We have already reached the dog days of Spring Training, believe it or not. I don’t know about you, but I’m already itching for some real, bonafide baseball games. With less than three weeks until the MLB season officially kicks off under the lights in our beloved Wrigley Field with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it’s time to trickle in a few season predictions.
Without yet managing a single regular season game in Cubbie blue, Joe Maddon has already established himself as an early favorite for the National League’s Manager of the Year award thanks to his impressive résumé and engaging managerial style.
Predicting an award so predicated upon a club winning is a tricky proposition in the middle of March, but Maddon already has the hype necessary to get him in the discussion. It all began in early November, when he had already opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays — finishing with a 754-705 record — and the Cubs were considered the runaway favorites to sign Maddon. Two weeks later, he was the new skipper for the Chicago Cubs, signing a five-year deal worth $25 million plus incentives linked to the playoffs — with no opt-out clause.
Instantly the 61-year-old manager began discussing the idea of Wrigley Field housing postseason games in 2015. For Maddon to be considered for the prestigious Manager of the Year award, the Cubs will need to not only have an above-.500 record, but also compete for a playoff spot.
What makes Maddon such a compelling choice for Manager of the Year each season is his ability to get the most out of what is given to him. While in Tampa, the Rays consistently ranked in the bottom tier of payroll in the MLB with a plethora of cheap free-agent signings as well as spectacularly groomed homegrown talent. Stars such as David Price, Evan Longoria, James Shields, Ben Zobrist and Matt Garza all flourished while under the watchful motivating eye of Maddon.
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That’s why he and Chicago were such a perfect fit. North Side fans have been anxiously waiting patiently as the influx of difference-making prospects push their way out of the minor leagues and into the spotlight of “The Show.” Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson — the list is enormous when it comes to prospects Cubs fans have been salivating to see penciled into lineups, and Maddon is the man to groom them all. Rick Renteria was a nice manager, Joe Maddon is an elite manager.
Prospects are iffy to rely upon due to the inevitable growing pains for young players attempting to get accustomed with Major League pitching. That means the Cubs’ studs will have to carry the load. Anthony Rizzo proved last year he has more than enough talent with a good head on his shoulder to be the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future — and possibly win an MVP award. Starlin Castro showed improvements not only at the plate and on the field, but in terms of maturity as well.
Jon Lester, of course, has been brought in to be the ace of the rotation that has depth thanks to impressive youngsters like Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. Not to mention newcomers Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero — this Cubs roster is a perfect mixture of veterans and rookies alike who can be taught and motivated perfectly by Maddon.
Matt Williams of the Washington Nationals won last year’s N.L. Manager of the Year honor and not since 2004/2005 has a manager won back-to-back awards when Bobby Cox did it for the Atlanta Braves. Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh could prove to be a viable candidate if the Pirates establish themselves as an elite team in the National League, while it is impossible to count out Mike Matheny in the baseball-winning factory that is St. Louis.
Typically when it comes to Manager of the Year, the award goes to the skipper running that year’s surprise team — see: Pittsburgh and Hurdle in 2013, Kirk Gibson and Arizona in 2011, Jim Tracy and Colorado in 2009. That would put the Cubs and Maddon in a perfect position considering Chicago has not had a winning record since 2008.
Should Maddon nab another Manager of the Year nod, it would be his third time winning the award — his first while in the National League. Only Hall of Fame skippers Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox have won more than three. Lou Piniella brought home the award while managing the Cubs in 2008 and Maddon will do what Piniella couldn’t — win the award in his first year with Chicago AND win a playoff game. That’s right, the Cubs will make the playoffs in 2015 and Maddon will be a huge reason why.