It could be a winter of change for the Cubs, and not just on the roster.
This team may also change how it deploys the players on the roster — namely with a more set, consistent lineup in 2019.
It’s something Theo Epstein addressed in his 2018 “eugoogly” presser, indicating some of the players expressed a desire for less shakeup in the daily lineup during the course of their exit interviews. Upon hearing that, a large portion of the Cubs fanbase jumped up, stood on their chairs and shouted “HEARD THAT!”
But does a set lineup even make sense in today’s version of baseball?
In 2018, Joe Maddon wrote out 152 different lineups in 163 games (and that’s not even factoring in the pitcher’s spot). That’s a bump up from 2017 (143 different lineups) and 2016 (130 lineups in the regular season of the championship year).
How does that relate to the top contenders around the league?
The last four World Series teams (2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and the 2017-18 Dodgers) averaged 145 different lineups per regular season. All 2018 MLB playoff teams (excluding Cubs) averaged 129.1 separate lineups throughout the regular season.
The Dodgers tallied 155 different lineups in 2018 and 147 in 2017 and they made it to the World Series both seasons. The Astros posted 144 new lineups each of the last two regular seasons while the Red Sox were at 134 lineups and the Brewers and Yankees sat at 137 lineups in 2018.
Point being: Everybody is mixing and matching nowadays. We’re in a world of extreme platooning, bullpening and shifting. That means a lot of different lineups.
And it’s not just a few teams doing it. The top contenders are all changing things up in terms of their lineup on a daily basis. Why would the Cubs be any different?
That being said, the Cubs were still high in 2018, even compared to the rest of that field (only the Dodgers were higher in terms of lineup tinkering). But how much of that would’ve changed had Kris Bryant started more than 99 games?
Maddon’s most consistent lineup in 2018 (utilized 5 times) featured Bryant:
1. Albert Almora Jr.
2. Javy Baez
3. Kris Bryant
4. Anthony Rizzo
5. Willson Contreras
6. Kyle Schwarber
7. Addison Russell
8. Jason Heyward
But that lineup was never used after May 30, when Bryant’s shoulder injury became an issue.
There are plenty of other factors that contributed to the lineup tinkering throughout the 2018 season, including Baez’s ascension, playing time for Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ, the emergence of Heyward in the order, the addition of Daniel Murphy to the lineup late in the year and then the downturn of a slew of guys in the second half (Almora, Contreras, Russell, Happ).
It was easier for Maddon to write out a lineup in 2017 when the heart of the order was the same (Bryant-Rizzo-Contreras) for much of the season and even simpler yet in 2016 with a stable leadoff hitter (Dexter Fowler).
The 2018 Cubs roster was built like this by design — to have players like Zobrist and Happ rotate in and out based off necessity, playing different positions and capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup.
The main reason they even won 95 games and still held a share of first place after 162 regular season games was due to that incredible depth built to withstand injuries and only one off-day in the final 5-6 weeks of the season. So knocking the Cubs’ lack of lineup stability is also knocking the exact depth that gave them one of the best records in the game.
“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, first of all, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 games the last four years — more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “Because when you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over [to shortstop] and Zobrist slides to second base. And when you lose Kris Bryant and David Bote’s there to fill in and player after player.
“The alternative to that is overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal. That said, there is a price to pay sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence where they can just go out and play and develop at their own pace, that they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow. That’s something that you wrestle with, so it’s a cost-benefit analysis.
“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough or instead of eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two injuries, your whole season’s down the tubes. But I think it’s fair to ask ourselves — can we handle it better? Do we need to communicate more? Do we need to spread the playing time around a little bit differently? Do we need to consider lineup issues differently? Is there a way we can get everyone on the same page with it more? So players don’t have any questions or doubts so we get the benefit of certainty while still having a surplus. … Looking at our team, it’s the depth of really quality players we have that’s kept us afloat at many times.”
For years, Maddon’s policy has been to let players know the day before what the lineup will be for the next game so they can prepare physically and mentally. He’s always been focused on trying to develop the young position players while also trying to win on a consistent basis.
That doesn’t mean Maddon or the Cubs can’t learn from how 2018 played out and handle it better in the future, as Epstein admitted.
But it still comes down to the roster. Who on this team should play every single day and hit in a consistent spot in the batting order? Bryant, Rizzo and Baez are the only three that come to mind at the moment.
Zobrist will be 38 in 2019, Contreras needs time to rest as a catcher, Schwarber struggles against left-handed pitchers and Almora simply hasn’t hit well enough in his career to warrant everyday playing time despite his stellar defense in center field.
The case for a stable lineup makes plenty of sense, especially with young players. But with the current roster construction and no discernible leadoff hitter, it’s much harder to execute.
Before the Cubs can climb into the Cleveland Indians territory (they utilized only 105 different lineups in 2018 and just 101 in their World Series season of 2016), Epstein and Co. need to alter the roster, though that’s exactly what may be happening this winter…