The Chicago Cubs had the best record in the National League with two games to play in the regular season. They had been in that position the entire second half of the season, sometimes by a pretty decent margin. Through 162 games, they were tied for the best record in the NL. Two days later, their season had ended. Many of us probably thought we'd never see the day that a 95-win season for the Cubs is a disappointment and causes mass hysteria, but here we are. This is what Theo Epstein wanted when he got to Chicago and he's made it happen.
What comes next?
The offense must become consistent
In the regular season, the Cubs scored zero or one run in 38 games. They scored two runs 16 times. They also scored seven or more runs 49 times. That is 103 games in the 0-2 or 7-plus range and only 60 with 3-6 runs. We saw them. It was an unbelievably boom-or-bust offense. One of the biggest problems this year, as I see it, was manager Joe Maddon's insistence on an all-fields and contact approach. He brought in Chili Davis to be the hitting coach and preached it all year. He apparently thought it was going to make the offense more consistent, but they actually got worse.
Speaking of Chili Davis, let's look at his recent history. In 2017, it was his third year with the Red Sox. Here's a look at that year and this season, their first without him:
- 2017 Red Sox: .258/.329/.407, 6th in AL in runs, last in home runs, 14th in slugging
- 2018 Red Sox: .268/.339/.453, 1st in AL in runs, 6th in home runs, 1st in slugging
Now, there's context behind everything and adding J.D. Martinez certainly helped, but he didn't do all of that on his own. Early in the season, there were stories from the Boston area about the Red Sox change in offensive approach that included attacking pitches early in the count.
Attacking. Hmmm. The Cubs had a lot of guys who seemed to forget how to attack during the course of the 2018 season.
Willson Contreras entered the season with 711 career plate appearances. He was a .278/.356/.494 (120 OPS+) hitter with a 162-game average of 28 home runs. This season, he hit .249/.339/.390 (92) with just 10 home runs. After the All-Star break, he hit .200/.291/.294. He didn't hit a single home run between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30.
Ian Happ hit 24 homers with an OPS+ of 113 in 115 games in his rookie year. This year, he hit 15 homers in 142 games with a 100 OPS+. He lost 106(!) points of slugging percentage.
Albert Almora was a league average hitter by OPS+ in 2017 at age 24. He was 16 percent below average this season. After the All-Star break, he hit .232/.267/.280.
David Bote had probably the coolest moment of the Cubs' season when he hit a on Sunday Night Baseball on Aug. 12. Through that game, he was hitting .329/.418/.539 and it wasn't just sheer luck. He was leading the majors in exit velocity. He went 2 for 5 the next day, but then hit .165/.237/.311 the rest of the way.
Even Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant dipped. Bryant's OPS+ by year in his career: 135, 146, 142, 119. He slugged 94 points worse this season than in his MVP year. Rizzo lost 37 points in slugging and had his fewest home run total since 2013. A late power surge got him to 25, because through July 25, Rizzo had just 12 home runs.
As noted, there's always context. Maybe the league adjusted to Happ and he didn't react accordingly. Almora's first half was driven by an unsustainable BABIP and good matchups, but then Maddon started playing him everyday. Bote was not going to slash like he was prime Josh Donaldson all year. Rizzo had a back injury early. Bryant was hurt all year (head, shoulder, wrist). I guess you could say Contreras was tired from leading the majors in innings caught?
What's the common denominator, though? At some point, we'd be working awfully hard to avoid the easy answer: The drastic change in approach resulted in a nearly team-wide power outage. One player got significantly better (Javier Baez). That's it. Pretty much everyone else got worse. Ben Zobrist simply had a bounce-back year after a wrist injury ruined him in 2017.
If I'm in Epstein's shoes, I'd consider bringing in a new hitting coach. And if Maddon -- who is the one who pushed for the hire and preached the changes -- has a problem with that, well, he only has one year left on his contract.
Sign Bryce Harper
I'd be confident that the following things are true about the offense, especially with a new hitting coach:
- Contreras is fixable.
- Bryant will be fine once he's healthy. Rizzo is fine.
- Baez's breakout was real.
- Jason Heyward is never again going to be an average hitter.
- Kyle Schwarber this past season is what he is. He's productive but will never be great.
- Almora is a fourth outfielder or platoon starter.
- Happ shouldn't be an everyday starter.
We know the Cubs stayed under the luxury tax threshold this year for a reason. A big one. Now you go get Bryant's Las Vegas cohort in Harper.
Then you platoon Heyward and Almora in center field. Zobrist can man second base while Baez plays short and Bryant is at third. Left field can be a mix of Schwarber, Happ and, yes, Bote. Bote and Happ can play several infield spots, too. Further, Happ is probably tradeable if the Cubs want to grab some bullpen depth.
Harper is a fit here in right field and gives an instant shot in the arm to an offense that needs it.
A healthy and right Darvish? Pick up Hamels' option?
The Cubs' rotation signings for this past season were a complete debacle. You can't cut your losses on Tyler Chatwood just yet, but is his control is as bad during the spring as it was this season, you have to think about. There are two years and $25.5 million left on the deal and that's chump change for the Cubs.
Yu Darvish is a different matter. He's owed over $100 million and you can't just give up on that. Nor should they. I know it's a world of hot takes, but the fact of the matter is that Darvish came into 2018 with a career ERA of 3.42 (127 ERA+) and strikeout rate of 11 K/9. He was hurt this season. He had a stress reaction in his elbow. Injuries happen. It's not a matter of toughness.
If Darvish is healthy and right, the Cubs have a rotation of:
Mike Montgomery has proven a capable fifth starter. He's an option.
Speaking of options, Cole Hamels was excellent in his 12 starts for the Cubs, pitching to a 2.36 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. There's a $20 million option for 2019 on his contract. You've gotta think about picking that up, right?
If so and if Darvish is right, that's a good rotation.
I know it's all doom and gloom right now with the Cubs and I get it. The team still went through lots of adversity during the course of a season where it won 95 games and was tied for the best record in the National League through 162 games. There's a lot of talent here. If things fall into place, the team will be in the playoffs for the fifth straight season in 2019 and a deep playoff run is very much on the table.