The Cubs Need More Contact and Lineup Diversity, But It's Probably Not Gonna Come From Big-Money Free Agents

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The Cubs Need More Contact and Lineup Diversity, But It’s Probably Not Gonna Come From Big-Money Free Agents

Chicago Cubs

We’ve been having this same conversation now for years, so I won’t harp on it too much, except to say: it’s clear that the Cubs’ offense has suffered, among other reasons, for a lack of variety in the lineup.

Remember when Michael wrote about the bananas last year? Well, it’s all still true:

When the Cubs front office was assembling this team through free agency, trades, IFA development, and, most notably, the MLB Draft, they began valuing and acquiring a certain type of hitter – and that type of hitter was undoubtedly desirable and fairly easy to define: tons of power, a polished-enough approach at the plate, good eyes, with less of a focus on just-making-contact ….

On an individual level, it’s pretty impossible to argue with the offensive upside (either current or projected) of any one player in that group above. But that’s not the point, because baseball is a team sport. And while you may enjoy the EXTREME benefits of that uniformity for one to two games, or heck, even one or two seasons (say … the 2015 and 2016 Chicago Cubs who averaged 100 wins/season and won the World Series), the group is far more susceptible to being owned completely, and at the same time, by a single strain of pitching fungus ….

Mind you, this isn’t an all or nothing problem. As we saw over the last few weeks of the season, this issue tends to manifest in waves (like scoring 55 runs in four games and then struggling to score 4 runs over the next two games). But that’s just it. The highs may be higher, but the lows are certainly lower.

Which brings me to our conclusion: wholesale changes are needed this offseason and they’re probably going to be painful.

Remember, on an individual level, many of these bananas players ARE extremely desirable. In fact, they may be the very best type (and that can often make changes look forced). But when your roster becomes overloaded with a certain type of hitter or pitcher, one pitching approach or league-wide shift in philosophy at the wrong time can be devastating.

What that means in the real world is that this team simply cannot afford to go into next season with the same core offensive group if they want to have consistent offensive success. They need different types of bananas.

We saw it exploited again this year, as the Cubs struggled mightily against premium velocity, with too many of their hitters susceptible to too many of the same pitcher strengths.

It’s not at all as simple as saying “the Cubs need more contact-oriented bats,” but that’s definitely a piece of the puzzle. The contact guys the Cubs have had available – think Albert Almora and Nico Hoerner – haven’t yet shown enough overall production to make the contact worth it. And the core hitters (outside of Anthony Rizzo) haven’t shown the ability to fundamentally change their level of contact (and it ain’t the hitting coaches’ faults). To this point, Theo Epstein this week acknowledged that you can do some contact work at the margins (think Ian Happ last year), but for the most part, if you want a more dynamic lineup with a group like this, you’re gonna have to import hitters who already have those skills.

But will the Cubs actually do it this offseason? Swapping out a core guy or two, and bringing in – be it through free agency, trade, or an international signing like Ha-Seong Kim – a different type of bat? A high-contact, line-drive, low-strikeout type?

Well, to kick off that conversation, I think it’s worth noting what Sahadev Sharma AND Patrick Mooney have said this week about the Cubs’ ability to bring in significant free agents.

Sharma:

Addressing contact issues is something Epstein still wants to do. The Cubs could use some smart hitters who excel at that department. D.J. LeMahieu and Michael Brantley, both free agents this winter, fit that description and both were in the top 10 in contact rate this past season. But according to those familiar with the Cubs’ plans this winter, free agency isn’t the likely route to address this problem. It looks like the Cubs will have to find help on the trade market.

Mooney:

Cubs fans shouldn’t get excited about the top of a free-agent class that includes Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu and George Springer. Look back at the last two offseasons, a time of runaway growth for the baseball industry, in the middle of a strong economy and a World Series window: Daniel Descalso’s two-year, $5 million contract represented the only multiyear deal for a free agent as well as the largest financial guarantee.

I hope none of that surprises you at this point, though you are certainly permitted to be bummed.

To be sure, even if it is correct that the Cubs won’t pony up for a huge signing (and our math on the state of payroll suggests they will not), this offseason might provide a unique opportunity to find impact hitters on modest deals in free agency. For one thing, the pool of those buy-low options is going to be quite large this year thanks to increased non-tenders and shorter-term deals over the past couple years. For another thing, the cost crunch across baseball is likely to drive down salaries for all but the most elite free agents. Even if the Cubs don’t have a lot of free cash, they could still do some damage if they’re as good at picking/developing fringe bats as they’ve been with fringe relievers.

Moreover, from an “open spot” standpoint, the Cubs likely would have to move players out to bring players in anyway, so who is to say that payroll space won’t be opened up in the process? I think the point here is less that the Cubs absolutely won’t import impactful bats, and more that we shouldn’t expect them to just go out and spend-spend-spend to add on top of the current group.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want them to do only that anyway. Like trying to diversify the strains of bananas in the world, the Cubs probably need to decrease their reliance on certain types of hitters just as much as they need to import other types.

If that means trading Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, or even Javy Báez or Willson Contreras or Ian Happ, then I don’t think the Cubs should immediately rule anything out.



Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.