When the coaching staff session began, the star of the show was nowhere to be seen, but Len Kasper advised that he’d be there soon. In the interim, he proposed that the members of the coaching staff, particularly those who had just finished their first year working for the quirky skipper, share a bit of what they learned from/about Joe Maddon. There was a little hemming and hawing and then the energy in the room changed and the attention shifted to the edge of the ballroom stage left, where the bespectacled baseball boss was strolling in. He walked right past me (thankfully, I had begun my live feed — only 10 minutes of video this time — by that point) as the crowd craned to watch him, leading Chris Bosio to quip:
“I learned how to make an entrance.”
As Maddon settled in, fellow blogger Ryan David leaned over to me and showed me his Twitter feed, which featured the following:
2016 slogan?: pic.twitter.com/lHw8ar94AH
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) January 16, 2016
Hey, that’s my shirt! I turned around, but Gonzales wasn’t paying attention to me at that point. I wasn’t able to catch up with him later, but had been hoping to introduce myself and thank him for the free publicity, even though no one actually bought the shirt. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking about Cubs slogans and the viral nature of some of the more catchy ones we saw last season. I actually got the idea from Maddon himself after he had said that the Cubs can’t shy away from expectations and that they need to embrace the target.
Maddon opened up by talking about playing in iconic Wrigley Field, how it was his second-favorite athletic venue behind the Roman Colosseum, before talking about Cubs fans.
“You guys are severe,” Maddon said about the differences between Tampa and Chicago.
He meant that in the best possible way too, though severe is probably a pretty accurate euphemism for a group that shows up in downtown Chicago in the middle of January to celebrate their baseball team. That ended up being quite a theme for some of the newer Cubs, a topic I’ll be writing about shortly after this. Requisite pandering out of the way, the focus shifted to more strategy.
First up was Kyle Schwarber’s future, whether it would be behind the plate or in the outfield. Ever the consummate moderator, Kasper directly the query first to catching instructor Mike Borzello, who said that his plan was to continue working with War Bear behind the plate until the front office tells him he can’t. Borzello talked about Schwarber’s offensive value in that position and his willingness to work to get better.
The question then shifted to outfield instructor Dave Martinez, who echoed Borzello’s desire to continue working with the sophomore slugger himself. Martinez said that Schwarber is a better athlete than people realize and that he’s got plenty of room to grow out in left. Speaking with the media earlier in the day, Jed Hoyer had also mentioned that they’re working on having Schwarber drop a few pounds in order to be a bit quicker for extended outfield duty. From the sound of it, the team would like to follow something along the lines of the proposal I had made a while back, wherein Schwarber is primarily in the OF but would pick up a start behind the plate every week to 10 days or so.
Maddon then addressed the future of Javy Baez, a man he called one of the best defenders he’s ever seen. The manager praised Javy’s baseball IQ, going a bit further and saying that the culture of winter ball and general year-round play in Latin America often leads to players who really understand the game at a very high level. Take that, Colin Cowherd. Maddon then went on to say, however, that too much play can eventually become a detriment.
That is particularly true when it comes to pitchers, a fact Chris Bosio addressed at some length. He noted that he’s had to change his outlook in that regard since, as an old-school starting pitcher, he had always placed a lot of value in trying to finish every game. Baseball is different now, and the Cubs have built a staff that, like the position players, has a great deal of versatility. Maddon chimed in to say that he believes the Cubs’ bullpen can really shorten games, but that he’s not targeting a set innings limit for any of his starters.
What it all comes down to, Maddon explained, is a series of high-leverage moments. The goal, then, is to find the right guys for those moments and to win those individual at-bats, innings, etc. Do that consistently and you’ll win a lot of ballgames. To that end, the skipper said that one of the hardest decisions he’d had to make during the season was to pull Jason Hammel early in a game again the Giants. The Cubs ended up sweeping that 4-game series and it was a real defining moment of the season, but Maddon acknowledged that that was a kind of make-or-break choice that ended up working out for the best.
Davey Martinez talked a bit about his role too, how it’s pretty much the opposite of being a yes-man. He’s there to challenge Joe Maddon a bit and to make sure that they’re never doing anything just because that’s the way it’s always done. The bench coach also had to field a question about his relationship with another former Cub who was recently brought back into the organizational fold, a query that dropped the temperature in the already frigid room a couple degrees and had everyone shifting around as if they had nails sticking out of their seats. To his credit, he did give a brief answer, saying that hatchet was buried a long time ago. I had recognized the guy asking the question from Twitter too, which was a little funny.
For my money, this was the first session that really offered some insight into the team’s plans moving forward. Granted, a lot of that was owing to the fact that I had generally overcome the ill effects of the previous night’s indulgence and had shortened my live-streaming of the event to focus on tweeting. Whatever the case, it had me feeling pretty good about the sessions I’d be attending throughout the afternoon.