Joe Maddon Isn’t Changing Fluid Lineups, Just the Way He Communicates Them

Anyone hoping for sweeping changes following Theo Epstein’s fire-and-brimstone sermon about a reevaluation of the team’s urgency and production was surely disappointed by the offseason. But it appears at least one member of the congregation felt convicted, which make sense because Epstein seemed to be indicting Joe Maddon on more than one count.

The baseball ops boss lamented the Cubs’ tendency to take their collective foot off the gas and to take for granted the fact that they could just walk to another division title. He talked about getting back to “being completely on mission every day” and having the same edge they’d honed to razor sharpness two years prior. Epstein admitted to not cultivating the best environment in which to unearth the talent from players and have it manifest in production.

“Sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run or you don’t get it in,” Epstein said. “Or they’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you went 4-3, you needed to go 5-2.

“Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you’ve already won two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct as a team.”

While he wasn’t calling Maddon out by name, it’s pretty obvious that some of the manager’s tendencies were being called into question. One of those, something the players almost certainly discussed during their exit interviews, was a lack of clarity regarding daily lineups. What was once viewed as an endearing quirk by a nascent team may not have seemed as much so to a group of successful veterans.

Epstein made that relatively clear in early January when speaking with Matt Spiegel and Bruce Levine on 670 The Score. Reinforcing the idea that the Cubs wouldn’t be spending big in free agency, he discussed what would need to happen in order to extract the best results from the players on the roster.

“[W]e can have a little more structure and a little more structured work…which is what you need to develop,” Epstein said. “You need routine, you need consistent work, you need a structure around you that puts you in the best position to get better every day. And so we’ve made some subtle adjustments behind the scenes just to make sure we’re putting that type of environment in place.”

Maddon had previously vowed to spend less time with the media and more time on the field for pregame activities, but something more was afoot (and no, I’m not talking about my column inches). Some of the changes came with the staff, notably the additions of Craig Breslow as Director of Strategic Initiatives and Adam Beard as Director of High Performance, as the Cubs aimed to reconfigure the environment around the team.

Another tweak was revealed Thursday in Mesa as Maddon laid out a shift in the way he sets his lineups. Rather than making them any more static than in the past, his plan is to set them a series at a time in order to provide a little more runway for players to know when and where they’ll be. Well, sort of.

“This year, I’m gonna make a solid attempt to put series out at a time,” Maddon told the media. “And then again, I’m not even sure if that’s gonna work well or not because a guy might be upset for two days knowing he’s not gonna play until the third. So you don’t know how this is all gonna play out.

“But it’s there. This is how we’re gonna play it. If you don’t like it, come see me — this is why I’m doing it, this is the reason, etc. I really believe that the guys are gonna be fine with all of that. Just the interaction right now, I think guys have grown up a bit and understand when you don’t play, it’s not because someone doesn’t like you.”

Whether he did it at Epstein’s behest, this change appears to be a direct response to some of the challenges presented in that postmortem presser. After all, you can’t schedule the B-team for Game 3 if you don’t yet know the outcomes of the first two. More than that, though, it’s about fostering open and honest communication with players.

If you show up to the park expecting to be in the lineup and don’t see your name there, the reaction can be more immediate and the time to discuss it abbreviated. Even though most veteran starters are afforded more of a heads-up, it’s not always easy when the schedule starts running together and time is at a premium.

There may also be some developmental benefits to this shift, particularly with younger players. Not that they were just flying blind in the past, but getting a better idea of why they are or aren’t in the lineup could better help them focus on parts of their game that could use a little work.

“Some of it’s trying to put you in a situation to make you look better,” Maddon explained. “It takes time for young players to understand it. I think veterans get that a little bit better. Even though a veteran might want to play more often, he understands his role may be in this and it might be the best thing for him. It just takes time.”

We’ve seen examples of that with Kyle Schwarber getting breaks against lefties and Albert Almora Jr. against righties, strategies that figure to remain somewhat similar in 2019. There’s also the matter of Ian Happ wanting to get more time at second base again, an option the Cubs were better able to explore with Ben Zobrist’s initial absence from camp (he reported Friday morning).

Then there’s David Bote, who saw more time than expected with Kris Bryant’s shoulder injury limiting him for much of the season. Last year’s unlikely hero will have to move all over the field and isn’t likely to have a regular spot. If and when Addison Russell returns, the middle infield situation becomes that much more crowded. And we can’t forget about the need to better monitor Willson Contreras’s workload behind the plate.

It’s all a juggling act, one at which Maddon has proven himself quite adept for the most part. So even though the manager doesn’t plan to stop using chainsaws instead of harmless rubber balls, at least he’ll give the audience plenty of advance warning.

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