Joe Maddon is only under contract for one more year in Chicago, but exactly how mutual that situation is seems to be in question. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi tweeted at 12:46pm on October 3 that Maddon’s camp had not requested an extension “recently,” while USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote almost exactly two hours later that Maddon was indeed “hoping for an extension.”
Of course, that latter description leaves plenty of room for interpretation and doesn’t say that Maddon actually requested an extension. And the sourced information Nightengale cites could be referring more to the Cubs retaining Maddon, since his column was published prior to Theo Epstein officially announcing the manager’s return in his postmortem press conference.
The Chicago Cubs, bitterly disappointed and frustrated with the abrupt end to their season, will retain manager Joe Maddon, but won’t give him a contract extension as he desired, a high-ranking official with direct knowledge of the decision told USA TODAY Sports.
But before we get into the requisite consider-the-source caveats, Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — not the race car driver of “Wrigley Stadium” infamy — wrote a day after the above reports that Maddon had “sought a contract extension.” That’s pretty firm language, though there’s no indication of exactly when Maddon or his camp actually made a request. It’s also possible that Gordon is parroting Nightengale’s report.
If what Epstein has said publicly can be believed, though, there hadn’t even been thoughts about a new deal as of mid-August. While that’s a touch hyperbolic — since just saying you’re not thinking about it means you’re at least thinking about it subconsciously — it was an indication that the Cubs were not willing to discuss Maddon’s longer-term future until at least the offseason. Maybe not even then.
Gordon and Nightengale similarly wrote that the upcoming lame-duck season would see Maddon undergoing serious evaluation from the front office, which is more or less what Epstein and Jed Hoyer indicated. Both execs practiced a great deal of diplomacy when discussing their conflicts with the manager, chalking any friction up to the nature of a healthy, trusting relationship. But it was clear from Epstein’s talk in particular that they were not pleased with the team’s lack of urgency.
It’ll be incumbent upon Maddon to take steps to light some fires and keep that killer instinct sharp in the coming season, something one has to wonder whether the front office has faith in him to do. Or, more accurately, to what extent they believe the notoriously laid-back skipper can return them to that same on-mission mentality they maintained throughout 2016.
Even that is something of a mischaracterization, since they clearly believe in Maddon’s ability to guide the roster they create for him to another title. They also believe in giving him another shot with what everyone hopes will be a healthier and better performing group than what Maddon had to work with this past season. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t be back for 2019.
This is where we come back around to the titular question and what it may mean about the Cubs’ faith in Maddon to get it done beyond this coming season. If he hasn’t actually asked for an extension, it’s much easier to take Epstein and Hoyer at face value. They were comfortable waiting until the 11th hour to ink their own extensions a couple years ago, so there’s obvious precedent within the organization for patience. Maybe there’s even a tacit understanding that things will eventually get done. Or maybe there’s something less rosy, which we’ll get into later.
Maddon asking for and being denied an extension, however, would indicate that he’s going to have to do better than one-and-done in the playoffs. Not that the Cubs would present him with some sort of World Series-or-bust ultimatum, just that they’ve made it clear their expectations are for another deep October run. Though he was speaking about the team as a whole, Epstein’s pointed comments put much of the onus for next year’s results on Maddon.
“It has to be more about production than talent going forward,” Epstein said. “And beyond that, it’s also trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players.
“It’s our job not just to assemble a talented group, but to unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Are we doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys?”
A return to the form of two years ago would no doubt yield a more satisfactory conclusion and a likely extension for Maddon, but there could be more to it than that. Chief among the additional factors is whether Maddon himself actually wants to return. If there’s indeed a lack of fire in the players, it could be an indication that Maddon, the oldest manager in the game, no longer possesses a bright enough spark of his own.
And, as I alluded to earlier, the possibility exists that rifts between manager and execs run deeper than has been publicly acknowledged. That doesn’t mean there’s any sort of irreparable damage to the relationships or that Maddon is burned out, but those factors could be even more influential than the Cubs’ record in determining whether Maddon’s tenure in Chicago ends prior to 2020. Again, that’s totally hypothetical.
The presence or absence of such issues could also be the difference between Maddon either requesting an extension or not. If he questions his own desire and/or his ability to coexist with his bosses, he’d surely not be looking to prolong his time as Cubs manager. But if he’s comfortable with himself and his superiors, being denied a new deal indicates that they don’t reciprocate his feelings.
Or maybe it’s neither and the harmony is such that everyone’s on the same page about Maddon’s future. That would seem to fit with the manager’s laid-back persona and with the aforementioned MO of the front office. And though seeds of discontent were sown throughout the results of the team’s exit interviews, it’s clear the manager has the respect and support of his players.
All we know for certain is that Maddon will be managing the Cubs next season, that his contract runs only through the end of that season, and that expectations for the team are as high as they’ve ever been. How he and his players respond to that may well determine whether the Cubs have to act on some of the contingency plans they’ve reportedly been working on for a while.
If forced to bet on an outcome right now, I’d lay money on 2019 being Maddon’s last year with the Cubs. But I’m looking forward to them performing well enough to prove me wrong.