There hasn’t been a good explanation why the Cubs are letting Joe Maddon walk, and there probably won’t be one – at least not offered up publicly by Theo Epstein or Maddon. They’re keeping their differences to themselves, forcing fans to believe that it was only the proverbial “time for a change.”
Maybe that’s the right way to make a change. But it leaves a lot of people scratching their heads about how exactly the Cubs could willingly part ways with a manager who won their first World Series since 1908 while compiling a .582 winning percentage in the regular season.
“We’re both going to move on,” Maddon said on Sunday in St. Louis. “Hopefully, the Cubs are going to flourish. Hopefully, I get a chance to do this someplace else. But there’s no tears shed. It’s a good moment for everybody. And we’re both excited about our futures.”
Maddon won’t lack for opportunities, with teams interested in being the third franchise he leads to a pennant. Wherever he goes – Philadelphia, the Angels or to the Padres or another team that is currently seeking a manager – he won’t face a bigger challenge than winning with Tampa Bay and the Cubs.
As for the Cubs, it’s unclear how Epstein and the highest paid front office ever assembled will be better without Maddon in 2020 and beyond than they were with him the last five years. But they failed to win the National League Central after holding a five-game lead on September 2 last season and missed the postseason altogether this season, leaving a managerial change as the easiest change to make.
ESPN broadcaster David Ross, a cult hero who homered in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, is the leading candidate to replace Maddon. He expressed interest in the job during the Sunday Night Baseball telecast.
“I think it’s one of the best jobs in baseball,” said Ross, who currently works as an analyst for ESPN. “I’ve got a lot of close ties with those guys. I think the interest would be there. I think my heart is drawn to that dugout a little bit.”
There is no other heir apparent beyond Ross, who has also worked as a special assistant to Epstein since retiring after the 2016 season. If Ross isn’t the pick, Epstein could go the route that the Cardinals did in mid-season two years ago, promoting the little-known Mike Shildt to replace Mike Matheny.
Terry Francona, who managed the Red Sox when he and Epstein broke the so-called Curse of the Bambino in 2004, could surface in speculation but it seems unlikely he’d leave Cleveland. He signed an extension with the Indians in April, guaranteeing a club option for the 2020 season and adding club options for 2021 and ’22.
There was little suspense to the announcement the Cubs made before Sunday’s season-ending loss in St. Louis. Maddon had been on thin ice since he wasn’t offered a contract extension after the 2018 season. This was the last year on the five-year deal that prompted him to leave the Rays, and he never attempted to put public pressure on Epstein or team chairman Tom Ricketts for a new deal.
The managerial situation is just one of many difficult questions facing the Cubs this winter. They are expected to overhaul a roster that has grown stale and lack financial flexibility to pursue top free agents. The team has the resources but has tried to operate near the margins of Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax threshold, which will be $208 million next year.
Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are all within two years of free agency. It’s possible that at least one member of the trio will be dealt to add younger, less expensive talent to the roster.
Epstein scheduled a news conference on Monday in Chicago. There will be no shortage of topics for discussion.