The Cubs had more than a year to think about the manager with whom they wanted to replace Joe Maddon. But after firing Maddon at the end of the season, they still hadn’t replaced him by the time he landed his next job.
That the Angels became the second team in five years to fire a manager with two years left on his contract to hire Maddon almost certainly says more about Maddon’s stature than it does about the Cubs’ process — or at least something about the relationship Maddon has with his original organization.
But it also underscores the big question Cubs president Theo Epstein faces as he replaces the most successful manager in franchise history, whether he hires in-house favorite David Ross, Astros hot-shot bench coach Joe Espada or anyone else:
In the quest for ‘‘the perfect guy for this moment in time for this group,’’ will Epstein regret firing the guy who became the hottest free agent on the market as soon as it happened?
‘‘I honestly don’t think so,’’ Maddon told the Sun-Times the day after his hiring became official. ‘‘We all have different skill sets that are meant for different moments in time.’’
As much as Maddon hoped to return to the Cubs and as confident as he is that he’ll return to October with the Angels, he won’t point fingers or seek validation in his next gig for the decision Epstein made in his last one.
But anyone who has followed the Cubs for even the last two decades — never mind a nearly barren 20th century — has a sense of how many big-name managers tried and failed in a job that became famous for swallowing up managerial careers.
That’s not lost on Maddon, whose success in ending a 108-year title drought not only took the fire out of the dragon when it comes to managing the Cubs but raises the obvious question of whether the Cubs would have won that elusive championship without Maddon at the helm.
‘‘It’s one of those things we’ll never know,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to believe I had something to contribute to it. The best people to ask would be the players or the front office. Talk to the players.
‘‘Everybody’s always hypercritical of the peripherals. But it’s really about the players. If you put the players in the right position to succeed and the right environment and interact well . . . . But you have to have the talent. You can’t just do it.’’
He had a short rotation and a shorter bullpen in his first season in 2015, when the Cubs reached the National League Championship Series, and he had the youngest starting lineup to win the World Series the next season.
But rookies, second-year players and veteran newcomers who had every right to press in October, as their predecessors did, managed to avoid the pitfalls that sank Dusty Baker’s and Lou Piniella’s playoff favorites before them.
‘‘If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have this winning culture, this winning attitude, these expectations of winning here,’’ 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant said. ‘‘Because when he first got here is when we really started to win, and it’s no coincidence.’’
Even Epstein said: ‘‘He changed this franchise forever.’’
Whether Epstein’s crew undervalued Maddon’s even-handed approach by the time it appeared to seek a more ‘‘grinding’’ — even kick-in-the-ass — influence the last 13 or 14 months, Maddon thinks he knows why he succeeded. And he stands by his methods as he returns to the Angels’ organization, in which he spent the first 30 years of his professional career.
‘‘I’m really aware of a lot of visceral things and feel,’’ Maddon said.
Maddon, who carried around a computer as a minor-league instructor long before it was common, insists he’s ‘‘into the numbers.’’ But there might not be another manager in the game today with Maddon’s ability to read people and draw strengths out of players, a common thread when players, staff and bosses from his past talk about him.
‘‘That’s why I don’t stay in the dugout during the game, why I stand on the steps,’’ he said. ‘‘Feel your room. Feel your guys. You’ve got to feel everything going on around you.
‘‘It exists. Feel exists.’’
Maddon saw the other side of it as a first-time big-league coach with good Angels teams that collapsed late in 1995, 1997 and 1998 as pennant races got the hottest.
‘‘They’d get to the end, and all of a sudden everybody wants to change everything,’’ he said. ‘‘You become more serious or dire, in a sense, and you just don’t hold that same attitude that got you there in the first place. Why would you do that?’’
Intentional or not, that might be as close as Maddon gets to publicly clashing with Epstein about the best approach for getting the most out of a roster the last two seasons that clearly wasn’t as good as other teams in the league that continued to improve.
‘‘Maybe some guys underachieved to a certain extent,’’ he said. ‘‘But 95 wins [in 2018] is 95 wins, brother. Some people think it’s easy to do, and it’s not.’’
The Cubs were gassed by a seven-week stretch run that included only one day off because of weather-related makeup games and lost an NL Central tiebreaker and wild-card game on back-to-back days.
A team with no offseason improvements weathered injuries and bullpen problems much of this season to stay within striking distance of the playoffs until a nine-game losing streak in the final two weeks.
‘‘There were a lot of contributing factors,’’ Maddon said, looking back with the benefit of 2½ weeks of distance.
“I love my guys and will never speak [negatively] about my guys. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. This year, we’re the bug.”
These days, he’s looking forward more than anything, especially as he returns to a familiar organization for what figures to be his last managing job.
‘‘I believe they’re a lot closer than people want to give them credit for,’’ Maddon said of the Angels. ‘‘I’m just as excited as the first day I signed with the Cubs several years ago. I feel the same energy.’’
As for what might come next with the Cubs, Maddon said he thinks even a first-year manager such as Espada or Ross would have a ‘‘great chance’’ to pick up where he left off and succeed, especially with what’s certain to be the support of the front office and ‘‘working off the same sheet of music.’’
And he’s all about the candidate he knows best.
‘‘I would love for David to get it,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He checks all the boxes, except he hasn’t done it before. They’ll put the right people around him and give him the right information. David’s really smart.’’
Having been a catcher, Ross understands the pitching side of the game better than most, said Maddon, also a former catcher.
‘‘Those are the toughest parts to learn,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I think he’s got a real leg up.’’
He said he wishes Ross would have agreed to become his bench coach at some point after finishing his playing career with Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. Ross declined to be considered for the job a year ago.
‘‘I’m a big David fan,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘One of the biggest reasons I can say I’m a World Series champion [manager] is because of him.
‘‘If he would take the job next, there’s nothing I would love more than that.’’