Joe Maddon remembers driving his RV from Pennsylvania through Virginia when Andrew Friedman broke the news over the phone that he would be leaving the Tampa Bay Rays for a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That triggered the escape clause that Alan Nero, Maddon’s Chicago-based agent, had negotiated into the manager’s contract, getting a concession from a small-market franchise that would never pay top dollar for talent. Maddon initially didn’t even know the opt-out existed.
That chain of events from October 2014 helped shape the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Wrigley Field. Maddon and his wife Jaye hosting Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at an RV park on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Cubs firing Rick Renteria, who’s now resurfaced on the South Side as the White Sox manager. Friedman trying to meld the best parts of Tampa’s lean operation with Guggenheim Partners money and a Dodger Way of developing homegrown talent.
“Andrew and I are really good friends,” said Maddon, who got his own five-year, $25 million contract. “I was really happy for him. Because being the age that he is – getting that opportunity to go to a market like that – I knew how much he wanted to do something like that. It was a perfect fit.”
The Plan? It’s more like Controlled Chaos. This industry is too volatile and too competitive to follow some five-year plan and automatically go from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins this year. Humans play the games – not robots. Epstein’s front office laid out the scouting-and-player-development philosophies and worked within the financial parameters while chairman Tom Ricketts supported a long-range vision. But Maddon arriving like a lightning bolt shows some of the randomness and how the Dodgers shaped this Cubs team and what should be a must-see NLCS:
• Only Epstein had the juice and the credibility to sell this teardown to Cubs fans and the Chicago media after winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts – who played at Rancho Buena Vista High School in California with Cubs executive Jason McLeod – helped cement that legacy with his famous stolen base against the New York Yankees during an epic comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
• While pursuing Jon Lester, the Cubs worried about the Dodgers jumping into the bidding war and becoming the new Yankees. A highly placed Red Sox official predicted the Dodgers would try to make Lester an offer he couldn’t refuse during the 2014 winter meetings.
But Lester doesn’t exactly have a Hollywood personality. Friedman wanted to build a roster around depth and flexibility. And the Cubs wouldn’t hesitate to do that six-year, $155 million megadeal all over again with their Game 1 starter.
• If Lester doesn’t win a Cy Young Award this year, it might go to Game 2 starter Kyle Hendricks, a prospect the Cubs acquired in a buzzer-beater deal at the July 31, 2012 deadline. Remember, Ryan Dempster clung to his hard-earned no-trade rights, hoping to play with Ted Lilly at Dodger Stadium.
Dempster said the Cubs put him on the phone with Ned Colletti – the Los Angeles general manager at the time – to hear that wasn’t going to be an option. The Cubs had already seen a trade with the Atlanta Braves collapse (Randall Delgado) and finally closed the Hendricks deal with the Texas Rangers.
Baseball America listed seven pitchers on its top-10 list of Dodger prospects in 2012: Zach Lee; Allen Webster; Nathan Eovaldi; Chris Reed; Garrett Gould; Chris Withrow; and Josh Lindblom.
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• To market short-term assets like Dempster – and mold young talents like Hendricks – the Cubs have leaned heavily on the pitching infrastructure built with the help of ex-manager Dale Sveum and coaches Chris Bosio, Lester Strode and Mike Borzello.
That sophisticated game-planning system has roots in Borzello’s time on Joe Torre’s staff, working with Dodgers catcher/future Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Applying Ausmus’ principles and taking it to the next level helped create value for pitchers like Scott Feldman and Jeff Samardzija, who got flipped for a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), an elite setup guy (Pedro Strop) and an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell).
• Imagine the Dodgers lining up Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman to face the Cubs in a must-win NLCS game.
Either the Dodgers made the correct zero-tolerance statement on domestic violence, or their high-powered front office didn’t do nearly enough homework on Chapman, or a Hollywood franchise didn’t want to deal with the PR fallout. Whatever combination of factors led to a deal with the Cincinnati Reds falling apart during the winter meetings, Chapman wound up with the Yankees, serving a 30-game suspension to begin this season, getting traded to Chicago and changing the entire look of this Cubs bullpen in October.
“He’s fit in seamlessly with the rest of the group,” Maddon said. “With us, he’s been outstanding. And I only can judge or gauge him by my interaction with him. And it’s been really good.”