In our latest podcast episode over at The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma and I took stock of the Cubs here at the break, and grappled with the obvious disappointment despite a “first place” standing.
Among the discussions that bubbled up: is it possible that everyone could believe Joe Maddon is doing a good job, is making the right decisions as the manager of the Cubs, and could still be let go even before the season ends?
Sounds crazy in that context, right? It did to us, too, but it wasn’t just a matter of being reactionary meatballs. We *do* think Maddon is doing a good job, overall, and I can very easily get past the in-game stuff with which I disagree (that’s going to be present for EVERY SINGLE MANAGER EVER). Maddon is one of the best managers in Cubs history, and he’s probably doing a solid job again this year. My expectation is that he remains the Cubs’ manager on the final day of this season, which will hopefully come on the last day of the postseason.
In other words, this discussion is not about whatever Maddon has done “wrong,” and whether it merits a firing. That discussion, in my view, would be nonsense.
But the rub is this: if you’re going to make significant changes to an underachieving club, as Theo Epstein and the front office have loudly proclaimed they need to, there are only so many areas you can make change. That means serious moves on the roster – which is not always entirely within your own control as a front office – or serious moves with the coaching staff. The Cubs have, quite literally, had three pitching coaches and three hitting coaches in the last three years, so it’s a bit hard to pull that lever again.
Thus, you’re left with at least having the conversation about whether a change is needed in the voice in the clubhouse, regardless of who is to “blame.” For the most part, baseball players, you know, do the baseballing. So any “blame” questions that focus on the guys not doing the baseballing is, in some ways, entirely missing the point.
But maybe there is more to the fundamental lapses on the field than players just flukily making mistakes. Maybe there is more to the stark difference between run production and individual talent level. Maybe the things that were perfect for what the Cubs were in 2015 and 2016 are simply not working with what this group has become in 2018 and 2019. Maybe there’s a reason the front office declined to negotiate an extension with Maddon coming into the final year of his deal, and instead allowed these questions to persist on into what might be a lame-duck season.
It’s a weird spot to be, having this conversation despite feeling like Maddon is a very good manager and having no confidence that anyone who might replace him would be an immediate improvement. Indeed, the only thing I’d be confident about is that it would be some measure of change. And that might not be reason enough to actually cast aside one of the most successful managers in Cubs history.
Eventually, the central messages from any leadership – manager or front office or boss or parent – fades in its effectiveness as the world around it changes. I see no reason not to have this conversation now when the Cubs seem to have struggled with many of the same issues this year as last year, and in the face of myriad “behind the scenes” changes to the way the Cubs were *supposed* to be preparing. Maddon’s relationship to the team’s struggles, regardless of his past success, has to at least be on the table.
It’s important to point out that Theo Epstein declined to hammer Maddon in his frustrated radio interview last week, or in follow-up conversations this weekend:
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) July 7, 2019
Epstein mentions there, as he did last week, that Maddon has been remarkably “consistent,” which is more credit than debit in an MLB managerial stewardship. The question is whether that consistency – the messaging and the preparation – are the right fit for these Cubs going forward. It can all be good stuff, and it can still not quite work.
So, then, am I saying the Cubs should shock the world and fire Joe Maddon right now? I am not.
Instead, I’m saying only that, so long as the same concerns about performance results relative to talent persist, the front office will have only so many options for making significant change. A change in leadership – especially when it is a manager in his fifth year, and the final year of his contract – must at least be among the considerations. The front office would have far more visibility to whether it would actually help or hurt, and I won’t pretend to know those inner-workings.
I’ll just say I think Maddon continues to do, overall, a very good job. If he finishes out the year as the Cubs’ manager, that would be just fine with me. But I would not be surprised if leadership and its relation to the underperformance of the club is under consideration – regular evaluation – by the organization. How could it not be?