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In stunning move, Joe Maddon leaves Rays after nine seasons in Tampa

One of the best managers in baseball is now a free agent, as Joe Maddon is leaving Tampa Bay. But what will his next stop be?

Joe Maddon has exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and is now a free agent, according to a statement released by the Rays. According to principal owner Stuart Sternberg, Tampa Bay "tried diligently and aggressively" to extend Maddon beyond the 2015 expiration of his contract. Instead, following the team's first losing season since 2007, the 60-year-old Maddon has opted to follow general manager Andrew Friedman out the door. As a result, one of the best managers in baseball is now a free agent, a move that will fuel rampant speculation and some level of chaos until Maddon finds his next employer.

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​Maddon's bona fides are unassailable. In nine years with the Rays, he led them to six winning seasons (the only ones in franchise history), four playoff berths, and the 2008 American League pennant, winning the AL Manager of the Year award in '08 and '11 and finishing in the top five in the voting three other times. In 2008, he oversaw a 31-win improvement in his club, and from 2008 to 2013, the Rays won more games than any other team in baseball other than the Yankees despite a payroll a fraction of the size and a roster that, at least on paper, often seemed similarly underwhelming relative to the veritable All-Star squads of intra-division rivals New York and Boston.

On top of that, Maddon spent three decades in the Angels' organization prior to being hired by the Rays after the 2005 season, including 13 years as a minor league manager, and a dozen years on the major league coaching staff. He preceded Mike Scioscia's arrival in Anaheim as manager and served as Scioscia's bench coach on the 2002 world champions.

Maddon was, of course, the beneficiary of the Rays' high draft picks, from B.J. Upton in 2002 through Evan Longoria and David Price in '06 and '07, as well as Friedman's excellent work in identifying value in affordable players, making pro-active trades that replenished the farm system, and the resulting seemingly endless supply of young starting pitching. Nonetheless, Maddon has long been highly regarded both for his in-game strategy, which often incorporated advanced metrics and out-of-the-box thinking, and for being an excellent player's manager, given to similarly unorthodox methods of forging unity and positivity in the clubhouse.

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There are few managers in the game more highly regarded, and it seems unlikely that Maddon will remain a free agent for long. However, with most of the managerial openings created at the end of the season already filled (only the Twins' seat remains vacant, with the Astros, Diamondbacks, and Rangers having hired A.J. Hinch, Chip Hale, and Jeff Banister, respectively), his ultimate destination is not clear. Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin on Friday afternoon, Maddon said that he did not have another job lined up prior to opting out but that he was curious about what opportunities existed for him and expressed excitement over finding out "exactly what people think under these circumstances."

Maddon's comments confirmed that money played a large role in his decision. The contract he opted out of paid him roughly $2 million a year. Salaries for managers are not always disclosed, but per the information on Cot's Baseball Contracts, we can see that the Yankees' Joe Girardi is making $4 million a year, Terry Francona made that much in his final year in Boston in 2011, and Scioscia's ten-year contract has an average annual value of $5 million a year with $6 million salaries for the final three years starting in 2016.

Like any free agent, Maddon is looking for a big payday, though he is also likely jumping what he might see as a sinking ship. The Rays' 77-85 record this past season was their worst showing since 2007, and ace David Price was dealt at the trade deadline for what was generally regarded as an underwhelming return. On the current roster, Ben Zobrist is entering his final option year and age-34 season, Matt Moore is coming off Tommy John surgery, and the pitching pipeline is starting to run dry.

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Then there's Friedman, who was poached by the Dodgers to be their president of baseball operations. It was actually Friedman's departure that made Maddon's possible, as Maddon had a clause in his contract that gave him an opt-out only if the general manager left first. That connection has already fueled heavy speculation that Maddon will follow Friedman to the Dodgers. However, both Maddon and Friedman have rejected that possibility, with Friedman restating his commitment to Don Mattingly as the Dodgers' manager for 2015, initially voiced last week.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility for Maddon would be the Cubs, who are at the tail end of a rebuild and graduated several major talents to the major leagues in the second half of the 2014 season, putting them in a position very similar to that of the Rays toward the start of Maddon's tenure in Tampa Bay. Cubs team president Theo Epstein seriously considered Maddon for the Red Sox job after the 2003 season, when Maddon was still Scioscia's bench coach, before settling on Francona, and Epstein and Maddon are considered fellow travelers in terms of being intellectuals known for embracing advanced analysis and progressive strategies.

The Cubs are just one year into a three-year contract with manager Rick Renteria, but the opportunity to reel in Maddon may be too good to pass up, and first-time manager Renteria's contract is unlikely to be one the team is unable to eat. It's also worth noting that the Cubs are in the process of renovating Wrigley Field purely for the purpose of adding revenue. The confluence of the arrival of the team's top prospects, the monetization of their ballpark, and the opportunity to grab Maddon is almost too perfect. In addition, hiring Maddon could help the Cubs reel in top free agents for their starting rotation, one of whom could very well be Price, who will be a free agent after the 2015 season.

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The eloquent Maddon could also do what Francona did after being non-renewed by the Red Sox after the 2011 season: spend a year as a highly-paid television analyst before returning to the dugout in 2016, which would be Mattingly's lame-duck season in Los Angeles. However, Maddon's agent, Alan Nero, told Topkin that he expects Maddon to manage somewhere in 2015 and told FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal that he has already contacted several teams and expects "four to five legit suitors" per Maddon's wishes to explore free agency. Given Maddon's status in the game, the Giants, Orioles, and Indians might be the only teams I would be completely shocked to see involved.

As for the Rays, Dave Martinez, who has served as Maddon's bench coach since 2008, is the obvious favorite to take over as manager. However, team president Matt Silverman told Topkin that the team will conduct an extensive search of internal and external candidates and that their decision will not be a quick one. Whatever the outcome, the Rays have now lost Price, Friedman and Maddon over the course of three months. Given their small margin for error, the combination of those three losses could prove devastating for the franchise.