As if the Cubs didn’t have enough on their mind at the moment – (1) their season of urgency has started out with a thud, (2) the obvious bullpen concerns from the offseason have materialized immediately, and (3) the Milwaukee Brewers keep on winning and having fun while they’re doing it – there’s also the Joe Maddon of it all.
Nothing Joe Maddon has done this season in the games can be blamed for the Cubs’ five loses. That won’t be true all year long and it hasn’t been true in the past, but when the must trustworthy arms available to you – both in the bullpen and the rotation – let you down and an otherwise sterling defense commits more errors than ever, there’s not much you can do at that moment as the manager.
But that’s not the only problem. There’s also Maddon’s contract status, which is to say he’s a lame-duck manager whose team is off to a slow start, a year after the most frustrating end to a 95-win season. That’s distracting and disheartening, and like so many other unsavory offseason narratives, just hangs there as an additional, unwanted dark cloud on the horizon.
Even if you somehow had managed to put that out of your mind to start the year, Terry Francona’s extension in Cleveland forced it right back upon us. Francona, of course, was the manager in the other dugout when the Cubs won the World Series with Maddon, was the manager for the Cubs’ front office when they were in Boston, and was the guy who got that job over the other finalist … Joe Maddon. The two are linked, and Francona has been extended. Maddon has not.
Joe Maddon told the Sun-Times, “I’ve never compared myself to other people,” when asked about his situation and the Francona extension, and believes that “all this stuff’s going to work it’s way through in due time.” But it’s hard not to feel bad vibes. Lame-duck managers always seem to be in that zone.
Now, usually, the bad vibes associated with a lame-duck manager can be partly explained by selection bias (i.e. only bad managers or managers of bad teams don’t get contract extensions, so those situations are inherently intertwined with negative feelings). But that’s not really the case with the Cubs. Joe Maddon has led the team to four straight playoff appearances and is coming off a 95-win season. And yet his future is uncertain. For a fan base that generally believes in the Cubs front office, their uncertainty becomes our uncertainty. And when that uncertainty is matched by a terrible start, how else can we respond to the way this season has gone?
I have no doubt that a fast start to the year would’ve pushed this far away from our minds, but that’s not our reality. And because of that, we’re left feeling even worse than we have before. The tougher realization, though, is that there’s not an easy solution.
The Cubs are basically incapable of resolving this lame-duck status in a convincing or effective way. If they came out and said Maddon is definitely not returning after this season, that would makes things instantly worse. And given the way things have started, an extension would certainly feel weird – even if that’s not fair to Maddon.
If the Cubs keep on losing, the wheels may really come off. I can imagine a world a (terrible) month from now, where Joe Maddon is not just fighting off questions of his long-term security (i.e. will he and the Cubs come to an agreement for next season at some point), but also questions for the short-team – that is to say, will he make it out of this season in a Cubs uniform? And if the team is really losing badly, those narrative drumbeats will only get louder and louder. In my opinion, it’s way too early to actually consider the substance of such things – and I hope we never get there – but I’m just telling you, that’s the way this is going to go if the losing remains this bad.
The only good news so far is that Maddon has toed the party line to a fault, saying “I’ve been treated more than well. So I don’t lament or worry about things like that.” But it’s fair to wonder how long that positivity can sustain itself.
This is hardly the Cubs’ biggest issue right now – their actual performance on the field is my primary concern – but it’s just another seemingly self-inflicted wound that perhaps should have been addressed before this season began.