MESA, Ariz. – No matter how fancy baseball analytics become, urgency remains impossible to measure.
But like a towering home run, nobody needs Statcast to appreciate its magnitude. And it’s impossible not to notice.
Which brings us to Cubs spring training, manager Joe Maddon’s fifth in blue pinstripes and possibly his last, a six-week exercise in trying to keep things the same when everybody knows they’re different. A trip last week to check on the Cubs only underscored that Maddon’s seat has never been hotter here. Even if it’s dry heat.
Not that Maddon shows any signs of increased stress. He has maintained his commitment to be more hands-on, coaching coaches and running hitting drills in a way that reminds everybody the 65-year-old baseball lifer chose the right path.
On the practice field, Maddon looks like a guy rejuvenated by the challenge. Off the field, Maddon sounds as fascinating as ever, equally entertaining and enlightening. The new Cubs network already has its marquee attraction, a multi-faceted manager who could host a cooking show as effortlessly as he could spark a baseball debate.
But will Maddon still be around when Marquee launches in 11 months?
The Cubs spent the offseason reinvesting in their core, staying away from free-agent pursuits and sticking with players whose nicknames Chicago already knows. Yet uncertainty hovers over Camelback Mountain. Cubs front office officials spent the offseason reminding us the players they still believe in had won an average of 97 games per year since 2015 yet management failed to reward the manager with the contract extension Maddon earned.
Isn’t that a contradiction?
Whether you view Maddon as a lame-duck manager or, as he prefers, a future free agent entering his contract year, this feels like the start of a World Series-or-bust year for the Cubs. As much as Maddon deserved a modest new deal after winning 95 games on a team beset by injuries, baseball’s changing marketplace made that unrealistic for a manager making $6 million annually.
The likelihood the Cubs never will pay that much for a manager under the current regime only adds drama to the season ahead.
Several times over the winter, Cubs president Theo Epstein referred to it as a season of reckoning. Epstein’s comments in a recent interview on WSCR-AM even sounded like an executive intent on unloading assets before the trade deadline if the Cubs struggle in July. Of all the sound bites and scenery in a month where everybody searches for signs, this struck me as the most telling.
“If our core hasn’t developed the way we certainly expect them to or hasn’t bounced back the way we certainly expect them to, that could be a time where we ask and answer some hard questions about, ‘Do we have what we believe we have?’ ” Epstein said. “And if we don’t, then there would certainly be an open-mindedness to some significant transactions at that time.”
Forget PECOTA’s prediction of 80 victories. Epstein’s implied threat should be the motivational quote on the Cubs daily lineup card.
The strong words reveal how necessary Epstein considers a good start and how important he views this season for players who need to take the next step, such as outfielders Ian Happ and Albert Almora, catcher Willson Contreras and slugger Kyle Schwarber.
Consider suspended shortstop Addison Russell among the players with something to prove in 2019, even if Russell’s issues go beyond consistency at the plate. Potential trade bait for a Cubs team looking to sell in July includes starting pitchers Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana and super-utility man Ben Zobrist, a 37-year-old in the final year of his contract who could help a contender. The list of Cubs untouchables is a short one.
As for Maddon, he and Epstein understand what’s at stake. Epstein normally doesn’t send messages through the media but seemed to be targeting an audience of one when saying what he expects from what looks to me like a 93-win team good enough to win the National League’s toughest division.
“Every single day is an opportunity to step on somebody’s throat,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to give away getaway days. We’re not going to settle for two out of three. We’re not going to ease into the season. We’re showing up to assert ourselves from game one through game 162. That’s how you use a sense of urgency the right way.”
Good health has more to do with Kris Bryant hitting bombs again and Yu Darvish throwing 96 mph than greater intensity. Can Jon Lester really want to win any more than he does? Can Javy Baez give more than he gave during an MVP-caliber season?
Baseball remains a game requiring great patience, ritual and rhythm, the soundtrack of summer that’s more easy-listening than head-banging.
Still, Epstein left no doubt: This season is all about the Cubs facing the music.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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