Cubs evolving under Joe Maddon's 'mad scientist' method


Cubs evolving under Joe Maddon's 'mad scientist' method

Joe knows.

It probably won't catch on the same way "Bo Knows" became a catchphrase around Bo Jackson's career, but "Joe Knows" has become the perfect sort of tagline for the upstart Cubs finding their way into contention in 2015 under manager Joe Maddon's tutelage.

Because Joe knows how to get the most out of his players and how to create an environment for rookies and veterans to thrive.

Following a four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants over the weekend, the Cubs own the fourth-best record in Major League Baseball, a position they would not be in without Maddon.

"It's just fun to go out there and play loose," Cubs second-year pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. "These are big games, but we know there's still a lot of baseball left.

"Joe knows. He puts that kind of relaxed mentality and just go out there and have fun and guys are really running with it."

[RELATED - Thrown into the fire, Cubs rookies leading the charge into contention]

Anthony Rizzo is having an MVP-type season under Maddon, in part because of the easy-going nature in the clubhouse.

"Just a sense of calmness at all times," Rizzo said. "He doesn't really ever show - to us - that he's ever worried about anything.

"It pays off big time. Especially being a young team. You make a mistake, you know he's mad, but he doesn't show it."

Maddon is a baseball lifer. He knows how difficult this game is and he understands the fickle nature of hot streaks.

"[It's] Joe's aura," outfielder-turned infielder Chris Coghlan said, "and what he allows his clubhouse to be. His best asset is coming in and giving the freedom and letting everybody know: Hey, you're going to make mistakes. It's impossible to be perfect. All I ask from you is to be present.

"You mess up, it's not like the end of the world, like I'm going to get benched or I'm going to get scolded for it.

"You do work and you prepare and trust that it's going to play in the game."

[RELATED - Arrieta struts his ace stuff as Cubs go for the Giants' 'jugular']

Part of how Maddon keeps things loose is going way off the map, like inviting a magician into the clubhouse to get his team to forget about a tough stretch on the field.

He's been doing stuff like that for years. With the Rays in Tampa Bay, Maddon brought a snake into the clubhouse one time. And he's a huge fan of themed road trips, like the times he had the Rays all wear robes or old-school train attire (top hats and all) on the plane, as former Tampa Bay pitcher Wade Davis (now with the Kansas City Royals) recounts.

"When I was there, he was just starting the beginning of his mad scientist ways, or whatever you want to call it," Davis said. "He'd call you into the office, just to sit down, have a glass of wine, get a cigar."

Why does it work?

Davis thinks it's keeping things fresh and mixing it up before they get stale, which is easy in a 162-game season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Rays pitcher Chris Archer agreed.

"For a younger club, it's so different," Archer said. "It's a breath of fresh air and I think that's why you're gonna see the young Cubs reach their potential quicker than usual. We're witnessing it now.

"It's so refreshing to walk into the clubhouse and feel comfortable, not feeling like you have to walk on eggshells around the manager and I think that's the biggest thing."

Jon Lester, winner of two World Series with the Boston Red Sox, is as serious and professional as they come, but even he has bought in to Maddon's style, gimmicks and all.

"Let Joe do his thing," Lester said. "It's worked in the past, and we'll just show up and play."

With less than two months of the season remaining and a lineup featuring four rookies, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is happy to have Maddon making the calls and leading the charge.

Maddon made his first truly bold move on the field in Chicago over the weekend, benching Starlin Castro and moving Coghlan to the infield to make room for Kyle Schwarber's bat in the lineup every day.

[MORE: Anthony Rizzo believes Starlin Castro will be fine]

"It's a huge asset to have someone like Joe because he's not restricted by convention or by fear of how somebody might react to something," Epstein said. "He's not afraid of how the the media might react. He's not afraid of how we would react [in the front office]. He's not afraid of how the players would react.

"He can get out in front and handle things with the players in a great way. It just frees him up to see the game, to feel the game and to make the right moves preemptively if it's appropriate. That's always great.

"When you run into situations where you're not making the right move for other reasons, it doesn't feel good in the middle of the pennant race. So he's always going to do the things that - in his mind - put us in the best position to win. That's a good feeling."'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy


Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.