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How Joe Maddon turned around Cubs and won NL Manager of Year

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How Joe Maddon turned around Cubs and won NL Manager of Year

Joe Maddon checks all the boxes for the Cubs, the free agent who lived up to his contract and already feels like a North Side institution after one unbelievable season.

The Cubs felt like Maddon would be the right guy at the right time to take over a last-place team – and will still be the ideal manager for a World Series favorite next year.

Looking at the big picture, being named the National League Manager of the Year doesn’t mean all that much. Especially when the Cubs are coming off a 97-win season that represented a 24-game improvement from the year before, and the franchise finally has some stability in the dugout after going through Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria since 2010.

But it’s still a nice reward for Maddon, who won the award on Tuesday, getting 18 of 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and finishing with 124 points to beat Mike Matheny (87) and Terry Collins (49).

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant lives up to hype, wins NL Rookie of the Year Award]

The BBWAA voting closed before the Cubs eliminated Matheny’s Cardinals in the divisional round and got swept by Collins’ Mets in the NL Championship Series. Even if Maddon admits he didn’t do the heavy lifting in this rebuild, the Cubs still needed a leader to shape all this blue-chip talent.

Maddon is only the fourth manager in franchise history to earn this award, joining a list that includes Piniella (2008), Don Zimmer (1989) and Jim Frey (1984). As Piniella once said, this is not some push-button operation. The Cubs used 150 different batting orders, six different fifth starters and seven different relievers to save games – while still keeping the peace in the clubhouse.

“Honesty minus compassion equals cruelty,” Maddon said. “So you never want to be cruel, but you have to be straight-up. I believe that if I’m honest with my players, they might not like me for a week or two. But if I lie to them, they’ll hate me forever.

“It’s a real fine line that you walk every day. A lot of what we do there is about our confidence level, and you never want to destroy anybody’s confidence. Ever. But the guys need to hear the straight-up truth, too.”

The truth is it wasn’t that difficult of a decision for team president Theo Epstein, who fired Renteria after Maddon used an escape clause in his contract that triggered last October, when Andrew Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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The White Sox recently hired Renteria, and the Cubs will be paying him while he works as Robin Ventura’s bench coach. But the Cubs made a great investment in Maddon, who has four seasons left on a contract that guarantees him around $25 million.

“Joe’s made a remarkable impact just by being himself,” Epstein said. “A major-league team over time starts to take on the personality of its manager, take on the sensibilities of its manager, take on the values of its manager, whether it knows it or not. That’s why I think we’re so nutty around here – in a great way.

“He pulled off the impossible, making a bunch of 21-, 22-, 23-year-old kids 40 years his junior gravitate towards him and feel comfortable around him and look forward to coming to work, in part because he was here and the environment that he created.”

Jake Arrieta is now a Cy Young finalist who will be featured in Wednesday’s award show. Anthony Rizzo finished with 31 homers, 101 RBI and an .899 OPS. Kyle Schwarber hit five home runs in the playoffs, one year after getting drafted fourth overall out of Indiana University. Addison Russell established himself as the everyday shortstop during his age-21 season.

“(Maddon) was a big factor,” said Kris Bryant, an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year this season. “From the very first day of spring training, encouraging us to be ourselves and (saying) don’t change the way you play and just being a real laid-back manager.

“It’s easy to talk to him. And (with) a lot of young guys on the team, I think that just breeds success. He definitely brought the best out of me.

“A lot of our success is just having him leading the way – and keeping us calm and confident – and at the same time having a lot of fun.”

There’s always a method to the madness. Maddon did it his way, trying to deflect negative attention away from the team, create good chemistry and distract the Chicago media by having Simon the Magician perform in the clubhouse, inviting zoo animals into Wrigley Field and playing dress-up on road trips.

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“Joe takes it to (an) extreme as far as just how relaxed he is,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “What Joe’s allowed some of the older guys and (role players) to do is just relax and have fun and not worry about your job. Or worrying about when they do get a chance, they have to produce.

“Having Joe and that relaxed let’s-do-simple-better (attitude) morphed into this. Obviously, a few of these guys have taken it to extremes with some of the stuff that’s gone on.”

The “Play Stupid” Cubs won 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings, never having a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games. Epstein’s front office couldn’t have found a better ringmaster for the Wrigleyville circus.

“He always tries to enjoy life,” said Hector Rondon, the Rule 5 pick who developed into a 30-save closer. “(Win or lose), he tries to get the best we have out of every game. That is a big difference when the manager and players have that good relationship. You can laugh (and relax). Whatever you want (to do) – do it. But the point is to play hard. If we play hard, we’re fine.”

The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model. That doesn’t necessarily mean Maddon’s presence alone is worth seven wins. But someone had to make it work after benching All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, moving All-Star starter Travis Wood to the bullpen and juggling two different three-catcher rotations.

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It couldn’t have been as easy as it looked from the outside, but Maddon had instant credibility as a two-time American League Manager of the Year with the Rays.

“Joe’s been preaching since spring training about selflessness, about check your ego at the door,” infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “You can preach that all you want, but when it messes with guys’ livelihoods and how they play in different roles and things they’ve been used to, the only thing that really gets guys to buy in is wins.

“Joe has won (before). And Joe is winning here. That’s what enables (it). If we were losing a bunch, and Joe was asking us to do all these different roles, there would definitely be some guys that would be frustrated behind the scenes. But we’re winning. And that’s the point.

“It doesn’t matter what our role is – we all say that. But to buy in is totally different. I think slowly but surely throughout the year, our clubhouse has bought in, and (guys played at) different levels, even in different roles that they’re not used to.”

Epstein knows that teams can talk about five-year plans only to watch those windows to contend slam shut. But with Maddon in charge, the Cubs feel like this is just the beginning.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com'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, MLB.com 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 MLB.com).

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 MLB.com'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 MLB.com 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.