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Cubs bringing in Joe Maddon, firing Rick Renteria raises questions

The Cubs will announce Joe Maddon as their next manager at a press conference on Monday afternoon. That is according to a press release issued by the team on Friday in the wake of the news earlier that day that they had fired incumbent manager Rick Renteria, who had signed a three-year deal to manage the Cubs last November. Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays last week after nine years with the team, a move which team president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, in a statement released Friday, was solely responsible for the Cubs’ interest in changing managers.

"Rick deserved to come back for another season as Cubs manager, and we said as much when we announced that he would be returning in 2015," Epstein wrote. "Last Thursday, we learned that Joe Maddon -- who may be as well suited as anyone in the industry to manage the challenges that lie ahead of us -- had become a free agent. We confirmed the news with Major League Baseball, and it became public knowledge the next day. We saw it as a unique opportunity and faced a clear dilemma: be loyal to Rick or be loyal to the organization. In this business of trying to win a world championship for the first time in 107 years, the organization has priority over any one individual. We decided to pursue Joe.

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"While there was no clear playbook for how to handle this type of situation, we knew we had to be transparent with Rick before engaging with Joe. [General manager] Jed [Hoyer] flew to San Diego last Friday and told Rick in person of our intention to talk to Joe about the managerial job. Subsequently, Jed and I provided updates to Rick via telephone and today informed him that we will indeed make a change."

It’s not difficult to see why the Cubs were so interested in Maddon. When Maddon took over the then-Devil Rays after the 2005 season, the team had never won more than 70 games and finished last in the American League East in seven of its eight seasons of existence. However, all those years of losing brought the team numerous elite draft picks. Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the latter of whom hired the former less than two weeks after being promoted to general manager in November 2005, were able to translate that young talent into a team that won more games than every other team in the majors other than the Yankees from 2008 to 2013, a stretch of six winning seasons that included four postseason berths and the franchise’s only pennant.

The Cubs believe they are in a very similar position to the 2006-07 Devil Rays. As an organization well stocked with elite young talent, much of which graduated to the major leagues in the second half of the 2014 season, and a smart, progressive front office headed by Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs believe they are ready to make the leap into contention in the next year or two and see Maddon as the ideal manager to help them make that jump.

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By comparison, Renteria, despite extensive experience as a minor league manager and major league coach, had never managed a major league team before the 2014 season. Of course, the resume that got Renteria hired by the Cubs a year ago looked a lot like the one that got Maddon hired by Tampa Bay in November 2005 and nearly got him hired by Epstein to manage the Red Sox two years earlier, before fate intervened and Terry Francona landed the job. In his lone season as manager, Renteria’s Cubs finished in last place with a 73-89 record, but that record was a seven-game improvement over 2013 and was the club’s best since 2010. Just as important, the team’s erratic young shortstop, Starlin Castro, a player signed through 2019, rebounded from a dismal 2013 campaign to have what was arguably his best offensive season on a per-game basis, suggesting that Renteria had succeeded in connecting with the 24-year-old three-time All-Star to a degree that previous short-lived managers Dale Sveum and Mike Quade could not and that Maddon may not.

There’s little doubt that Maddon is an outstanding manager. His Rays never looked as good on paper as they did on the field or in the standings, a fact reflected by the reality that he finished in the top five in the Manager of the Year voting five times in those six winning seasons, winning the award in 2008 and 2011.

Still, the Cubs are taking a significant risk with this move, financially (Maddon’s contract is rumored to be in the area of $5 million a year over four years, making him among the game’s best-paid managers, as was his stated intent in opting out) and in terms of their perception around the league. As much as Epstein was careful to praise Renteria in the process of firing him, what does it say about a prospective employer that they are willing to fire someone they thought worthy of so much praise a third of the way through his contract? Here’s some of what Epstein said about Renteria:

“We challenged Rick to create an environment in which our young players could develop and thrive at the big league level, and he succeeded. Working with the youngest team in the league and an imperfect roster, Rick had the club playing hard and improving throughout the season. His passion, character, optimism and work ethic showed up every single day.”

What about that suggests Renteria deserved to be fired? Renteria was dismissed only because the Cubs believe Maddon is a significantly superior manager capable of leading them back to contention. They’d better be right. Whose to say on this team, Renteria wouldn’t be the better choice.

What’s more, there have been some suggestions that the Cubs may have tampered with Maddon by indicating their interest to him before he made the decision to opt out of his Rays contract. Maddon’s ability to opt out came via a clause in his contract that was triggered when Friedman left the team to join the Dodgers in mid-October. More than a week passed between Friedman’s departure and Maddon’s decision to opt out. His statement established a timeline in which the Cubs found out about Maddon having already opted out last Thursday, a day before the news went public, and went straight to Major League Baseball to confirm before pursuing him. The burden is on the Rays to prove that the Cubs tampered, there is no public evidence they did, but suspicions will remain given the speed of this sequence of events.

Renteria has been offered another position within the organization, but there is still a managerial vacancy in Minnesota. The Twins have yet to hire a replacement for Ron Gardenhire, who was fired at the end of the regular season. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who was the Twins first base coach this past season, and Red Sox bench coach Tory Lovullo, who was denied permission to interview for the Cubs job last offseason, are said to be the leading candidates for that job, but neither has actually managed a major league team, which Renteria now has.