Baseball’s general managers meetings in sunny Scottsdale, Ariz., have ended, a mountain of bar tabs have been settled and the winter meetings in San Diego (did someone mention bar tabs?) are a few short weeks away. Any front office worth its salt should be about as prepared as it gets to begin shaping destiny with the trades, free-agent signings and other moves that make Hot Stove season burn with the intensity of a thousand suns.
Or flame out, depressingly. It depends, one supposes, on the market and which way the winds blow.
Here in Chicago, all things baseball seem alight with urgency these days. In the weeks to come, every move will be magnified. As offseasons go, it’s a mighty big one.
In that spirit, it feels like a fine time to ask: Which of our major league teams will be next to win a World Series?
Will it be the up-and-coming White Sox, who have stockpiled young talent that could be ready — with the right veteran pieces brought on board — to take a giant next step?
Will it be the Cubs, who can pretend all they want that they’ve forgotten what happened in 2016 even though the alluring stench of greatness still wafts about them when the wind blows just right?
Or will it be that other team, the one just a hop, skip and another couple of thousand miles or so away — Joe Maddon’s Angels?
In 2020 and beyond, the Angels and their inimitable, sloganeering leader, especially if he follows his managerial track record and quickly turns his new team into a gathering force — a true contender — will be on the minds and in the sights of many a baseball fan in this town.
A skipper of Maddon’s caliber isn’t easily forgotten, and one who did his part to bring a championship to the city becomes more than just an ongoing curiosity.
Think back to the keen interest in the Saints that existed here after Mike Ditka became their coach in 1997. Or to the fascination with the Lakers after Phil Jackson took their reins in 1998, fresh off a second championship three-peat with the Bulls.
When the Sox and Ozzie Guillen parted ways after the 2011 season and he was instantly scooped up by the Marlins, what happened? On a team with a brand-new ballpark, big-ticket free-agent additions and “Miami” newly a part of its name, Guillen’s profile only grew. The Marlins were positioned as instant contenders, and we looked on from afar while they and their motor-mouthed manager failed spectacularly.
A far more recent example, this one in South Florida, too: Joel Quenneville. His Panthers are off and rolling in the NHL’s early season. If, months from now, they’re skating in the Stanley Cup playoffs while Jeremy Colliton’s Blackhawks have their feet up in front of the TV, you’d better believe that jarring juxtaposition will resonate here.
Coaches and managers like those — like Maddon — don’t simply move on. They linger as measuring sticks.
So: Whose team will be the next to light the league on fire, Rick Renteria’s, David Ross’s or Maddon’s?
The answer could turn out to be none of the above. It’s no fun to think that way, though.
The Sox would have us believe they’re going pedal-to-the-metal after superstar free agents. The right one could be all that’s needed to lead Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito et al. up the mountain.
The Cubs already have done a good bit of offseason rejiggering throughout the organization and are so serious about sharpening their edge at the big-league level, they jettisoned — gasp! — their massage therapist and their yoga instructor. They just might deal away a marquee player such as Willson Contreras or Kris Bryant for a potentially game-changing return, too.
And the Angels? Much like the Cubs did heading into 2015, they demonstrated exactly where they believe they’re at by kicking a manager to the curb after only one season — with two years left on his contract — in order to pounce on a proven tectonic plate-shifter.
Rick Renteria survived. Brad Ausmus will, too. Maddon, meanwhile, instantly gives the Angels — who have the best player on the planet in Mike Trout, the most unique talent in Shohei Ohtani and ownership that’s ready and willing to spend — heightened credibility.
The Angels — with their share of young, promising, pliable prospects in the mix, too — are banking on a quick rise led by Maddon, whose impacts in Tampa and Chicago were undeniable.
“That’s our hope, to be able to show improvement year to year,” GM Billy Epler said. “And if that improvement can come in bigger steps, that’s great.”
Dumping Ausmus for Maddon underscores that the Angels are “always in win mode,” according to A’s GM David Forst.
“We’re always concerned about the Angels,” Forst said. “They have the resources. They have smart people there. They have a pretty good base to start with between Trout and Ohtani. It’s always a concern of ours.”
Maddon wouldn’t have returned to the Angels, with whom he spent the first three decades of his career in baseball, if he didn’t think he could win another World Series during the course of his three-year contract.
And don’t forget this gem from his introductory press conference:
“My ultimate goal, my ultimate pipe dream, would be to play the Cubs in the World Series and beat them,” Maddon said.
That would be the most dramatic way imaginable to win it all first.