MESA, Ariz. – It may not be well recognized outside the Midwest, but the National League Central has produced five of the last seven NL MVPs, two of the last three NL home run champs, four of the last six league leaders in innings pitched and – perhaps not coincidentally – five of the last seven NL wild card teams.
In fact, every team in the division not named the Chicago Cubs has qualified for the playoffs within the last four years.
All of which leaves new Cubs manager Joe Maddon itching for the kind of fights his Tampa Bay Rays put up while scrapping for position in the division that used to be considered the best in baseball, the American League East.
“A lot of people thought we should be in another division,” Maddon said of his small-market, underdog Rays in the Yankees-Red Sox bracket. “No way, man. I want this NL Central to be considered the best division in baseball. I want it to be that strong. The stronger it is, the faster we’re going to get better.”
The Cubs believe they have some of the best young prospects in baseball coming through the system, but the Pirates already have their young core in place, led by the center fielder many believe is the best player in the National League, Andrew McCutchen. The Cardinals keep pumping homegrown talent onto a roster brimming with it, and even the little-market guys in Milwaukee and Cincinnati have a big-league edge on the Cubs in division talent at most positions.
Center fielder Dexter Fowler, a veteran of both leagues before joining the Cubs in an offseason trade, said that talent gap has closed considerably.
“Playing them in years past, it’s been – not a pushover – but obviously they were rebuilding,” he said of the Cubs. “Now these guys are something to reckon with. To be part of it and see the process that’s going on is awesome.”
Now comes the hard part of the process. Getting results with that talent. Big-league performance. Winning.
Maddon knows it well – and well knows that part of it with a young team is about fight. Sometimes literally.
It wasn’t until his young Rays stopped getting pushed around by the $200 million big shots in the division that they started bloodying the bullies’ noses, and started their competitive turnaround.
They made headlines with bench-clearing incidents with the Yankees in spring 2008, then in June emptied the benches at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Maddon, who started the Sox fight by yelling at their dugout during a pitching change, said that one was the game changer for the Rays.
They went 62-40 the rest of that season and wound up in the World Series.
“All that stuff’s necessary sometimes,” he said. “Nothing’s going to be given to you. You’ve got to take it – you’ve got to take it, man. That’s the whole thing.
“Leadership is not given. Leadership is taken. So with our players, if we’re going to have success within this division, we have to take it. Nobody wants to do us any favors, I promise you that.”