After the way the last two seasons have ended, it’s time for the Chicago Cubs to part ways with veteran manager Joe Maddon and head in a different direction. With everything that has gone wrong these past two seasons, such as the lack of depth, suboptimal lineup construction, and underachieving and uninspiring play, there are many people in addition to Maddon that should shoulder responsibility. However, it is no secret that Maddon’s managing style simply does not resonate with the clubhouse anymore, and a change of scenery is needed. I even wrote about why the Cubs should fire him back in early July. That article struck a wrong chord with a lot of Cubs fans, and I’m sure this one will as well. However, sometimes the truth hurts, and I’m not sure what the Cubs have done the past two years to rationalize why retaining Maddon is a wise decision.
I understand Maddon brought home the Cubs’ first World Series in 108 years in addition to possessing the highest winning percentage of any manager in Cubs history. But that’s not the point. It’s entirely possible that what made him so right for this club in 2015 and 2016 is exactly what makes him so wrong for this club now and in the future. The question to ask is not “What has Maddon done wrong in the five years he’s been managing the Cubs?” Rather, the correct question is “What could Maddon realistically do next year and in future years to help solve this club’s weaknesses moving forward?” Rationalizing why he should be retained as the manager for what he accomplished in 2015 and 2016 is illogical. His laid-back style of managing does not manifest itself into a winning culture anymore, and the last two seasons proved that.
Joe Maddon is a type of manager that likes to platoon lineups to save players’ legs for the second half of the season. This was not a problem in past seasons, as the Cubs benefitted from extensive depth. But with Addison Russell’s off-field issues, Ben Zobrist’s leave of absence, trading away Tommy La Stella, and Albert Almora’s inability to develop into an MLB player, all the Cubs’ depth was decimated this season. This rendered Maddon’s strategy of platooning guys suboptimal, and it was obvious to anybody who watched the Cubs consistently this season.
However, Maddon refused to adjust to the hand he was dealt and kept giving at-bats to players that did not deserve to start on major league ball clubs. Remember when Maddon rested all the Cubs’ stars consistently in June and July so they would be energetic and healthy in September? How’d that work out? When the Cardinals had both Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna hurt in late June and early July, the Cubs should have created an eight to ten game separation from the Cardinals and probably would have done so if Maddon played his best nine more often. Instead, he elected to give over 700 plate appearances to Albert Almora, Daniel Descalso, Carlos Gonzalez, Tony Kemp, and Mark Zagunis. According to FanGraphs, Albert Almora currently has the seventh-most plate appearances on the roster, 11 more than David Bote and 95 more than Victor Caratini. I know the front office needs to shoulder some accountability as well with the lack of depth, but that is inexcusable for a manager to continue to give opportunities to a guy that is not a major league player.
To further prove that Maddon failed as a manager this season, let’s look at some stats. Right now, the Cubs have a run differential of 103, fourth-best in the National League. In comparison, the Brewers have a run differential of zero, good for eighth-best in the NL. Need I remind you which team will make the playoffs and which team will not? Craig Counsell has maximized the talent of his roster this year and Maddon has done the exact opposite. While Counsell is masterful in bullpen usage, Maddon continually goes into games with the mindset of who’s coming in during what situation and refuses to adjust with the flow of the game. All season long, Maddon did a great job of not optimizing how talented this roster is. With three All-Stars in Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras, an All-Star snub in Anthony Rizzo, a Cy Young-type of performance in the second half of the season in Yu Darvish, and the second-highest payroll in baseball, the Cubs will miss the playoffs. I’m not saying it’s all Maddon’s fault and that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer shouldn’t shoulder some accountability, but when a team’s collective parts are much better than the sum of those parts, that is absolutely on the manager.
Just because Joe Maddon is not right for the Cubs moving forward does not mean this needs to be a hostile parting of ways. Maddon has been fantastic with his overall body of work and it should be an amicable split. Having said that, it is clear that his laid back, lackadaisical style of managing made its way onto the field. The Cubs currently lead all of baseball in outs on the basepaths at 62. To make matters worse, according to baseball-reference.com, the Cubs have 109 defensive errors this season, which is third-worst in the National League. This all is a testament to how undisciplined this ballclub has been, and Joe Maddon’s refusal to bench guys for not running balls out only exasperated this pervasive laziness.
In 2015 and 2016, the Cubs were a bunch of young players hungry to make a name for themselves. Having a manager to back them at all times and give them confidence is exactly what they needed. But after a World Series title, a handful of All-Star appearances, and egos starting to settle in, is that what this team needs? No. Quite frankly, the roster needed the opposite. The past 15 months, dating all the way back to the All-Star break last season, there has been something off in that clubhouse. The fire in their eyes that we saw in 2015, 2016, and the second half of 2017 has completely evaporated. After blowing the division last season, they managed to outdo that choke job tenfold this season by going on a seven-game losing streak when the division and a Wild Card spot were right there for the taking. A shakeup in the clubhouse is desperately needed to right the ship, and it has been needed for a while.
Finding a manager that is right for this club moving forward is less about what manager is “better” than Maddon and more about inducing a change of environment and culture. Look what happened in Boston the year after they fired John Farrell in 2017. Alex Cora comes in, instills a different culture, the clubhouse buys in, they win 108 games (15 more games than the previous season), and cruise to a World Series title. It’s easy to look at spreadsheets, manager records, and so on and so forth, but fans need to stop denying the human element of sports. It’s easy for a manager to lose a locker room once his voice grows old and that locker room has experienced success. With how early this core and Maddon experienced success, I believe that’s exactly what happened.
It’s tough to forecast who the inevitable new manager will be for the Cubs next season, but it looks like it’s going to be between bench coach Mark Loretta, David Ross, or Joe Girardi. I strongly feel that Joe Girardi is the best option of those three, and it’s for the reasons I described above. If the goal is to instill a different culture in the clubhouse and weed out complacency, why would you hire internally with Mark Loretta? Going off that, replacing the ultimate players-first managerial style with a guy who is friends with and won a World Series title with half the roster is a concept I struggle to grasp. David Ross is not far enough removed from the clubhouse to manage it. With how much of a polar opposite managing style Joe Girardi is, it feels like the best fit to shake the clubhouse up. He would not be hesitant to bench guys if they show complacency or lackadaisical tendencies. Girardi gives the roster its best chance for a cultural overhaul.
I could go on all day and dissect who I would rather have as manager next season, but it’s a pointless exercise. The fact of the matter is that the Cubs will likely have a new manager next season, and that’s a step in the right direction. However, it’s one year too late. The writing was on the wall when the Cubs blew the division last season. The Cubs just threw away an entire season of their World Series window, which is two years away from potentially being slammed shut.
Featured Photo: The Athletic