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."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items


Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.