What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.
The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.
And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.
Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.
But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”
That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.
The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.
The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.
Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.
“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”
Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”
It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.
“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”
You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.
Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.
A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.
That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.
Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.
The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.
But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)
Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.
Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.
More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.
Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.
Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.
So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.
No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.
But it might have shown a little pride.
Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.
And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.
It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.
Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)
It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.