No Fruitless Gimmickry, Joe Maddon’s Tinkering with His Little League Lineup Has Cubs Ready for Postseason Play

Maybe it’s a generational thing, these dichotomous views of what the Cubs are doing. Then again, opinions of Wrigley’s renovations and the rebuilding of the roster haven’t necessarily been divided along lines of chronology. While senescence does seem to play an integral role in the rabble, fans of all ages have been shaking their fists at clouds and telling everyone from Tom Ricketts to Joe Maddon to get off their lawn.

But there’s a funny thing about being 21 games over .500 and in possession of a 97.7% chance to earn a spot in the NL playoffs. People start to re-think their views, maybe even let the neighbors step foot on their grass again. Well, usually.

Perhaps it’s just the caducity of a curmudgeonly codger, but some of what Bernie Lincicome wrote the other day regarding the hapless, hopeless Cubs and madness of Maddon’s methods just stuck in my craw. It took me a while to find it again; I guess sometimes website paywalls can be a good thing.

…the quality of the defense depends on whom Captain Quirk, the manager, plays out of place today. Joe Maddon makes out a lineup card like it was a hostage note. You have to wonder how Bryant becomes a better third baseman by not playing third base.

The Cubs aren’t a work in progress, they are a work in weirdness.

Maddon’s hunches work until they don’t. Today’s genius is tomorrow’s buffoon. If it made sense for the pitcher to bat eighth instead of ninth, everyone would do it. The American League, where Maddon came from, figured out long ago what to do with the pitcher.

I honestly don’t even know where to begin here. It’s like a sudoku puzzle, only with hot takes instead of numbers, the gaps in logic taunting you as you struggle to match the origin of these thoughts with the reality to which you have grown accustomed. I don’t have the patience of every septuagenarian woman on every flight ever, so I don’t want to spend a weekend at Bernie’s trying to refute his futile feature. Rather, I want to celebrate what Maddon has been doing this season.

It’s no secret that the madman managing the Cubs has long had multiplistic machinations for the men in his charge. That is to say, he likes to play dudes in different positions on the field. Call him Captain Quirk if you like, but Maddon’s actions aren’t those of an impulsive gambler who’s just hoping not to crap out. Given the calculations behind his decisions, not to mention the results they’ve produced, I think a more appropriate title is Mr. Spark.

I, for one, love having to look at the lineup each day to see where the various players will be positioned. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of doubts, but Maddon and the Cubs are making it work. And there’s good reason for it too. Should the Cubs get the chance to play well into October, they are sure to be faced with some situations that aren’t all that amenable to every player in the lineup. As such, they’ll need to find ways to get around — or at least get the most out of — said matchups.

In an effort to both maximize value and minimize exposure to poor leverage, Maddon has been moving players all over the field like a shell game up on the video board. It might not seem to make sense in the moment, but when Kris Bryant has to move to right to make room for Javier Baez after a pinch-hit double-switch, it starts to become more clear. If you’ve got to put a guy in a position that’s ancillary to his normal role, you don’t want the first instance to come in Game 5 of a playoff series.

I don’t wonder how Kris Bryant becomes a better third baseman by not playing third base. I marvel at the fact that he’s a good enough baseball player to make 6 starts across all 3 outfield positions, not to mention another 4 times he’s shifted out there mid-game. Only twice has he finished a game out in the grass though, which means he’s moved back to third at some point during those other contests.

Bryant’s heterographic teammate has gotten his share of play around both the infield and outfield as well. Chris Coghlan has played primarily LF (94 games), but has also spent time at 2B (15), RF (7), 1B (4), and 3B (3) as sort of a poor man’s Ben Zobrist. And only 6 games into his return to the majors, Javier Baez has already manned both middle infield spots and the hot corner. Addison Russell and Starlin Castro have flip-flopped 2B and SS and Kyle Schwarber came up as a catcher before shifting primarily to LF.

Some will see all of this movement and think it’s the work of a would-be inventor who’s just tinkering fruitlessly away at another gizmo in his garage. I see a man who’s setting his team up for success when the time comes for them to show out on a bigger stage. You see a kid waxing cars and staining fences instead of learning to fight and I see Mr. Miyagi training Daniel LaRusso for the All Valley Karate Championships.

And maybe you’re tired of hearing the constant praise for how fun this Cubs team has been this year, but I can’t get enough of it. With their amorphous positions and clubhouse hijinks, Maddon’s crew strikes me more as a youth travel team than a collection of highly-paid professionals worrying about unwritten rules and stupid jinxes.

Will all the little gimmicks pay off in the end? Who knows. We’ll have to wait at least another month to find out, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it so far. And now I’m going to get out of here before make any more inflammatory ageist comments.

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