Have you ever put together one of those puzzles that’s supposed to take an obscenely long time? Yeah, neither have I.
However, I can say that I’ve watched someone put one of those suckers together over the last three years. Well, almost.
That someone is Theo Epstein (with the help of Jed Hoyer), and that doozie of a puzzle is the Chicago Cubs. More specifically, the Cubs team that will win a World Series.
I say “almost” because that puzzle isn’t complete yet. But it’s a lot closer now after the team officially announced Joe Maddon as manager on Monday, possibly the biggest piece yet.
Epstein and company have turned a depleted farm system into the MLB’s best, constantly building the talent pool through shrewd trades and sound drafting. But at some point, the Cubs brass would have to shift that focus to building the major league product.
They’ve proved themselves in trading and drafting, but still hadn’t ventured into the realm of big time free agency signings — the ultimate signal that its “go time.” We just didn’t know that the first big splash would be a manager. Nobody did.
Except Theo Epstein of course.
‘Maddon to the Cubs’ rumors came out of nowhere during the World Series, instantly grabbing the attention of anyone who likes the Cubs or baseball.
Rays GM Andrew Friedman leaving to become President of the Dodgers certainly was a sign, but still. Joe Maddon to the Cubs? Now?
It couldn’t just be chance. Joe Maddon is the single most ideal candidate I could think of to manage the Chicago Cubs.
In 2006 he took the reins of a terrible 101-loss Tampa Bay Devil Rays team. By 2008, Tampa Bay finished 97-65 and won the AL pennant.
Maddon had a good team in Tampa, but he didn’t exactly have a star studded lineup or rotation. He had two starters with an ERA over 4 (including the brutal Edwin Jackson) and only one starter with an ERA just barely under 3.50. So how did he pull it off?
If you’ve watched a Rays game, you know that Maddon isn’t afraid to think outside the box — a big reason Theo and Jed like him so much.
Utilizing shifts is a huge weapon of Maddon’s. Take the five man infield for example:
Shifting helps eliminate holes on the field and cuts down the distance a fielder must cover to get to the ball. This requires studying tendencies and spray charts to predict where the batter will likely hit the ball. Maddon is a numbers guy, playing right into Epstein and Hoyer’s core ideology.
What are a players strengths and weaknesses, and how can we get the most out of that player without his weaknesses having a negative impact?
It’s a question a lot of managers face, but utilizing that strategy is the tricky part. Maddon has proved he can do it. He also studies opposing players, which is why he’s able to pull off such crazy shifts.
Another aspect of Maddon’s perfect-for-the-Cubs resume is his ability to win with a relatively young and inexperienced team. He’s not afraid to stick it out with young guys just starting to gain big league experience, something the Cubs have plenty of.
Joe Maddon’s job will be to guide and shape those players as they get called up, not a bad gig considering the talent he’ll be working with. That opportunity is what seemed to attract Maddon to the Cubs in the first place.
Something Epstein knew would happen when the time was right.
The charismatic manager could also play a huge part of who the Cubs pursue in free agency, which is the final piece of the massive puzzle. Epstein and Hoyer will naturally focus on players that fit Maddon’s style of managing; including Royals pitcher James Shields — who pitched seven seasons under Maddon in Tampa Bay.
Rumors about Shields, Jon Lester and other big free agents coming to the Cubs are sure to increase in frequency as we approach baseball’s winter meetings. That’s because the Cubs are heading into these meetings as a contender for the first time since Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago.
When Epstein suggested as much last month, even the most optimistic Cubs fans had to take it with a grain of salt. The team showed improvement under Rick Renteria, but 2016, not 2015, seemed like the year the ‘contending Cubs’ would arrive.
That was before Joe Maddon of course.
Did Theo know Maddon would be joining him in Chicago when he said the Cubs would contend in 2015? Nobody will ever know, but it makes a lot of sense.
The Rays went as far to accuse the Cubs of tampering, saying that Maddon was interfered with under contract. Again, the chances something like that ever gets proven are minuscule. But the logic is there.
For the Cubs to hire their custom-made World Series manager so quickly, just a month after they said Renteria is “absolutely” coming back, it seems the Maddon move had to be somewhat premeditated.
Maybe Theo and Joe first talked about it at last year’s winter meetings. Maybe it came up on the golf course four months ago. Maybe, it really all did happen this quickly.
But knowing Theo Epstein, this wasn’t by chance. It was the next part of the plan.
Well played, Theo.