This is Joe Maddon’s fifth year as manager of the Cubs. It could be his last.
In his first four years, his teams averaged nearly 97 wins. From 1936 to 2014 — the year before Maddon arrived — they won as many as 97 games exactly once (2008). In those four years, the Cubs reached the NLCS three times. In the 46 years of division play before Maddon arrived, the Cubs had reached the NLCS exactly three times (1984, 1989, 2003).
And in 2016, Maddon’s second season as the franchise’s manager, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908. How long ago was that? Teddy Roosevelt was elected as president in 1908 and baseball didn’t even have MVP awards yet (Honus Wagner, who led the NL in average, RBIs, stolen bases, hits, doubles and triples, likely would have won, tho). Yeah.
Maddon’s track record is exemplary, by any measure, for any franchise — but especially for the team on Chicago’s north side. And yet, as the Cubs roll into the final three weeks of the 2019 season, Maddon’s future is very much in doubt. The issues aren’t all about the Cubs’ performance in 2019, though they’re 4.5 back of the Cardinals and hold a tenuous margin over a handful of teams for the second wild card spot. That was made very clear in the offseason, when the Cubs’ front office very publicly decided not to offer a contract extension for Maddon. His original five-year deal ends after the 2019 season.
Maddon and the franchise brass — president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer — reportedly didn’t see eye to eye on certain issues, and the frustrating way the 2018 season ended — from 3.5 up in the NL Central on Sept. 18, to a wild card spot and ensuing loss to the Rockies in the win-or-go-home playoff contest — didn’t help Maddon’s case.
So Maddon became very much a lame-duck manager, with that decision at least tacitly implying that how things transpired in 2019 would determine his future with the team. And the 2019 season has been stormy, often for reasons beyond his reach. Addison Russell was suspended by MLB for domestic violence issues. Ben Zobrist missed months dealing with a family matter. Starters Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Cole Hamels have all dealt with injury issues that have necessitated time on the IL.
Somehow, though, the Cubs managed to stay in first place in the NL Central for most of this season. It helped, of course, that the other division teams struggled, too, so first place meant maybe only seven to 10 games over .500 instead of 20 or more, as is the case in every other division. But when the Cardinals finally caught fire, they blew past the Cubs — St. Louis was four games behind the Cubs on Aug. 8, but now sits 4 1/2 ahead of Chicago entering play Monday — and put the North Side’s issues into brighter focus.
And it’s not a pretty picture at the moment.
Zobrist is back — he’s hit .375 in five games — but Javy Baez, the team’s best player, just went down with a hairline fracture in his thumb that’s likely to end his season. Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, is having constant knee issues. Lester has been feast or famine — in his past eight starts, he’s allowed five or more earned runs four times, but allowed zero or one three times. The bullpen has been, let’s say, interesting on a regular basis, and Craig Kimbrel hasn’t even been close to the answer there.
If you’re a Cubs fan looking for silver linings, here’s one: The schedule is advantageous. Of their final six series this year, four of them are against teams at least 20 games under .500 (Padres, Reds and Pirates twice), and the other two are against the Cardinals, the team they’re directly chasing in the NL Central. So the opportunity is there to make up ground.
On Aug. 8, FanGraphs put the Cubs’ odds of making the playoffs at 90.8 percent and the odds of winning the Central at 80.7 percent. Today, those are at 63.6 and 18.2, respectively. In the wild card chase, the Cubs own the second berth at the moment (the Nationals own the first, three up on the Cubs). The Diamondbacks — who are 11-2 in their past 13 contests — have climbed to just 1.5 behind the Cubs. The Brewers and Phillies are two back and the Mets are holding out hope of a miracle at four back.
But, yeah, it’s an important stretch for Maddon and his Cubs. Speculation says that if Chicago doesn’t make the playoffs, the team and manager seem likely to part ways in the offseason. And, yeah, that seems crazy, considering the run of success the two parties have enjoyed together (and make no mistake, teams will line up to hire him the moment he’s free of his ties with the Cubs). But the sport is very much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment these days.
Want proof? Look at what just happened in Boston. The team, which is almost certain to miss the postseason this year, officially fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski on Monday (though news broke Sunday night). He was hired in August 2015. The Red Sox won 93 games and reached the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, then won 108 games and the World Series in 2018.
World Series champion in 2018, fired in 2019. Makes World Series champion in 2016, let go in 2019 not seem quite so crazy, eh?