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Joe Maddon’s long climb to the top prepared him for craziness of Cubs job

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Joe Maddon’s long climb to the top prepared him for craziness of Cubs job

HAZLETON, Pa. – Pressure? The stress of managing the Cubs, dealing with the 1908 baggage and handling the demands from the Chicago market is nothing compared to being stuck in the baseball wilderness.

That’s where Joe Maddon spent enough of his career to know how good he has it now. That’s why Maddon isn’t going to let you see him sweat, especially with a loaded roster that FanGraphs projects will win 95 games this year, an iconic stadium that feels like a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” and everything a world-class city has to offer a star manager.

“Here’s the thing, and I can’t emphasize this enough: I am so happy that it took me so long to get here,” he said during filming for the “Going Home: Joe Maddon” documentary that premieres Thursday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“All those like ‘near-misses’ or ‘Should I really keep doing this?’ Or ‘Am I on the right path here? How do I get to the next level?’

“I cannot imagine doing this job without the history that I’ve had. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.”

Thanks for playing

Maddon opened the letter from Mike Port – a California Angels executive who would help shape his career path – after the 1979 season. Maddon wasn’t drafted out of Lafayette College – and had spent parts of four seasons catching on the Class-A level – but the news still felt like a shock to his system.

“A horrible feeling,” Maddon said. “I’m not a college graduate. I’m hanging out in Salinas, California. I thought I was pretty good. And I get this letter I’m being released."

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Maddon had been the first in his Italian-Polish immigrant family – the name had been shortened from Maddonini – to go to college. But he didn’t finish his degree in economics and he definitely wasn’t a silver-spoon kid.

Returning to Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and taking over the family business in Hazleton – Joe Sr. ran C. Maddon and Sons Plumbing and Heating – was never an option.

“(When) I went to Lafayette,” Maddon said, “I was homesick the first couple days, and I called (my mother) from a pay phone at my dorm. I said: ‘Beanie, I want to come home. I want to be a plumber like Dad.’ She said: ‘No, you’re not.’

“That was the end of that. That was the first week of school. She was right.”

Maddon wound up playing for two independent teams in California – “My room was a closet – I’m not lying – I was living in a closet” – before coming back to Hazleton to work at a home for juvenile delinquents.

By 1981, the Angels had hired Maddon back as a scout and a minor-league manager. He drove all over the Rockies looking for players. He managed six seasons in places like Idaho Falls, Peoria and Midland, Texas. He worked as a roving hitting instructor from 1987 until 1993. He spent time as a minor-league field coordinator and a farm director before finally getting promoted to the big-league coaching staff in 1994.

“Joe had many, many jobs that no one that I knew envied,” said Bob Curry, a longtime friend who married Maddon’s cousin, Elaine, and is the founding president of their Hazleton Integration Project.

“No one was saying: ‘Gosh, I wish I was riding around in a school bus with a baseball bat being a hitting instructor for a (minor-league) team,’ or a scout where he’s going from city to city to city.

“People don’t realize how much you sacrifice. You sacrifice being with your family, watching your kids grow up, and we were always very conscious of that.

“But Joe was single-minded in his purpose. He always understood this is what he wanted to do. And in some ways, that’s a great fortune. There was never any question. This was it. This was his pathway.”

Waiting for the big break

A company man, Maddon took over when the Angels needed an interim manager in 1996 and 1999, raising his profile to the point where he interviewed for jobs with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox.

Future Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer met with the Angels bench coach at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix after the 2003 season, with Maddon finishing second to Terry Francona, who would guide the Red Sox to two World Series titles.

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“I always thought I would be a big-league manager,” Maddon said. “I always did. I never lost hope with that. I didn’t know where, when or how. But I always thought, too, I would like to start out with an expansion club, so you could build.”

That’s essentially what the Tampa Bay Devil Rays still were when Maddon interviewed with Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman – two young executives with Wall Street backgrounds – in October 2005. They met during the World Series at a hotel in Houston, where the White Sox would sweep the Astros, ending Chicago’s 88-year drought.

Tampa Bay had lost at least 91 games in each of the franchise’s first eight seasons, and Maddon would get two last-place finishes on his resume before the Rays shocked the baseball world and made it to the 2008 World Series.

Maddon didn’t get the Tampa Bay job until three months before his 52nd birthday, giving him the patience, emotional intelligence and scar tissue to handle a massive rebuilding project and the newfound fame.

“His personality (has) not changed at all,” Curry said. “I think had he achieved success at a very early age, that may have been an entirely different story.

“Because we all know people who do achieve success at an early age, and there’s no sense of perspective. With Joe, he’s always conscious of where he came from, who he is, and he’s always getting back to his roots.

“The Joe Maddon that you guys see on television is the same Joe Maddon that I see in my living room.”

“You think I do crazy things?”

Maddon developed the mad-scientist act throughout his long climb to the top. But at this point, Big Data has overtaken the industry, extreme defensive shifts are standard operating procedure and zoo animals and dress-up trips are all part of The Maddon Experience.

Five 90-win seasons with the Rays – and his easygoing nature in front of the cameras and the national media and on Twitter – turned Maddon into a brand name. 

“What I do in Chicago is what I’ve been doing for the last 25 or 30 years,” Maddon said. “I don’t do anything differently. I know what I think works on the field. I have my methods in regards to running a clubhouse, interacting with the front office, what I think about scouting. I could do anybody’s job there.”

Maddon says things like this in a matter-of-fact voice, without undermining Epstein, Hoyer and a scouting/player-development operation that did most of the heavy lifting before he ever got to Wrigley Field.

“They’re not just about fantasy baseball,” Maddon said. “Regardless of like the new wave or the sabermetrical components or the young guns, whatever, they understand and respect what happened before, purely good old-fashioned baseball and the way it was raised.

“There are dudes out there who are just about fantasy baseball. If you just follow the schematic, it’s going to work and it’s going to play. It’s almost (disregarding) personalities and feelings and feel and thought and what you see in somebodies’ eyes and what their heartbeat is like. 

“There’s that group that believes that has nothing to do with it. It has so much to do with it. When you can combine the forces of what had happened in the past – and what’s going on right now – you can be really successful.”

It’s one thing to sit around an RV park in Florida and drink beers and talk baseball – as they all did after Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays in October 2014 – and another to follow up a trip to the National League Championship Series with a World Series title.

It’s the different dynamic between the dugout and the front office that this franchise needed to reach the next level, making Maddon’s five-year, $25 million deal a bargain, considering it’s roughly half of what the Cubs invested in Edwin Jackson, or annually about what a decent middle reliever would get as a free agent.

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“My perspective is that Jed and Theo get it,” Maddon said. “When they ask me something, I believe they’re listening. It’s sincere. And they know I play good in the sandbox, because my job is to make it work with what they set up.

“The best line was (from) Colin Powell. He was talking about giving advice to the president: ‘I give him my best advice and then I give him my strongest loyalty.’”

Pressure? Maddon already did all the grunt work, throwing countless hours of batting practice, sitting through the 11-hour bus rides to Medicine Hat and waiting for a chance like this.

“I love this stuff,” Maddon said. “That’s how you become who you are. So you think I do crazy things? You think I think outside the box? Because I could try different things in Midland or in Salem or in Idaho Falls or in the back fields at Gene Autry Park in Mesa, Arizona.

“Five-man infields, whatever you want to do – done it – back then. All these things that I do now are rooted in the fact that I pretty much had free rein to make mistakes back then, but nobody could see them. And that’s how you get to this point.”

“Going Home: Joe Maddon,” a Comcast SportsNet Original documentary, premieres Thursday, Jan. 14 at 9:30 p.m., immediately following “Blackhawks Postgame Live.”

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.