WASHINGTON — Miguel Montero walked into the Chicago Cubs clubhouse Monday, saw his wide locker alongside veterans John Lackey and Jon Lester, and yelled to a clubhouse attendant that it took him 12 years to earn that spot. Two days later, it took him five minutes to lose it.
Montero, who was designated for assignment Wednesday, is what Cubs manager Joe Maddon calls a Stage 5 player. Stage 5 guys, Maddon says, are usually the best types of players to have on your team because all they want to do is win. Behind them are Stage 4 players, consumed with making as much money as possible, and Stage 3 guys, focused on staying in the league for as long as they can.
Stage 5 players also have the important responsibility of being role models for players in Stage 1-4, who have less experience in the majors and are aiming to reach Stage 5 themselves. The players with the most malleable minds, according to Maddon, are in Stage 2. Past the Stage 1 point of just “being happy to be here,” Stage 2 players focus on taking in their surroundings and absorb messages from older teammates in an effort to shape their futures.
"Stage 2 people, in any profession, are just there to try to avoid making mistakes,” Maddon said. “They're not there to try to make things happen in a positive way. That's the natural order of things. You've got to get them out of that stage to the ‘longer I can do this’ phase. Some guys get out of it earlier than other, but to me it's about how you internalize what you hear."
Maddon’s main concern Wednesday was that his young players would internalize exactly what they heard come out of Montero’s mouth the night before, when the catcher publicly criticized starter Jake Arrieta for his slow delivery leading to Washington’s seven stolen bases. The decision to cut Montero Wednesday afternoon wasn’t aimed at preventing friction between the catcher teammates like Arrieta or Anthony Rizzo; it was meant to send a clear message to the young core of Cubs who witnessed the fallout.
The Cubs in their current state have plenty of key Stage 2 players, from Willson Contreras to Albert Almora and Javier Baez to Addison Russell. Rookies Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, Mike Zagunis and Montero’s replacement, Victor Caratini, will be there soon. Regardless of stage, all of the young Cubs are already playing important roles, as seen by Chicago fielding the youngest lineup in the majors Monday night against the Nationals.
“When you're a young player and older players start making derogatory comments like that, you're sitting in your stall and you're just like, ‘what does that mean?’ and ‘how do I process that?’” Maddon said. “You're asking how that impacts you and if you did something wrong. There's not even a thought of, 'how can I make this right?' or 'how can I make this better?' because you can't.
“You've got to suck it all up and it kind of tears at your fabric when you hear it,” Maddon said. “As a person and as a player, when you go out there, you're not the same cat. You've now heard all this garbage kind of stuff, and it impacts the whole group."
Maddon was not in the clubhouse to hear Montero’s comments Tuesday, instead first learning of them via text message on the bus ride to the team hotel. After his initial reaction of “wow,” the manager called president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and the decision to part ways with Montero was jointly made.
Maddon is known for his candor with the media but rarely criticizes his players publicly. While Maddon emphasizes freedom with what his players can say and do, he acknowledged the potential negatives of speaking to the media.
“You've got to put the limits on yourself and work with some type of internal monitoring system regarding what you think you can say or cannot say,” Maddon said. “Then you take chances some times. I've had my butt put in a sling a couple times myself. I never want anyone to withhold saying what they really think, if they want to.”
Maddon, the owner of two World Series rings and the claim as one of the highest-paid managers in baseball history, is a proud member of the Stage 5 club in coaching. He created the system as a young coach in the mid-1990s with the Angels, realizing that he could better understand players by categorizing their development in a five-step way.
That understanding has led Maddon to take swift action whenever he sees a potential negative impact on the development of his young players. In the case of Montero, he simply couldn’t have his Stage 2 players thinking the type of behavior shown Tuesday from a 12-year veteran and two-time all-star was acceptable.
“Regardless of what [Arrieta] said about it not impacting the clubhouse, I think it would have,” Maddon said. “There's too many young guys in there that are impressionable. It's not like a group of veterans that could separate and dissect it properly to the point where they could walk with what's necessary and drop off what's not.”
“Veteran players can be both good and bad,” Maddon said. “Veteran players can really elevate a group, and veteran players can really drag down a group. It depends on their agenda.”