The Chicago Cubs announced this week that their new Field Manager, replacing Rick Renteria, would be Joe Maddon. Renteria’s Cubs went 73-89 in 2014, his first season as a Big League Manager, and finished last in the tough National League Central Division. His record during that year was seven games better than the 2013 Cubs and 12 games better than 2012.
However, with the team that Cubs Vice President for Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has been putting together and the club’s declared intention to go all out in the Free Agent Market this year, Maddon appears to have been available at just the right time.
Since coming to the Cubs after the disastrous 2011 season in Boston, Epstein has moved to build a young team and develop the farm system. The Cubs have possibly the most loyal fan base in baseball after having not won a World Series in 106 years. The City of Mesa, Arizona built a state of the art new spring training facility which seats 15,000 fans for the Cubs last year and it was sold out every game in spring training. Despite their last place finish in 2014, the Cubs drew an average of 32,742 fans per game at home, 11th in all of baseball.
Maddon brings a ‘ can do ‘ attitude to the team. In his nine years with Tampa Bay, he was named American League Manager of the Year twice, in 2008 and 2011, and took them to the World Series in 2008 and to the Playoffs in 2010, 2011 and 2013. After taking over a horrible team, then called the Devil Rays, in 2006, he won only 127 while losing 197 his first two years but for the next seven years he won 627, while losing just 508.
He is an unconventional Manager in many ways running the team like a college team, complete with dress up days, entertainment, including animals in the club house, and treating his team like a family. He is often quoted as saying ‘ Don’t ever let the pressure exceed the pleasure.’ He is already talking playoffs next year which may be a bit optimistic with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds to get by. The division may be the strongest in baseball at this time.
Maddon never played in a Major League Baseball game. Like many Managers, he was a catcher by trade but, after being signed as free agent in 1975, he only spent four seasons as a player in the California Angels system from 1976 through 1979, never getting above A ball. He managed in the Angels system from 1981 to 1986, starting with the Rookie League at Idaho Falls and progressing to Midland, Texas in AA in 1985 and 1986. He was an interim Manager for the Angels for 22 games in 1996 and for 29 games in 1999. He spent 31 years in various capacities with the Angels before joining the Devil Rays.
At 60 years old, Maddon is a great motivator and teacher who gets the most out of his players. If you play for Joe Maddon you’d better be ready to play anywhere in the field. He has had more multi-position players than any manager I have ever seen. At Tampa Bay, it seemed like he had to come up with a new pitching staff every year as his best were traded away or left to go elsewhere, including David Price and James Shields, two of the best in baseball, in the past two seasons. At Tampa Bay, he had the advantage, also, of Jim Hickey, perhaps the best Pitching Coach in baseball.
Epstein is reported to have long admired Maddon’s managerial style and most baseball people were not surprised how quickly he replaced Renteria. Almost immediately after he announced he was leaving the Rays, rumors began to circulate that he was going to the Cubs and the only thing that delayed the actual announcement was baseball’s tradition of not making public announcements during the World Series to avoid detracting from the series.
Epstein brought the Red Sox their first World Series in 86 years in 2004 and his team won it again in 2007. He was named American League Executive of the Year by Baseball America in 2008 and Sporting News Executive of the Decade in 2009 after becoming the youngest General Manager in baseball history with the Sox in 2002.
The Cubs have a solid nucleus and are committed to building a competitive team quickly. The hiring of Maddon for five years at $5. million per year seems to indicate a willingness and ability to spend money to achieve that end. With Maddon at the helm and Epstein in the office, they could put together a team that could end the longest drought in baseball history.
Can they improve enough to make the playoffs this year, or even next year? Not in the division they have to compete in but Joe Maddon will make the Cubs a much better team.