I don’t think I’d go quite as far as that headline, but Albert Chen at Sports Illustrated did when he named the Cubs’ hiring of Joe Maddon the top offseason move so far, ahead of the many sexy player transactions out there. It has almost been easy to forget what an enormous move Maddon was for the Cubs, given all of the excitement that has followed in the last few weeks.
Among Chen’s comments: “We tend to overstate the impact of managers (the Royals did just fine last season despite the blunders of Ned Yost) but Maddon — perhaps the most underpaid man in baseball over the last few years — will be worth every cent of his contract with the Cubs. If there’s one manager in baseball who could single-handedly transform a franchise, it’s him. Face of the franchise, company spokesman, effective partner to the front office, master clubhouse motivator, brilliant tactician: He will be all these things for the Cubs.”
I think there’s at least a little bit of an argument there, depending on how you define “top move.” It probably depends in large part on how you value managers, a subject we’ve been over a few times in the last couple months without really landing on a conclusion. In terms of wins and losses, the most aggressive estimates put managerial value at something like six or seven wins for the best of the best (which, let’s be honest, that’s Maddon’s tier), while the most conservative estimates are closer to one or two wins.
Even if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (and noting that there probably isn’t the same depreciating aging curve for managers that you’d see for a big free agent signing), that’s an enormous difference to the Cubs. And that’s ignoring any supplementary value Maddon might have, such as long-term player development improvements, added ticket sales via more positive attention, and free agent recruitment.
Consider that FanGraphs currently projects the Cubs at 83-79 for 2015, which is a borderline playoff team (remember: projections are necessarily conservative and bunched around the middle). That projection is based on the Cubs’ roster and individual player projections. It does not, therefore, include the hard-to-quantify value that a manager provides, both in terms of individual player performance, but also in terms of lineup construction, defensive usage, and high-leverage decisions.
Imagining that Maddon is worth, say, four wins above the average manager – this is deeply hypothetical and solely for the purposes of discussion/illustration – that puts the Cubs at 87-75, which would be tied for the third best record in FanGraphs’ conservative projection. Heck, even in the real 2014 season, the two Wild Card teams had just 88 wins.
I still think the Cubs need to add a bat if at all possible, but it’s nice to dream on where things stand with Maddon in the fold. And, for that reason, it’s certainly reasonable to argue that the team made its biggest addition long before the Winter Meetings.