For all the debatable reasons behind what’s ailing the Cubs most during this disappointing first half of the season, know this:
Whoever fires Joe Maddon as the solution needs to look in the mirror and fire that guy, too.
Team president Theo Epstein’s thinly veiled shot across the bow a few days ago on his weekly radio hit on the team’s flagship station can’t hide or distract from the bulk of this team’s shortcomings that have nothing to do with its manager.
When asked about Maddon’s responsibility, Epstein prefaced his comments Wednesday by saying he’d rather “lump us in collectively.”
But then he went on to say:
“Joe has a unique challenge, too, because it’s his fifth year with this team, and he’s remarkably consistent. But we all contribute to the environment, including the manager. So when players aren’t responding to the environment I think sometimes you have to sort of do the impossible, which is try to find a new approach and new ways to reach guys while also maintaining one of your greatest strengths, which is your consistency and your ability to be the same guy whether things are going well or poorly.”
In other words, change? But don’t change?
If Maddon comes off annoyingly glib or nonchalant during rough stretches early in seasons, the larger context is a managing style that has been as successful as anyone in the game during his 14 years as a big-league manager – and that continues to work in the clubhouse.
“He’s done such an amazing job here creating this winning culture for five years now,” All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant said, who added that a sudden change in demeanor to, say, an in-your-face or kick-in-the-ass style would be unsettling – and detrimental.
“I feel like that would only have a negative impact on us going out there,” Bryant said. “We play with more pressure [already] because we want to win. I think he’s been super consistent, and I’ve appreciated that.”
Fire Joe Maddon?
Be careful what you wish for.
He has been justifiably criticized at times for moments such as his Game 7 management that almost cost the 2016 World Series, specifically the bullpen management leading up to, and during, that game.
But this was also the right manager at the right time for a team about to go on a run with rookies and other young talent. The magical 2015-16 run likely doesn’t happen with a different management style.
And the so-called disappointments during the last two playoff seasons had a lot more to do with declines in the quality of the rosters after 2016 than anything involving the field management.
And for all that has gone wrong this year, Maddon still has a team that plays hard for him, that remains behind him.
That can’t be said of previous managers, even under this regime – including Maddon’s predecessor.
Rick Renteria lost several of the veterans in spring training his lone year with the club, before reinventing and re-establishing himself on the other side of town.
“I’ve always been a believer that coaches get all the blame and not enough credit,” said veteran pitcher Jon Lester, who has played for five big-league managers with three organizations, and finished everywhere from last place to World Series champion (three times).
“Just because we played bad doesn’t mean it’s the manager’s fault,” Lester said.
Maybe another manager would find that theoretical extra win or two Epstein sought after last year’s quick wild-card exit when he talked about a renewed sense of “urgency” and a year of “reckoning” in 2019.
Then, again, this is a team that boxed itself into a position of doing little over the winter because of a $220-million-plus payroll full of fat.
The manager didn’t whiff on $164 million worth of rotation busts in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. The manager didn’t commit a two-year contract to a career injury case in closer Brandon Morrow – which led to a roster without a closer for a calendar year.
How many wins were left on the table in May and June because of that alone?
Is it on the manager that Ben Zobrist’s personal life cost the team its veteran hitter with its best approach at the plate exactly when it needs it most? The Cubs were on an 18-5 run when Zobrist left on personal leave in May.
Is it on Maddon that the organization hasn’t developed even one homegrown pitcher in the last seven years who might have mitigated the need to dump more than $138 million of its payroll this year on pitching?
That’s more than the major-league average for an entire payroll – more than the Orioles’ and contending Rays’ combined payrolls.
“I think Joe’s done a great job of managing,” Lester said, “controlling our guys as usual, controlling the starting pitching, the bullpen, the personnel, the changes – everybody. I think it’s just an easy thing to point out.
“He’s an easy target.”