With Joe Maddon officially installed as the new manager of the Cubs, I want to take a minute to go over just what sort of doors he opens for the team in 2015.

How He Could Shape the Winter

A manager who thinks the same way his front office thinks, and who keeps an open line of communication with that front office, gives his organization roster flexibility most teams do not enjoy. Maddon permits the Cubs to consider moves they wouldn’t have considered when Rick Renteria was their manager, and to configure their roster in ways they couldn’t have configured it for Renteria. A few examples:

Nori Aoki: The Cubs need a left-hitting outfielder who can add on-base percentage to the positional mix. They do not need to spend a ton of money on an outfielder, when their greatest areas of medium- and long-term need are on the mound and behind the plate. Aoki bats left-handed, makes tons of contact (something no one else on the team does) and has a .353 career OBP. Renteria would have misused him, though, much the way Ned Yost did. Yost made Aoki his everyday right fielder. That position isn’t open for the Cubs, who will plan to open the season with Jorge Soler out there.

In fact, Soler should be in right field, and Arismendy Alcantara will be the primary center fielder, and Chris Coghlan laid a strong claim to at least the left-handed side of a left field platoon with a very good 2014. So where would Aoki fit?

Well, nowhere, really. He would play a couple days a week in right, when Soler (who may remain on the program that granted him consistent days off to rest his hamstrings last year) needs to sit. He would play in center on occasion, almost exclusively at home, with Alcantara sliding in to play second base or taking the day off. He would also see some time in left, as he hits left-handed pitching much better than fellow lefty Coghlan. On top of all that, of course, Aoki would be a fine pinch-hitting option.

Renteria could not handle that much modularity in his outfield setup. He would have mismanaged it. That’s not necessarily a knock on him; he just doesn’t have the experience or the statistical savvy to make that arrangement work to its fullest potential. Maddon, however, clearly does. He’s done things just like this over the past two years, moving Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist all over the diamond, shifting Matt Joyce and David DeJesus from one corner outfield spot to another, and on and on.

David Robertson: Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors threw out this possibility when he ranked the top 50 free agents of the upcoming offseason, and tried to predict where they would land. To be clear, I doubt Dierkes thinks much of the chances, and I personally can’t imagine this, but the addition of Maddon makes Robertson a much more inviting potential investment. No one runs a bullpen better, and although a few established arms blew up on his watch in 2014, there’s no indication that Maddon’s tactical acumen late in games is breaking down.

Robertson would join a crop of talented short-duty relievers in Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Arodys Vizcaino and Armando Rivero, and the team can trust Maddon to discern the best player for each game situation, without observing some overly strict bullpen hierarchy. Some managers need to be given a bullpen that manages itself, one without modularity or uncertainty. Maddon is one of the group who can safely be given as much sheer talent as possible.

Russell Martin: Another one Dierkes foresees, and Martin has been linked to the Cubs elsewhere, too, though only in a musing sort of way. As with Robertson, I don’t necessarily buy that the Cubs will put in the leading bid on Martin, but given Martin’s pitch-framing skills and Maddon’s history with frame-friendly catchers like Jose Molina, there’s a fit of manager to player tool that appeals strongly. Martin is also just the sort of guy the Cubs will need if Maddon really is a first sign of a push toward winning the division soon.

Jon Lester: The front office’s history with Lester would have the Cubs in the headlines anyway, but Maddon really makes signing the lefty seem too perfect to pass up.

If Renteria were still around, the Cubs would have two or three more marginal wins between them and the playoffs. That would mean any major free-agent signee would:

  1. Have to be sold on the long-term legitimacy of the rebuild, which has not yet returned even a semi-competitive team; and
  2. Need to be a good long-term bet, because the first year of the deal (the best one on most big free-agent deals) would be something of a throwaway.

Maddon’s presence means the Cubs have a chance in 2015, even if it’s no more than the theoretical random chance any team has at winning its division (20 percent). That makes investing in a big arm like Lester’s right now more justifiable.

Putting This All in Context

I have a few old drafts on my desktop of an article I was calling “What Kind of Day Has it Been?” It was a long and intricate explanation of all the potential pitfalls in the Cubs’ rebuilding plan that had begun to make themselves known. There were obvious cracks in the foundation Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were trying to build. That was true on a few fronts.

Wrigley Field Renovations

For the past two years or so, the biggest long-term story in Cubs World has been the renovation of Wrigley Field. The Ricketts family long ago made it clear that they feel Wrigley needs to be overhauled, in places, in order to make an economically-viable modern ballpark out of the pastoral marvel of Wrigley itself.

Their project ran into a dozen hurdles or so during the planning phase, though. First, the question of any public funding to assist the project was quashed. Then, the rooftop partners whose business stood to be damaged by the proposed expansion to the bleachers began making noise about suing the team for breach of contract. As recently as this spring, observers were still wondering about the situation: Was the team so afraid of something in their agreement with the rooftops? Why had they allowed themselves to be held up this way?

Player Development Problems

At the start of 2014, it was thoroughly unclear whether the Cubs even had the talent they once thought they would have. The core of their rebuilding, the preexisting base on which Epstein and Hoyer had been proud to rely a year earlier, was in danger of returning practically nothing.

Starlin Castro had been an absolute mess in 2013. His swing mechanics deserted him, he lunged at balls, his fielding got sloppy (okay sloppier) and he appeared unable to figure out what was wrong. Anthony Rizzo had a better season, but rolled over pitches and hit weak ground balls by the bucketful to the right side of the infield. He was as much in need of a change as Castro; he was just surviving a bit better while broken. Jeff Samardzija, whom the team has passed up the chance to trade in July 2013, had had a brutal finish to the season, appearing tired, losing command and struggling with feel for his secondary pitches.

Questions of Revenue

The Cubs will be free to sell their TV broadcast rights to the highest bidder again in 2019, but starting in 2015, about half of their schedule (the portion that had been on WGN, but no longer will be) is still up in the air. It has taken a long time for that to get resolved (as in, it still hasn’t been resolved). The lack of free-flowing money from a new TV deal forced the team to lean more on gate receipts than some similarly large-market teams, and attendance had fallen for three straight seasons. After a few head-scratching moves, the only explanation for which was saving money, and given the whispers, it was easy to foresee the team being somewhat cash-strapped as they funded the renovation—if, indeed, that ever got off the ground.

How Everything Has Changed

Ever since mid-April, though, things have been looking up. The team made a fairly frank and aggressive statement of purpose about the renovation, and when the rooftop owners never really pushed back (they filed a doomed lawsuit, but didn’t press it, and never issued any sort of counterargument), the project finally took off.

Castro and Rizzo had superb rebound seasons. Samardzija dominated the first half of the season, elevating his trade value enough that the team acquired stud shortstop prospect Addison Russell in exchange for him. Several of the team’s previously-acquired young players stepped up, playing well in the high minors, even earning promotions to the Majors.

Jake Arrieta turned into an ace, basically. The bullpen had a marvelous season. The team landed a new radio deal during the season, sold more tickets than in 2013, received all kinds of positive buzz from the punditry for their rebuilding efforts, largely survived would-be hiring raids on the front office and coach staff and announced its intention to compete—not just build toward success, but have some—in 2015.

As soon as the season ended, the bleachers began coming down. They’re now all gone. By Opening Day, new, majorly modernized ones will stand in the old ones’ place. Maddon had his press conference across the street because Wrigley Field is being worked on so busily. There’s some serious symbolism there. The speed with which the bleachers have been demolished—the speed of the whole project, suddenly—is astounding. So, perhaps, is the sudden acceleration of the team’s progress on the road to success. Maddon is a sign of the times on the North Side, and (surprisingly, considering where we were six months ago), it’s a pretty good time.

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