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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.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs got their money’s worth with Joe Maddon at the microphone]

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.

[MORE CUBS: Playing Stupid - The Year in Cubs Quotes]

“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.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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.

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.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: