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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.

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."