Joe Maddon’s decision Friday to opt out of his final year in Tampa has sparked a flurry of speculation in the baseball world. Which lucky team will end up with the man widely considered the best manager in baseball?

As of Saturday, most of the discussion centered around the Chicago Cubs. The long-suffering club on Chicago’s North Side has been undertaking an extensive rebuilding project under the direction of former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. Adding Maddon could be an obvious move to boost a roster stocked with young talent to the next level.

There’s just one problem: the Cubs already have a manager locked in through the 2016 season.

But given Maddon’s stature in the baseball world, that little detail may not be a major barrier for the team.

“Sure, the Cubs have a manager in Rick Renteria but Renteria still is learning a job Maddon has mastered,” writes Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh, “and rare are the opportunities to hire somebody at the top of his profession who fits in the Cubs organization like ivy on an outfield wall.”

While Maddon’s decision caught many by surprise, the writing may have been on the wall when Rays general manager Andrew Friedman left for the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this month. The two were notably close and considered fundamental to the team’s dramatic turnaround in the last decade.

But speculation that Joe Maddon might join Friedman in L.A. was quickly doused by a Dodgers statement on Friday.

“As I said last week, Joe and I enjoyed a tremendous relationship working together in Tampa Bay and I wish him nothing but the best wherever his next stop will be,” Friedman said. “However, nothing has changed on our end. Don Mattingly will be our manager next season and hopefully for a long time to come.”

The only team in Major League Baseball without a managerial vacancy, besides the Rays now, is the Minnesota Twins. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Rand says “Twins fans are going crazy with optimistic speculation that he could wind up here.” But as he concedes, that outcome is highly unlikely.

The Cubs, on the other hand, are becoming an increasingly likely landing spot. ESPN’s resident baseball insider Buster Olney reported that speculation at the World Series and among others in MLB is pointing to Maddon in the home dugout at Wigley Field next year.

Maddon is not the manager of the Cubs yet, but in the same way that Hillary Clinton is not a 2016 presidential candidate yet. A river of gossip about Maddon going to the Cubs flowed among folks on the field here, and in the offices of other teams, which is why Maddon as the leader of the North Siders is regarded as a fait accompli – and why rival officials fully expect the issue of tampering to come up before this plays out.

Another baseball insider, Ken Rosenthal, asked Maddon directly about the Cubs job.

“I don’t know,” the manager told him, according to Rosenthal’s Facebook page. “I have to talk to people. I have interest everywhere right now. I’ve got to hear what everyone has to say.”

And Chicago sports radio host Dan Bernstein reported that the team does intend to speak to the newly available manager.

Maddon’s agent is Alan Nero, who happens to be based in Chicago. Nero has said that his client is looking at “all options,” including “taking a year off.”

Cubs optimism, which usually doesn’t spring until, well, spring, has been everywhere on Twitter since the news broke.

The Cubs’ Epstein interviewed Maddon when he was with the Red Sox, but ended up hiring Terry Francona before the 2004 season.

The Chicago Tribune’s Cubs beat writer, Paul Sullivan, pointed out that Maddon has a soft spot for Chicago and Wrigley Field. This past summer marked his first time inside the ballpark and he was immediately taken with its famous mystique.

“It’s almost like a St. Louis thing, where they’re really good baseball fans and they can appreciate good baseball either way,” he said at the time. “The fact the Cubs have not been to the playoffs often and you still get this kind of allegiance and following is pretty impressive.”

He attributed much of that to Wrigley itself, calling it “a happening.”

“On a Friday afternoon at 3, the place is jam-packed,” Maddon said. “Where else would that happen? I don’t know. And they do it consistently.”

He also pointed to “the lure of the ballpark” and its “great vibe” in saying that “it’s more than a baseball game when the people come out here.”

Whether that’s enough to bring Joe Maddon to Wrigley as the Cubs manager remains to be seen. But it’s a question that will occupy baseball fans for at least part of this off-season, particularly those long-suffering ones in Chicago.

[photo credit: Keith Allison]