Former Rays’ manager Joe Maddon shocked the baseball world Friday morning, announcing that he is exercising the opt-out clause in his contract. Maddon will become a free agent before 2015 and in all likelihood will be managing a new team next season. Beloved by players and fans alike, Maddon’s track record is irrefutable. He transformed the lowly then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays into a model of innovative success despite dealing with constraining budgets. As Maddon looks to the future, he will surely have a number of suitors banging down his door–perhaps even some that do not have an apparent need at manager. In short, Joe Maddon’s opt-out may very well bring about a dramatic change in the course of the 2014 MLB offseason.
Maddon took over as manager in Tampa Bay prior to the 2006 Major League season. In the eight seasons before his hire, the Rays consistently occupied the basement of baseball. With an all-time record of 518-973, Tampa averaged 65 wins and 95 losses per year in the pre-Maddon era. Maddon not only managed to end the years of abysmal baseball in west Florida, but has propelled the Rays to four playoff appearances, including a World Series franchise debut in 2008. You would have needed a lot of luck to convince a Devil Rays fan in 2004 that his or her team would be playing in the World Series four years later.
The shocking truth about the Joe Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays is not merely the unlikely turnaround. Instead, the remarkable story behind the success of the 2000s Rays lies in their payroll. In an era of big fish free agents, Maddon was provided a team built upon an average of $52 million during his tenure. Measuring Maddon’s resources against those of the $100 million-Red Sox or the Yankees, two teams in Maddon’s very own division, renders Maddon’s tremendous run in Tampa Bay even more incredible. Year after year the Rays surrounded cornerstones like David Price and Evan Longoria with the Jason Bartletts and James Loneys of the baseball world. Maddon’s task was a daunting one. He had to craft winning rosters from a series of inexpensive role players, most of whom would be turned over at season’s end.
On the other hand, all Maddon really had to do was to create a winning product once in while, or at least one that could be called adequate. This would have likely earned him a long tenure in Tampa Bay and the reputation of an above average Major League manager. No one–fans, players, other managers, or likely even his own organization–would have ever expected four 90-win seasons and an American League championship from Maddon’s teams. But, after eight years Maddon has given Tampa Bay four postseasons and reversed the direction of a seemingly doomed franchise. With his current resume, Maddon is due for an enormous pay day, and nobody could claim it’s undeserved.
The Joe Maddon era in Tampa Bay is over. Citing differences in compensation and a desire to experience a greater wealth of career options, Maddon has chosen to part ways with the franchise that he resurrected. A few potential options immediately come to mind. Maddon may join his former boss Andrew Friedman, former general manager of Maddon’s Rays and now president of baseball operations for the Dodgers. However, Friedman has already indicated his support for incumbent Don Mattingly. Maddon could join Theo Epstein and the Cubs, as Epstein watched Maddon’s genius at play during numerous playoff series against his former club, the Red Sox. Maddon would be entering into a familiar narrative in signing with Chicago, as the often-tortured Cubs fan base has not experienced a World Series title since 1908. Certainly fans on the north side would be more than ready to declare the demise of the Curse of the Billy Goat should Maddon accept a job with the Cubs. An opening also exists in Minnesota, who recently sacked the longest-tenured manager in the game in Ron Gardenhire.
But Maddon’s future may lie beyond the obvious choices. The availability of a manager of Maddon’s caliber, reputation, prestige, and overall likeability does not occur every offseason. When a guy like Maddon presents himself in free agency, you check in–no matter your confidence in your current manager (with a few exceptions). As of Friday, teams seemingly secure at the manager position may very well be secure no more. While most teams in baseball currently do not have openings at manager, anyone can make an opening if they believe that shot at landing Maddon exists. Hence, while Maddon’s future is unclear, one thing is certain: he will not have to file for unemployment.
Photo: Keith Allison