Cubs

Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

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Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

On the other side of the visiting clubhouse, you could hear “Joy to the World” blasting from the manager’s office on Sunday afternoon at Miller Park.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers and won their 97th game, an astonishing number for a young team that had averaged almost 93 losses across the previous five seasons.

That Three Dog Night song summed up Joe Maddon and the intoxicating feeling around this franchise.

Especially in Wrigleyville, the manager gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses.

But the Cubs wouldn’t have the third-best record in baseball without Maddon pumping up their confidence, energizing the fan base, distracting the Chicago media and pushing all the right in-game buttons.

There’s no one the Cubs would rather have standing in the visiting dugout on Wednesday night at PNC Park, looking out at the Pittsburgh Pirates through those distinctive glasses in what should be a high-stress, low-scoring National League wild-card game.

“Joe is the perfect manager for this team and this situation,” said Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations. “It’s authentic. He brings everybody up around him, keeps it loose. It’s great for young players. They love being around him. There’s no doubt we’re not here today without him.”

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

The perfect storm started last October with Andrew Friedman leaving the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract.

Since taking over at Clark and Addison in October 2011, Epstein had inherited/fired Mike Quade, hired/fired Dale Sveum and chosen Rick Renteria as a bridge manager with player development in mind.

With Renteria in limbo — and already told he would be back in 2015 — Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met Maddon and his wife, Jaye, at an RV park along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They hung out at “The Cousin Eddie” and had drinks together on Navarre Beach.

By Halloween, the team had issued a press release headlined: “Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.”

But in giving Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract, the Cubs didn’t get another free agent past his prime. This is a manager at the absolute top of his game.

“He lets us be ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who last offseason made a point to visit Maddon at Ava, his Italian restaurant in Tampa. “He really doesn’t care what we do, as long as we’re ready to play — and play hard.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

Maddon is a brand now. That comes with the instant respect he didn’t have walking into the Devil Rays after three-plus decades working in the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels organization, waiting for that shot.

“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon said. “I didn’t have the same credibility, in a sense, (back then). There were a lot of tough conversations that first two years with guys that really weren’t very good major-league players and thought they were.

“Wow, that was like some really delusional stuff that you had to deal with behind closed doors. It was really bizarre, because I had come from a really good situation in Anaheim.”

Jonny Gomes, the veteran outfielder now going to the playoffs with the Kansas City Royals, remembered how much Maddon wanted to take down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the same way the Cubs have thrived in a division with three teams that won at least 97 games.

Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in 2006 and 2007 — losing 197 games combined — before a stunning run to the 2008 World Series.

“The biggest thing that Joe brought was belief,” Gomes said. “I remember at the time when he took over, there were actually talks of Tampa leaving the AL East (and) maybe us going to the Central. And I think player-wise and fan base-wise, we were like totally on board.

“I remember one of the first things Joe said was: ‘Hell, I don’t want to leave the AL East.’ This was powerhouse Red Sox-Yankees. (Joe says): ‘I want to win the East.’ I remember being like: ‘Um ... OK?’

“It just proved what can happen in between the lines, in the clubhouse, on the plane and on the bus when the captain of your ship not only sets goals like that but backs it and puts people in situations to succeed.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight]

Maddon is the 61-year-old fraternity brother from Lafayette College who loves The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen but can still relate to all the millennials in the clubhouse listening to rap music and staring at their iPhones.

Maddon is the blue-collar guy from Hazleton, Pa., who spends most of his time in Chicago on the Gold Coast, shopping and eating at high-end restaurants.

Maddon is the baseball lifer who doesn’t believe in being the first one to the stadium or taking batting practice or leading the league in eyewash.

“Joe’s been the perfect manager for this group,” Hoyer said. “He’s had exactly the right touch at the right moment. He knows when to step on the gas, when to give guys hugs, when to give guys rest. He’s been ideal.

“It is hard to imagine us having this kind of success with this young group without having Joe at the helm.”

Maddon is not the micromanager telling coaches how to do their jobs or the old-school guy going with his gut and ignoring The Geek Department.

Maddon is the perfect ringmaster for the Wrigley Field circus, bringing Warren the Pink Flamingo into the interview room/dungeon, part of a rotating cast of characters that included Simon the Magician and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin.

[MORE CUBS: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

“Maybe you’re surprised (when) you’re walking on the concourse and he’s rolling in a cheetah,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But you’re not surprised at the level of how it begins with the players and how much they respect him.

“That’s his reputation. He relates to every single player on this team. He just has a special kind of charisma, and he keeps everyone loose but focused. And everyone plays confident. There’s no way to objectively measure it, but it’s just a huge part of this season.”

The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model, and their run differential drops to plus-64 when you take away that 17-0 blowout victory over the Cleveland Indians on June 17 at Progressive Field.

The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

“I think I’m less important (in the playoffs),” Maddon said. “It’s all about the players. My intent in the postseason is I really try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Probably the only impact you should have is hopefully within the bullpen and getting some guys in there at the right time. But overall, it’s about players.”

But someone has to point the players in the right direction, handle the egos, deflate the pressure inside the clubhouse, synthesize all the analytical information, make real-time decisions on national television and deal with the media before and after every game.

For this team, this city and this moment, the Cubs couldn’t have found a better manager than Maddon.

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."