The Cubs aren’t sharing exactly how they plan on ensuring their offense doesn’t break in 2019.
Which makes sense: Why make your adjustments and gameplans public months before the season even starts?
But the tone about the lineup has changed a bit since the Cubs managed just one run in 13 innings against the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild-Card Game last month.
The day after that disappointing end to the season, Theo Epstein was honest and straightforward about the lackluster Cubs offense and his comments teased the potential for a lot of change to the lineup this winter.
The comments from Epstein’s front office have softened since then as they realize the need for patience right now. After all, there’s still plenty of reason to be excited about all these young hitters.
It’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — that 2018 will go down as the worst season in the respective careers of Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras and it’s not as if guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ suddenly lost their power stroke even if their homer totals took a dip.
And even though the Cubs aren’t interested in putting all the blame on former hitting coach Chili Davis, they still felt like he simply didn’t mesh with some of the players and wasted no time making a change on Joe Maddon’s staff.
“Obviously we didn’t hit for as much power as we did the year before,” GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month. “Blaming that or assigning that to a hitting program is dangerous. Everyone likes homers — it’s not like anyone is preaching not to hit homers. We couldn’t really pinpoint exactly why we didn’t hit the second half of the season. And there’s no silver bullet, I don’t think, to fix that.
“But obviously we made a change with Chili. Chili’s a great hitting coach, but for our group, we felt like returning to some of our roots and going back and getting [new hitting coach Anthony] Iapoce is the right thing to do. But it is difficult.
“Our individual players themselves in many instances struggled — how much of that is based on a hitting program and how much of that is based on individual struggles? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
There may not be a silver bullet to solve the Cubs’ hitting woes, but there are certainly areas that could make a huge difference instantly. A free agent market packed with hitters like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson provides plenty of options for the Cubs to upgrade their lineup.
If the current financial landscape takes the Cubs out on those big fish, there are other established veterans out there who may settle for a more reasonable contract (think: Nick Markakis).
Then there’s the trade market, where the Cubs could shake up their lineup by dealing for a different type of hitter that may fit better in an offense with a lot of boom-or-bust type players.
Of course, there’s also the patience approach.
“I feel really comfortable where we are with our offense,” Hoyer said. “I mean, you look around the diamond — all the guys have performed in different years exceptionally well. They’re still young. It’s about getting that group to gel as a group.
“In the second half, we kinda cratered. A number of guys underperformed. I think we have a plenty good offense if we don’t add another hitter. That being said, we’ll look around; we’ll certainly have discussions, but our focus really is on our own guys.”
Even with their own guys and all the first-round picks on the roster, the Cubs still felt the need to trade for Daniel Murphy in August and wound up playing him almost every day down the stretch because of how important they felt his bat/approach was to the lineup. In 2017, Jon Jay provided a lift and in 2016, it was Dexter Fowler and the veteran combination of David Ross and Miguel Montero at catcher.
The Cubs figure to add at least one veteran hitter to this lineup for 2019 — a guy that can offer a consistent approach and deliver a quality at-bat. And they’re also considering deploying a more stable lineup, which could help all those young hitters.
But the major difference for this offense will be about a return to health for Bryant and guys like Contreras, Schwarber, Happ and Albert Almora Jr. taking a step forward and making the necessary adjustments.
So what have the Cubs learned about that late-season offensive downturn?
“We were assessing it every day as it was going on, so it’s not like you sit down and find out all the answers,” Epstein said at the MLB GM Meetings. “But I think through some of the exit interviews, I definitely learned some things. Some of the stuff I don’t want to talk about publicly before we make some adjustments and roll it out for the players, but I think in general terms, the deeper we dug, the more we realized we have a ton of talent offensively with the position players group. Which — in a lot of ways — should be the strength of this team.
“…For a few different reasons, it fell apart down the stretch and we weren’t able to make an adjustment and pull ourselves out of it. Some of it was just mechanical or approach adjustments that need to be made and some of it was environmental.
“And I will say we’ve already had three players — when I walk down to the clubhouse, I keep hearing balls being smacked off the tee and guys taking batting practice already — which I don’t know if it’s a good sign or a bad sign. I like what it means about the work ethic and how serious these guys are about getting better and making some adjustments and remembering that feeling about what it’s like to walk off the field after losing the Wild-Card Game.
“I don’t know what it means about rest, so we gotta — and we are — making sure guys don’t start too soon because I think we have a lot of players eager to have a really productive winter and come back better next year.”