Whatever expectations Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon had before the 2015 season began, their current mission is clear. The Chicago Cubs want the top NL Wild Card. Joe Maddon played the fatherly good cop up until the trade deadline. On July 31 the Cubs were eight games over .500. In August Maddon buried the accelerator and the Cubs went 19-9, including a run of 21 wins in 25 games. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Maddon has been ruthless. He hooks veteran starters, burns his bullpen, and benches unproductive position players as he digs his spurs into his young roster of thoroughbreds.
Bad cop Maddon isn’t waiting around for his third, fourth, and fifth starters to work things out. If they’re getting hit they don’t get five innings to find a groove. In early to mid-August Maddon yanked veteran starter Jason Hammel in three consecutive starts.
“Early in the season I would have left him out there for nine innings,” Maddon said. “He just hasn’t been as sharp with his command lately.”
In June the Cubs acquired veteran reliever Rafael Soriano. In six games Soriano posted a 6.35 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP. He was placed on the disabled list in early August. “We get to slow Rafael down a little bit,” Maddon said. Soriano was released on September 1.
Three time all-star shortsop Starlin Castro struggled all season long. When it came time to make a move Maddon didn’t hesitate. Castro went to the bench and Addison Russell went to shortstop full time.
“I did not give him any promises on how he is going to be utilized, other than ‘just stay ready off the bench,’” Maddon said. “I didn’t want to give him any kind of false promises whatsoever. He could be playing (Saturday). I’m not sure yet. I want to see how it plays today, but I wanted to be upfront with him and just let him know it’s not just a day off.”
After Theo Epstein was hired as President of Baseball Operations in October of 2011 Chicago was subjected to three years of teams stitched together with AAAA players and expired prospects. 101 losses in 2012, 96 in 2013, and 89 in 2014. A frustrated and abused Cub Nation fired up their torches and dusted off their pitchforks. A voracious and shortsighted horde of media led them to the gates of Wrigley at Clark and Addison.
Then, almost three years to the day he was hired, Epstein jumped through a loophole and snatched Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay Rays. Theo pleaded for patience and confidently assured the bristling masses that a plan was in place. The torches and pitchforks were lowered and the crowd slowly dissipated.
At some point last winter Epstein’s brain trust began feeling pretty good about the Cubs big league roster. General Manager Jed Hoyer and Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod had been working in Dr. Epstein’s laboratory for three years. The village began hearing disturbing rumors of baseball monsters taking shape. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber were drafted. Jorge Soler was signed as an international free agent. Addison Russell was acquired in a trade. Epstein was optimistic, but realistic.
In April Epstein and the Cubs were featured in a long form piece by Bloomberg Businessweek. Theo tried to temper expectations as he compared his rebuild to the Kansas City Royals.
“There is a broad band of potential outcomes this season,” Epstein said. “Is it going to take that long for our guys? It very well could. Young players deserve patience.”
It hasn’t taken that long. The Cubs are in the playoffs. Cub Nation is baffled. The Chicago press is still sharpening their fangs; but as the 2015 season unfolds there is nothing to sink their teeth into. The Cubs are winning against all odds. Scott Lindholm, in an article for Baseball Prospectus, reminded the baseball world that no team starting four rookies has ever made the playoffs. Maddon’s Cubbies have made that statistic roadkill, and the bandwagon is barreling toward the postseason. The Pirates better look out.
Yesterday the Cubs took three out of four in Pittsburgh. They are now two games behind the Pirates; and their ace, Jake Arrieta, looks unbeatable. Sure, anything can happen in one game. Maddon wants to see it happen at Wrigley. The October 7th NL Wildcard game will feature the Cubs and Pirates. (Barring a St. Louis collapse.) Right now it looks like a matchup between Arrieta and Pirates starter Gerrit Cole. Both teams have 16 games left, and are 6-4 in their last ten. Both teams have tough series this weekend. The Cubs square off against the Cardinals at Wrigley; and the Pirates take on the Dodgers in LA.
Clint Hurdle mysteriously rested Andrew McCutchen in the series finale on Thursday; and the Pirates suffered a major blow when multi-purpose Jung Ho Kang was lost for the season. Joe Maddon isn’t resting anybody. The Cubs meandered into the thicket of the NL playoff race this season, and now they’re charging out of the forest. The Epstein monster is on the loose.