Anthony Rizzo thought it was going to be an elephant. Jason Hammel thought it would be a magician.
In the end, it was even wilder and more unexpected. When Joe Maddon gathered his Cubs at the center of the diamond after practice, Dexter Fowler emerged from the outfield, and you would have thought that it was, in fact, a circus trick.
The Cubs’ all-time great offseason kept rolling today, the latest curve in a windy road that has turned my brain into pudding. I don’t know what to believe anymore.
One day ago, the Cubs had, probably, the best roster in baseball. But the outfield situation was the only puzzle piece that didn’t fit perfectly. Kyle Schwarber has a monster bat but is a question mark in left. Jason Heyward is the game’s best defensive right fielder, saving 20 runs a season there, but loses that elite value when shoehorned to center. And Jorge Soler? He has yet to play a full season in the majors, and when he does play, he’s inconsistent. What we do know about him is when he’s on, he’s on.
One day ago, Dexter Fowler had moved on from the Cubs, inking a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Yes, the Dexter Fowler who finished last year with the Cubs’ fourth highest WAR. The Dexter Fowler who is a natural centerfielder, solid defender and excellent leadoff hitter. The Dexter Fowler that plugged most every hole and was a clubhouse favorite.
It turns out Jon Heyman, Buster Olney and all the other baseball writers were reporting false information about Fowler and the Orioles.
It turns out that Fowler was already driving through the night to Mesa, AZ, to Sloan Park, to the Cubs.
It turns out that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had somehow managed to convince Fowler to re-sign for less money than the qualifying offer he had rejected earlier this offseason. They were in the midst of keeping the new deal a secret, trying to make sure it was a surprise.
So here we are. A day later, the Cubs definitely have the best roster in baseball. Anything less than a World Series is a disappointment.
That is what makes this Cubs team such a fascinating experiment in psychology, and the re-addition of Fowler further highlights that. Every year, there is a team that goes all in, throwing cash at free agents, making splashy trades and popping up in World Series predictions. Every year, that team falls short, often even of the playoffs. The pieces don’t fit. The players don’t mesh.
I don’t think the Cubs are going to be that team. Now, I probably only believe that because I’m a chump. But there is something to be said about the ringleader of the Cubs’ circus. For this show to be a success, the egos, strengths and weaknesses will all have to be balanced, and there’s no better man for that task than Joe Maddon.
There’s all the talk about sabermetrics in baseball, but look at any World Series team and the link you’ll find is that all the champions are tight knit, high-character and fun-loving ball clubs. All the teams that Maddon has ever managed fit that bill. He’s created a culture where, when he trots out Dexter Fowler, it is a better surprise than an elephant.
He’s created a culture where every player on the roster including Kyle Schwarber (who will lose playing time with Fowler back in the fold) is ecstatic to see Fowler back. Schwarber told reporters that it made everybody’s day.
He’s shown that he’ll find a way to balance Soler, Schwarber, Heyward and Fowler perfectly. He’ll make double switches and push people out of their comfort zone into different positions that help the club.
There’s no reason to be worried about these guys meshing. They already have.
There’s no reason to be worried about these guys putting the team before themselves. They already have.
And there’s no reason to be worried about these guys injecting the game with joy. They already have.
This is a team that makes everything possible. They make an elephant coming to practice a legitimate guess to, “Why are we meeting here?” possible. They make multiple free agents taking less money to sign with the freaking Chicago Cubs possible.
All they have to do next is undo 108 desperate years. It’s a tall task, but the man they’ve tapped to lead it might not be out of tricks quite yet.
[1 ] I know, after 17 years of Cubs fandom, that this season will most likely end in heartbreak, confusion and shock, but the fact is, when you look at the roster, we should win a World Series. The pressure and hype certainly matches that. Jump