Chicago Cubs: What’s behind the front office’s challenge to Joe Maddon?

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Responding to a challenge from the Chicago Cubs front office, manager Joe Maddon will spend more time working with players during the 2019 season.

We live in a strange age. One where a Chicago Cubs manager who has averaged 95 wins over his first four years with an organization is questioned and put on the spot – even by his own front office.

Clearly, the minimum required return has been somewhat elevated since Maddon came to town ahead of the 2015 campaign – one in which he led the Cubs to a Wild Card berth and eventual NCLS appearance, the team’s first since 2003.

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In Tampa this week, near where Maddon makes his offseason home, he spoke about the challenge put forth by Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations – in short, to be more hands-on and come back ‘re-energized’ after his team stumbled down the stretch in 2018.

"“I’ve always kind of stayed free of coaching because I really want to stay out of coaches’ way so they can do their job,” Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that is the right way to do it. But this year I’m going to get a little more hands-on involved in actually coaching. I think that’s where the comment came from. I actually want to do less before the game — talking to the media and whatever — and try to get on the field more often.”"

Of course, the coaching staff will have plenty of new faces next season. Bench coach Brandon Hyde will return as Maddon’s right-hand man. The front office fired Chili Davis at season’s end and replaced him with John Mallee protege Anthony Iapoce. They’ll look to fill the assistant hitting coach void left by Andy Haines joining the rival Brewers and also need a new pitching coach.

So, you know, nothing new here. Just a typical offseason where fans are already losing their minds over the team not retaining a 35-year-old reliever who far exceeded his career norms last year with Chicago. Oh, and re-filling half the big league coaching staff’s main positions.

What more does Epstein want?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we are living in the Golden Era of Chicago Cubs baseball. And even that isn’t enough for Epstein and ownership. But what more can you ask for from Maddon, who guided a banged up, underperforming club to 95 wins and a Game 163 in a tight race for a division crown last year?

Well, if I had to guess, it would be turning that underperforming, inconsistent team into a consistent juggernaut that steamrolls opponents in a way similar to the 2018 Boston Red Sox. If he gets more than eight starts out of Epstein’s big acquisition from last offseason (Yu Darvish) and gets anything remotely close to usable frames from the other signing (Tyler Chatwood), that job gets a lot easier.

But, really, the writing seems to be on the wall for Joe Maddon in Chicago – win, or else. Telling Maddon to be re-energized and more hands-on gives Epstein the perfect cover to part ways with the quirky two-time Manager of the Year next year if the team falls short again.

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So, for Joe Maddon, it’s simple. Put your fingerprints all over the success of the 2019 Cubs – and silence the doubters – and the front office – in one fell swoop.