Cubs: The power dynamic between Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein


Cubs: The power dynamic between Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein

NEW YORK – Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein have big egos, strong opinions and multimillion-dollar contracts. If they weren’t wired with that self-assuredness, the “celebrity” manager and the “rock star” president of baseball operations wouldn’t be running the Cubs right now.

There will inevitably be personality conflicts and creative tension between Maddon’s dugout and Epstein’s front office. But 77 games into Maddon’s first season, the Cubs definitely aren’t the same dysfunctional group that finished in fifth place for five years in a row, sweeping the New York Mets out of Citi Field with Thursday’s 6-1 victory.

That’s the high-end talent Epstein’s group has acquired – Jake Arrieta again looked like a frontline starter exactly two years after that trade with the Baltimore Orioles – and the relaxed-but-focused atmosphere Maddon’s coaching staff has created for a 42-35 team that limited the Mets to one run during this three-game series.

The dream sequence is Maddon sitting around an RV park in Navarre Beach, Florida, with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, drinking beers and talking baseball philosophy.

The nightmare is organizational chaos, the power play Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia – Maddon’s old boss – just made in Anaheim. That struggle for control forced general manager Jerry Dipoto to resign this week after a 98-win season last year.

“There should be disagreements,” Maddon said. “The healthy component is when you feel comfortable. How do you get to that point? You build a relationship and you trust each other – and then it becomes a healthy debate. If there’s not relationships and trust, then it becomes pushback on both sides, and therein lies the difference.

“If you truly want to have a healthy situation, you get to know each other. You trust each other, and now you can have a really good debate, so it’s not an argument. It’s not a disagreement. It’s a nice debate. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about getting it right at that point.

“Sometimes people skip over the relationship building and the trusting part. And when you do that, it’s just going to be a battle. The guy with the biggest ---- wants to be heard.”

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Scioscia’s resistance to analytics and next-level scouting – the kind of raw data Maddon would try to gather as the bench coach for the 2002 World Series champs – reportedly caused extreme friction with Dipoto.

That’s one area where Maddon’s outgoing nature and sense of curiosity have meshed well with Epstein’s intense desire to find any competitive advantage.

“I love the Geek Department,” Maddon said. “I seek out the Geek Department. I give them stuff all the time to work on. I want information. Jeremy (Greenhouse, the assistant director of research and development) and the boys have been great.

“Stuff I need that I don’t know – I ask them right down to pitch selection. Why is a guy struggling? Has his arm angle dropped a bit? Is it still in the same spot? All these different things that I can’t see with the naked eye – that we can (see) technologically speaking – I want to know.

“You could make a commercial out of that.”

[MORE: Addison Russell ready to handle the grind of a long season]

Maddon is a pitchman while being a face of the franchise sometimes makes the introverted Epstein uncomfortable. The big idea is they will balance each other out with their strengths and weaknesses.

Maddon lobbied hard for Javier Baez to make the team out of spring training – and constantly offers ideas about the roster – but he’s not demanding final say.

It helps that Maddon has a life outside those clubhouse walls – and that Epstein has the credibility that comes from those two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox.

“I only want to do my job,” Maddon said. “I want to do my job and then leave and then go have a glass of wine. Or ride my bike in the morning and not worry about making a ton of phone calls and player-personnel decisions. I’d rather do what I do.”

Maddon already balanced old-school values and Wall Street ruthlessness during his nine years with the Tampa Bay Rays, overseeing an ascendant small-market team that produced five seasons with 90 or more wins.

Scioscia is an outlier at a time when franchises have diminished the importance of managers. Scioscia has three seasons left on a 10-year, $50 million contract and a seemingly direct report to owner Arte Moreno.

Maddon – who has a five-year, $25 million contract – might be one of the few managers left with the stature to tell his bosses: This is what I want. Give it to me.

“I would never say that,” Maddon said. “I will tell you what I think. I really believe in the executive, judicial, legislative branches. I believe in all that stuff.

“I believe in checks and balances. I want ‘em, because I know what I think and what I believe, but then you have to hear this other opinion also to really try to come to the correct conclusion. There’s so much going on out there. There are so many bright people out there. I want to hear what you have to say, man.

“The least attractive item would be for me to have so much power that I would not have to listen to these (people). That would be so unattractive to me.

“This is my job. Even though I feel qualified to do other things, it’s not my job.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get a new Cubs hat right here]

New York tabloids already buried the Mets on the back pages – “MEET THE MESS” and “ZEROES!” – of the newspapers stacked neatly in piles on Thursday morning across a table in the visiting clubhouse.

Terry Collins – one of several managers Maddon had worked with during his 31 years in the Angels organization – is definitely on the hot seat.

Maddon sat in an office packed with reporters and rattled off the names of other managers who ran the Angels during that time: Gene Mauch, John McNamara, Cookie Rojas, Doug Rader, Buck Rodgers, Marcel Lachemann.

“There has to be a strong relationship between the front office and this seat,” Maddon said. “It’s changed dramatically over the last 15 or 20 (or 30 years) where there was this autocratic manager (whose) power exceeded everybody’s. He was almost in charge of all decision-making, and any time a team changed managers, you really changed everything.

“There were different organizations every couple of years. As a minor-league instructor, the thing that always stood out to me was that every couple years that you got a new manager, you’d have to go back to the minor leagues and teach an entirely different system, which I thought was insane.

“That’s where the confusion could pop up. So I always thought that there should be uniformity, obviously, between the manager’s seat and the front office: How do you want to work this as an organization? Because too many times they become two organizations – major and minor leagues.

“Why have the Dodgers been so good for so many years? Why have the Cardinals been so good for so many years? They have one organization. So that always baffled me (with the Angels).

“In today’s world, there’s got to be synergy between this seat and the front office to make it really resonate for years.”

The Cubs believe they now have that foundation in place – and not enough material for the next season of “Game of Thrones.” Stay tuned, because it will be fascinating to watch.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.