Cubs: Dynamic of Cubs coaching staff has changed
There's a completely new dynamic with the Chicago Cubs coaching staff this year.
The Cubs are on their third hitting coach and third pitching coach in three seasons after hirings and firings, and they have a new bench coach after the previous two took managerial jobs elsewhere.
Part of the new dynamic is that manager Joe Maddon is either on the hot seat as a lame-duck manager, or he's in the catbird seat as a potential free-agent manager. It's all how you look at it.
Maddon enters the fifth season of his five-year contract, and team president Theo Epstein is in no hurry to give his dugout boss a contract extension.
Epstein also said he wanted Maddon to "coach" more this spring, and to watch Maddon operate, it's obvious he's doing just that.
Before Cactus League games began, Maddon darted from practice field to practice field, giving pointers, loading up pitching machines with baseballs and overseeing hitting drills.
Maddon, a coach and instructor at heart and by trade, seemed to be enjoying every minute of it.
"I'm still empowering the coaches," he said. "I'm staying out of the way, but I'm kind of reintroducing some thoughts to these guys, maybe that they've never had or maybe that we've got latent with."
One of the biggest focuses this spring has been on situational hitting, or "opportunity hitting," as new batting coach Anthony Iapoce likes to call it.
Much of this has taken place under the watchful eye of team president Theo Epstein, who would confer often with Maddon on the practice fields.
"I think (Maddon) taking over the situational hitting has been a great thing for everybody," Epstein told reporters in Mesa, Arizona, recently. "Players have really enjoyed having him be engaged that intensely in something and that hands-on teaching.
"'Opportunity hitting' is something that can be sometimes overlooked. And it can be hard for the hitting coach to be the one drilling it in, because by definition it's a selfless activity. In some ways, you're sacrificing your at-bat, your numbers, for the good of the team. When you have a manager that involved and making it such a priority, I think it just sets the right tone for the group."
Iapoce, 45, rejoins the Cubs organization after three years as the hitting coach for the Texas Rangers. He spent the three years before that as a special assistant to Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, overseeing the Cubs' minor-league hitting program.
In some ways it's a return to old ways with the new coach. Iapoce is close with former Cubs hitting coach John Mallee, who was fired after the 2017 season and replaced with Chili Davis. Mallee emphasized the importance of launch angle with Cubs hitters, something Davis got away from last season.
On the pitching side, Tommy Hottovy replaces Jim Hickey, who resigned for personal reasons after he replaced Chris Bosio.
The 37-year-old Hottovy is no stranger to the Cubs. He joined the organization in 2015, working in the role of advance scouting and run prevention.
New bench coach Mark Loretta, a former major-league infielder and Northwestern University product, comes from the San Diego Padres front office to take over from Brandon Hyde, who became manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Maddon inherited most of his coaching staff when he took over before the 2015 season. Stability was the hallmark of the first three seasons of Maddon's tenure before changes began happening after the 2017 season, with Davis and Hickey being joined by new third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who remains.
For his part, Maddon seems to be embracing the latest changes.
"Poce (Iapoce) is high energy and very entertaining and also good," he said. "Tommy Hottovy is a very, very bright young man who expresses himself well. We had needs in certain areas based on different items that occurred last year. We were just looking for good people who we thought would fit in to what we're doing.
"You look at Loretta, too. That was based on (Brandon Hyde) leaving. I'm really impressed with Mark Lo. This guy's really sharp. He's got a really good mind. He's got a great way of breaking things down and explaining what he's thinking."
Will Venable returns for his second year as first-base coach, and bullpen coach Lester Strode enters his 31st season in the Cubs organization.
Terrmel Sledge is Iapoce's assistant hitting coach, an former Cub Chris Denorfia is the new quality assurance coach. Highly regarded Mike Borzello returns as a strategy coach, working with pitchers and catchers on game planning.
Maddon has a regular-season record of 387-261 with the Cubs, good for winning percentage of .597. The only other Cubs managers with higher winning percentages are Hall of Famers Frank Chance and Albert Spalding.
While Maddon seems accepting of the changes, he says he feels an openness from all parties.
"The one thing that stands out to me about our guys this year -- maybe I know them better, maybe it's maturity, experience -- a sense of openness," he said. "What are the components of openness? Is it urgency? Is it recommitment, the fact that we hated what happened at the end of last year? I think when you're open like this as an athlete and can see that, 'I don't want to be set in my ways and there's other things out there to explore,' I'm really enjoying that. I'm enjoying that a lot.
"From an academic or educational perspective, doesn't every teacher want an open group? We have an open group right now."