some of the youngsters, in addition to mishandling the pitching staff.
David Ross was one of the most respected clubhouse guys in 2016, and could be an option. But he would also be a rookie manager that would have to learn the coaching ropes in a hurry.
Maddon is one of the best managers in Cubs history, and he deserves to see a few more years in Chicago.