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Cubs vs. White Sox: What if Joe Maddon managed on the South Side?

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Cubs vs. White Sox: What if Joe Maddon managed on the South Side?

An opposing player said the guys in the Cubs clubhouse talk about Joe Maddon as if he’s a god.

“It’s kind of crazy,” reliever James Russell said. “You get the feeling that he’s like leaking into your soul, almost, as he’s talking to you.”

What if Maddon managed on the South Side?

It’s a question worth asking this weekend with the Cubs on pace for 89 victories and Robin Ventura under fire as the last-place White Sox come to Wrigley Field for three games before the All-Star break. Even if the noise around Ventura is coming from the outside – Twitter, talk radio, newspapers – and not his actual bosses.

But it’s a fascinating juxtaposition when so many teams that won the offseason – the White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres – are in fourth or fifth place while Fangraphs gives the Cubs a 72.8 percent chance of making the playoffs.

In terms of a broader corporate culture, the White Sox have probably been too loyal, too insular over the years, where the Cubs can be so cold-blooded, too quick to slice and dice, making so many decisions off spreadsheets and the bottom line.

Russell has now played for five different managers – Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria and Maddon – during his six seasons on the North Side. The Cubs finally know who’s in charge and can feel that sense of stability.

“He’s really the same guy every day,” Russell said. “There’s no change. You could walk up, kick his dog and I feel like he’s the same guy.”

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It’s certainly not all Ventura’s fault the White Sox are a huge disappointment – in the same way Maddon shouldn’t get all the credit for the premium talent acquired and shaped by Theo Epstein’s front office, scouting department and minor-league development staff.

How much is Maddon worth? Forget Manager WAR. Just look at the five-year, $25 million contract at a time when managers are getting shorter and smaller commitments and less and less autonomy.

“There’s part of what we do that you really can’t put a number on,” Maddon said. “I can’t quantify what happens in a clubhouse. How much does a manager or a coaching staff really (matter)? There’s a lot that goes on behind (the scenes) that really plays into the success out there that I don’t think is measurable.

“The best thing a manager can do is attempt to put the players in the best position to be successful.”

It always comes down to the players.

But if you are a Cubs fan, is there anyone else you would rather have standing in the dugout making split-second decisions?

And if you are a Cubs executive, is there anyone you would trust more to look after young talent, work with the Geek Department and distract the Chicago media?

“He’s awesome,” reliever Pedro Strop said. “He’s the kind of guy who lets you be who you are, no matter what. It’s a huge (key) for a player. When you’re trying to be something that’s not you, it’s tough to get to your top level.”

[MORE: Cubs feel sting after Cards deal gutting defeat Wednesday]

Maddon, 61, will watch the Blackhawks clinch the Stanley Cup at Tavern on Rush, see the Grateful Dead play Soldier Field and take advantage of everything this city has to offer.

But Maddon is still someone who became rich and famous later in life, after doing grunt work for three decades in the Angels organization.

That’s why Maddon has trouble believing ex-players are ready to move directly into the manager’s office – or understanding why an executive like Dan Jennings would shift from Miami’s front office to the dugout with zero professional coaching experience.

“I’m really grateful for the fact that it took me so long to get to this particular moment,” Maddon said. “I did all those different jobs in the minor leagues – all of them – and even in the big leagues.

“If I didn’t have all those years on a bus, on a back field, in an instructional league, watching guys that I thought did it well – and watching guys that I thought did not do it well – (who knows)? All that stuff matters.

“If you look at how the industry is reacting right now, maybe some people don’t believe it’s as necessary. But I cannot even imagine doing any of this stuff without the experience that I’ve had.”

It’s hard to picture Maddon in a place that’s a better match for his ego, talents and off-the-field interests. The Tampa Bay Rays saw it as another insider deal in Chicago – Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, has an office on Michigan Avenue – and forced Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation.

Maddon is both calculating and spontaneous around reporters. The blue-collar kid out of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, now has a collection of classic cars and a “bicoastal” lifestyle. The shot-and-a-beer guy drinks fine wine after games.

“One thing I do know is that players read everything you say every day,” Maddon said, “whether it’s in print, or online, whatever. So I feel as though I have a team meeting every day, almost, based on what I say to you guys (in the media).”

So when the rookie second baseman looks overmatched at the plate, Maddon drives the conversation in another direction, saying just how good pitching has become, explaining all the ways technology has conspired against hitters and promising everything will be all right. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick that would make Simon the Magician proud.

“He protects his players,” Addison Russell said. “That’s the type of manager he is. He just says: Go out there, play your butt off and have some fun. That’s basically it. That means a lot to me.”

[RELATED: Cubs see their belief in Addison Russell pay off in win over Cards]

Maddon held court in Comerica Park’s visiting dugout before a game against the Detroit Tigers last month. A TV guy jumped in to begin the manager’s media session with a standard question about changing the culture, and Maddon gave a boilerplate answer.

Almost seven minutes later, the TV guy interrupted the flow and said: “Joe, first off, I apologize, because your answer was brilliant…”

Maddon – who couldn’t remember the question – said: “Of course it was.”

The TV guy said: “But we had a technical glitch. Anyway…about the culture change and all that entails…”

Instead of telling the TV guy what to do with that microphone – or breathing fire the way an old-school manager would have in a different media environment – Maddon kept rolling.

“You have to build relationships, first of all,” Maddon said. “You have to get out and talk to people and get to understand them. When you do that, they know that they have my trust. I got to earn their trust. Once you’ve earned trust, then you can have this real free exchange of ideas. And that’s where the culture shift pops.

“There are low-trust organizations. There are high-trust organizations. You’ll never want to work for a low-trust organization. And if you do, you’re going to work there for a very short period of time.

“We want to be a high-trust organization, and I think we are, so when the guys come in, they feel all that. They want to be there. They feel comfortable and they can be themselves. These are the real key components to any organization thriving – not just a baseball team.

“These are things I believe in. I want to believe that our players feel that when they walk in the door every day. And if they don’t, then it’s my fault.”

This was like something out of “The Office,” one of Maddon’s favorite TV shows. But Maddon seemed satisfied with the answer as he opened it up to the rest of the group: “I think that one was better.”

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

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USA TODAY

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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