Joe Maddon will be back as the Cubs’ manager in 2019. Theo Epstein confirmed as much during his approximately 70-minute end-of-season press conference Wednesday.
There was speculation that Maddon and the Cubs might have parted ways after the earliest end to a season during his tenure, speculation that perhaps there was some unseen behind-the-scenes head-butting going on between the skipper and the front office. Epstein made sure to say that wasn’t true, that conflict over baseball ideas is welcomed and that he in no way prefers a yes-man running his team.
But while Epstein did his best to put that issue to bed, he was refreshingly honest to the point that he revealed not everyone in a Cubs uniform is always happy with Maddon’s methods. The team president fessed up that certain players are a little frustrated with Maddon’s constant lineup shuffling, something that’s been a Maddon trademark since he arrived on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season — and the Cubs’ rise to the top of the baseball heap.
“Maybe a little bit, honestly,” Epstein said when asked if there’s frustration among the players over the lack of a set, everyday lineup. “But I also think they understand. They look around and they see the talent here. And that’s how players talk about it. ‘We have so many talented players who deserve to play, and that’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us really good. But here’s how sometimes it makes me feel, and here’s how if we could communicate about it it could make things a little bit easier.’ I just think it’s important to hear that and to listen and to communicate as much as possible about it and to be transparent.
“In a situation that’s more uncertain —more uncertain than a set lineup every single day, which we don’t have with this group — helping players anticipate as much as possible when they’re going to play, their role so they can think along is really important. And I think that’s something that Joe tries to do and does effectively. But we can all get better at it. I learned some things from talking to the players today, and I’m going to share those with Joe. I’m sure Joe learned some things from his discussions with the players, too. We’re going to continue to try to get better at it.
“I would say the players very much understand but that they’re human and of course at times they get frustrated, more often when they’re not playing or not hitting than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”
The lack of a set 1 through 8 in the batting order during the majority of a 162-game season has worked rather well for the Cubs since Maddon took over as manager. They’ve averaged more than 96 wins during his four seasons, all of which ended in playoff berths, three of which saw the Cubs reach the NLCS and one which ended in a World Series championship.
It’s been a luxury for a team that’s had plenty of depth during this stretch. Maddon’s juggling of certain positions on the field and his desire to get certain, more traditional everyday guys rest has allowed the Cubs to stock their bench with players whose talent makes them capable of being everyday guys on many, if not most, other teams.
Being able to bring guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ — and, before his rise to superstardom, Javy Baez — off the bench has helped the Cubs late in games. And as Epstein put it, it’s saved the Cubs in injury situations over the years.
“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 (wins) the last four years, more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “When you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over, Ben Zobrist slides to second base, and when you lose Kris Bryant, David Bote’s there to fill in. Player after player. The alternative to that overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role, and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal.
“That said, there is a price to pay, sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence that they can go out and play and develop at their own pace. If they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow, that’s something that you wrestle with.
“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough, or to have eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries your whole season’s down the tubes.
“It’s the depth of really quality players we’ve had that’s kept us afloat at many times.”
The existence of frustration isn’t exactly surprising for players who consider themselves — and in many cases have proved themselves — capable of everyday roles. But this is not a new topic for the Cubs, one that predates even these comments from Zobrist in spring training.
“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody,” Zobrist said in February. “You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”
So while Maddon’s methods might be a tad frustrating at times, they also allow for plenty of opportunities. And more than 96 wins a season.