What are Cubs playing for in second half? Joe Maddon's job, for starters

With the Cubs sitting at 47-43 in a crowded NL Central, the next 72 games likely will determine manager Joe Maddon's future. Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire/AP Photo

CHICAGO -- Not long after the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Theo Epstein dismissed criticism of manager Joe Maddon for another time. When it came down to winning a championship, the team president opined that only the result mattered -- not the process nor any of the controversial decision-making by the man in the dugout.

The Cubs should view Maddon's next 72 games in the same manner. No matter how sloppy his team has played, no matter how much criticism he may be due at the moment, if the Cubs win their dogfight of a division, Maddon should be rewarded.

But if his team continues its current style of play while ceding the National League Central, which Chicago leads by a mere half-game as the second half begins, Maddon should suffer the consequences.

As much as the Cubs are in it together, the final half-season of Maddon's five-year contract will be a referendum on his current managerial style. That won't take anything away from what he has accomplished -- it just means he'll join a long list of former Cubs managers who never made it past half a decade on the job. The only difference is Maddon will have a championship on his resume. The others don't.

Without saying it in as many words, Maddon's boss put the spotlight firmly on the manager in his pre-All-Star break comments.

"The sloppiness has surprised all of us," Epstein said last weekend of the 47-43 Cubs. "For many years, when we're at our best, we're playing alert, focused, prepared, heads-up baseball. ... We can't put our finger on why. It's not anyone's fault, per se. We have to shake that if we want to get where we want to go."

You're not out on a limb if you think being prepared and focused falls under the purview of the manager.

There was more.

"This group has been together a long time, so sometimes the same message isn't as effective, and it's incumbent on all of us to find, whether it's transactional, finding different combinations or as a coaching staff, giving a different message to get the most of what we're looking for," Epstein continued. "It's not easy. The last calendar year, we haven't really gotten the results in terms of the way we're playing, the way we're facing challenges."

Epstein was quick to include the front office in the "collective" issues the Cubs possess, but potentially delivering a stale message falls squarely on the manager. However, make no mistake, the front office is the main culprit when it comes to the erosion of talent and depth on the team and in the organization. That, coupled with the ascension of other teams in the division, is why the Cubs are in a five-way NL Central battle.

It also doesn't help matters that the team's position-player core -- which helped win a World Series -- hasn't reached its potential. The organization attempted to engage with its millennial group during the winter, but the problems still exist. According to sources familiar with the situation, a recent players-only meeting -- as well as a scheduled one held by Maddon -- again tried to address the issues among those players and their inability to max out as a unit.

But all of that is for another day. As the saying goes, you can't fire 25 guys -- or in this case, 12 position players -- and let's face it, general manager Jed Hoyer isn't on Epstein's hot seat. Maddon is. So, yes, the team is in this "collectively," but if/when it comes time to make a major change, we all know where the ax will fall.

"We're not playing in a way that is representative of who we are," Epstein said. "It's gone on for a while. We're all looking for answers. We're all looking for every lever we can pull to get this going in the right direction."

Maddon delivered a similar message when he closed the doors for his annual midseason team meeting during the Cubs' most recent road series, in Pittsburgh.

"I talked to them about what I thought we needed to get better at, but then I also offered some solutions," Maddon said afterward. "Sometimes you just get off track a little bit. I thought I gave what I thought were the issues and then some solutions."

And there is no problem too inconsequential, not when the top and bottom of the division are separated by 4½ games, and not after last season's division title was decided by a one-game playoff.

Additionally, the Cubs are among the league leaders in total number of one-run affairs, yet they are just 12-15 in those games. Just turn that record around, and how much better would the team and its fans feel about the first half?

So now it's our turn. Here are some of the biggest issues the Cubs are facing and some potential fixes that the manager can control:

The Cubs have been reckless on the bases.

The Cubs have made the most outs (37) on the basepaths in all of baseball (excluding pickoffs, force outs and being caught stealing).

Included in that ugly stat is 13 outs made at home and 10 more at third base. Those rank first and second, respectively, among the 30 teams. So the Cubs were within 90 feet -- or less -- of scoring 23 more times. How would scoring those runs translate in the win/loss column?

And lest you think that's the price of being an aggressive team, the price is too steep: The Cubs have a negative runs-above-average rating based on their baserunning, which ranks in the bottom third of the league, according to FanGraphs. While the team is often praised for its first-to-third prowess, that's a product of their hitters going to right field as much as anything else. For example, their right-handed batters rank third in opposite-field hits this season.

So why can't the Cubs be smart and aggressive on the basepaths? Here's Maddon's philosophy, which he has stated many times over the years:

"You have to be careful when talking to the guys, when you get too harsh about it, then all of a sudden they become station-to-station," Maddon said. "That's not what we're looking for. When a guy makes a mistake on the bases, I prefer just talking to him about it. ... I like aggressive baserunning. I want us to look for the extra base, but you don't want to make foolish outs on the bases."

Of course, no one wants to make bad outs on the bases. When a team continually does so, isn't it incumbent on the manager to put a stop to it? Maddon has been here before. In his first spring training with the Cubs, in 2015, he told his players he wanted them to be aggressive on the basepaths. Perhaps in an effort to impress their new manager, players ran wild on the bases early in spring games. Eventually, Maddon laid down the law.

"We're not good at fundamentals in the game," Maddon said after his team began that spring 0-6-1. "We have not done the little things right that permit you to win. The wins will happen if we get the fundamentals. The wins will never happen if you don't get the fundamentals."

It was one of the more stern moments in Maddon's time in Chicago -- and it came mere weeks into his tenure. The Cubs could use some of that Maddon now. More than anything, the team needs to realize how much the game has changed since 2015. In a day and age when everyone is hitting home runs, is it really worth it to potentially eliminate a baserunner while adding an out to your inning, taking away a chance at a multirun homer? The answer is no, and Maddon should act accordingly. Station-to-station isn't all that bad in 2019.

"We're not good enough to give four outs or make careless mistakes on the basepaths," Epstein said.

The Cubs don't have their best on-base guys at the top of the lineup.

Maddon changed up his lineup recently, but other than batting Kris Bryant third -- where he's more comfortable -- it still doesn't feel right. Yes, the Cubs won two games with Kyle Schwarber hitting leadoff and Javy Baez second, but that streak ended quickly in the Cubs' last game before the break, a 3-1 loss to the White Sox.

"We're not playing in a way that is representative of who we are. It's gone on for a while. We're all looking for answers." Cubs president Theo Epstein

How many teams, let alone contenders, begin games with a .320 on-base guy followed by a .324 player? Moving Bryant to third was a smart move. It needs to be followed up by putting on-base threats in front of him. That could be anyone from Anthony Rizzo or even catcher Willson Contreras. Since Bryant himself is an on-base machine, Baez should bat fourth or fifth to clean up all those guys who are good at getting on.

On a team that hits just .249 with runners in scoring position, why would a .317 hitter in that category hit second? In Maddon's defense, he said he wasn't married to the lineup, but the sooner he changes it, the better.

Side note: It wouldn't hurt if the front office found a better on-base threat from outside the organization. While many are focused on Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield, he'll carry a hefty price tag. A player like Toronto Blue Jays infielder Eric Sogard won't. The Cubs were interested in him during the offseason, according to sources, but signed Daniel Descalso instead. Sogard has a .372 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot this season after signing a minor league deal this past winter. He'd be worth a flier and shouldn't cost nearly as much as Merrifield.

The Cubs have the second-worst fielding percentage in the NL.

We all know fielding percentage can be a misleading stat, but the Cubs have made way too many sloppy errors -- not to mention mental mistakes as well. And sometimes the mental ones lead to physical ones. Here's Epstein's wish for the second half:

"Playing good baseball, playing heads-up baseball, eliminating some of the sloppiness. Playing in a way all the guys can be proud of. If we start playing that way, the results will take care of themselves."

This is, and should be, a Maddon strength: creating an environment where players can just play without feeling the pressure to do too much. It's the only answer in regards to talented players when it comes to the sloppiness. Trying to make two outs instead of one, overthrowing a cutoff man, making outs on the basepaths. These are traits of players who are pressing. That's on the manager to relieve.

"We're also engaged with Joe and the coaching staff, trying to find ways to get more out of this group and play better," Epstein said.

The shaky bullpen hasn't been helped by usage decisions.

Like any manager, Maddon is often second-guessed for his bullpen decisions, but his issues don't involve when to pull a starter and when not to -- a popular topic on social media and sports talk radio. All managers are rolling the dice with those decisions. It's more important to understand who his best relievers are and to deploy them accordingly. The Cubs have no margin for error here.

For example, Maddon's misuse of righty Brandon Kintzler has cost the team games. Kintzler's performance across all situations has been fantastic, leading to a 1.98 ERA while stranding inherited runners 91% of the time. But until somewhat recently, he has been used as just another reliever -- pitching in low-leverage situations just as often as Brad Brach, who has a 6.11 ERA.

Maddon may claim he's put Kintzler in situations to succeed, but he doesn't have the luxury of picking and choosing when to use a reliever who is pitching that well, especially considering his bullpen isn't as deep as it once was. Making sure his top relievers are available, on as many days as the Cubs need them, should be a priority for Maddon in the second half.

It all comes down to Joe.

The front office can claim they're all in it together, but how much can they really do? They aren't going to meddle inside the clubhouse. Hoyer and Epstein know better than to approach a player about his poor play. They'll do that with the coaches, but it's up to the manager to right the ship.

Of course, there are other factors at play here, as the times the Cubs have played their worst baseball in recent years are when they've been forced to play the most. Even in their championship 2016 season, the Cubs stunk up the place during a stretch of 24 games without a day off from June 17 to July 10. Late last season, they reported to the park 30 consecutive days, and they subsequently squandered their division lead. These are facts, not opinions.

This season, the Cubs just finished a string of 50 games in 52 days, which included 29 games in June. They were the only National League team to play that many. A lighter schedule -- the Cubs open the second half at home with nine games in 10 days, for example -- should help make Maddon's job easier.

But he has to do the rest, beginning with the understanding that he's not leading the 2016 Cubs. As Epstein noted, the team just isn't good enough to overcome sloppy play. Armed with that information, Maddon needs to manage them accordingly.

His job depends on it.

Otherwise, the end will come just a few floors above his new restaurant, Maddon's Post, where Epstein's and Hoyer's offices sit. They'll eventually have a decision to make on Maddon. He needs to make it a harder one. He has 72 games to do it.

"If we start playing our style of baseball, a heads-up style of baseball that we play when we're at our best, then things should take care of themselves," Epstein said.