CHICAGO — This is the genius of Joe Maddon:
Next week, all four of his infielders will start for the National League at the All-Star Game, a trick no team has turned since the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals. Yet when those Cubs return to Wrigley Field next Friday to face the Pirates, two of them — Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist — could wind up starting in the outfield. They might not be the only ones playing a different position.
If you want to know what separates Chicago from the handful of other title contenders at midseason, versatility is a good place to start. And that starts with Maddon.
“I’ve always been about that,” he said recently.
Maddon has never been shy about testing his players’ skill sets, either, because he’s always challenging himself. He could write a book about turning the tables on decades of received baseball wisdom and what’s he’s learned along the way. But on this day he limits himself to a list of benefits a manager gets having guys who can play multiple positions: reacting to in-game changes is easier; you can carry an extra pitcher if you need to; more flexibility in scheduling rest days; and it keeps everyone on their toes.
But he saves the best argument for the end of his pitch. It’s the same one Maddon employs to stick a toe outside his own comfort zone, and how he’s talked a few dozen grown men into donning pajamas for charter flights home from West Coast road trips.
“And the last point,” he summed up, “is they love it.”
Most of the time, anyway.
A week earlier, in a 15-inning marathon at Cincinnati, Maddon used three pitchers in the field in the same game for the first time in a century or more. Reliever Pedro Strop, the third pitcher to enter, was in the Cubs’ bullpen that inning when the phone rang, but he knew better than to assume anything.
“You never know with Joe,” he said. “The guy’s not afraid do anything. … So I was almost kind of ready for that, because I was the only extra player we got.
“But the other one? Man,” he continued. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’”
That was a year ago, just ahead of the midsummer break with the Dodgers in town. The Cubs were already struggling with a manpower shortage in that same infield.
Bryant, the third baseman, was wilting in the heat of his first big-league season and Maddon was trying to give him a day off. That plan fell through when shortstop Starlin Castro — since traded to the Yankees — headed off to the hospital for the birth of his second baby. It also forced Maddon to move Addison Russell from second to short and pencil in his only other healthy infielder, reserve Johnny Herrera, at second.
That’s when Strop noticed the manager eyeing him.
“Joe comes over and says to me, ‘So, what position can you play better?’” he recalled.
Strop has been a pitcher since he broke into the majors in 2009, but he’d played more than 200 games at shortstop in the Rockies’ minor league system before a weak bat convinced him to try throwing off a mound. The prospect of a cameo back at shortstop both tantalized and terrified him — exactly the response Maddon was looking for.
“But then Starlin drove back from the hospital,” Strop recalled, chuckling at the memory.
No matter. Point made.
Maddon came by the philosophy while working on his managerial chops as an assistant in the Angels organization and then as the boss in Tampa Bay. In both organizations, he saw talented ballplayers capable of contributing stuck in place because the guy in front of them had the position locked down. Maddon’s first convert to make a splash was Zobrist in Tampa Bay, who eventually mastered four positions, joined him in Chicago this season and will play second base in the All-Star Game.
Bryant, who will start at third, has played three different positions in the same regular-season game. Russell, who didn’t become a full-time shortstop until after the midseason break in 2015, will start there in the All-Star Game. And Maddon has already convinced rookie Willson Contreras, who was drafted as a catcher, to try left field and first base during his first month in the majors.
A few lockers down, Albert Almora Jr., another highly touted rookie, wondered whether he’d get the talk. He’s played center field since being called up June 7 from the Triple-A Iowa club, and hasn’t received any further instructions from Maddon.
“I watch him when I’m not playing and it seems like he’s three, four moves ahead of the game,” Almora said. “So he’s not afraid to try things, even with the rookies. Just about the first thing he said is he doesn’t care if you mess up. …
“Like if you’re in a situation where you think you should bunt, and he says hit and it doesn’t work out, he’ll come up to you right away and say, ‘That’s on me,’” he added. “He doesn’t just say have fun, he shows you how. That means a lot to a young player.”
Another few lockers over, 39-year-old David Ross, a backup catcher playing his final season, offers the last word on his smooth-talking, sometimes-zany manager.
“Too many guys want to equate smarts with being uptight,” Ross said. “Joe doesn’t. He just says, ‘Do simple better.’”