After building around hitters, Cubs don’t have magic to fix offense


After building around hitters, Cubs don’t have magic to fix offense

NEW YORK – The Cubs don’t have any magic tricks to fix their offense. Not hitting consultant Manny Ramirez, sports psychologist Ken Ravizza or even Simon the Magician, who all showed up here at Citi Field.

“I shook his hand,” Kris Bryant joked when asked if there’s any magic in the bats he inspected in the dugout before Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the New York Mets.

Mentalist/mind reader Simon Winthrop had just put on a magic show inside the visiting clubhouse to ease the tension. But the Cubs don’t have any quick fixes for this lineup. This is how Theo Epstein’s front office built the team, using trade chips and draft picks to try to create an American League-style lineup.

“They’re being schooled right now,” manager Joe Maddon said.

[MORE: Maddon magic tricks spark Cubs over Mets]

The Cubs were coming off a week in which they scored 11 runs in seven games, seeing a pair of Los Angeles Dodgers aces (Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) and getting swept by a St. Louis Cardinals staff that had an overall 2.61 ERA.

The return of Jorge Soler (ankle) should help – maybe by this weekend – but the focus leading up to the July 31 trade deadline will be on starting pitching. The Cubs understand the answers will have to come from within.

The Cubs began the day leading the National League in strikeouts by a wide margin, but that’s just part of this lineup’s DNA. They had also gone 2-for-27 with men in scoring position over the weekend, leaving 28 men on base against the Cardinals and looking overmatched at times.

“Everybody knows we do strike out a lot,” Maddon said. “As they get more experience, that’s going to come down. We have a lot of power. A lot of these guys haven’t hit to their power yet. That’s going to go up.

“It would be easy to get frustrated if you really didn’t understand development and what it takes, how you have to be patient with it. If you’re able to step back and really look at it in those terms, you go: Whoa, these guys are going to be really good the next couple years.

“That’s what I do. So if Soler’s having a tough stretch, or (Addison) Russell’s having a tough stretch, or Bryant’s having a tough stretch, whoever’s having a tough stretch: Chill, man. They’re going to be fine.”

[MORE: The Cubs' ongoing search for pitching]

The Cubs went for offense at a time when – as Maddon likes to say – pitching and defense gets all the shiny new toys. It’s advanced statistical analysis, extreme defensive shifts and extensive video databases (and tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs).

“Yeah, they do the shift,” Ramirez said. “They got all this kind of stuff. But it’s the same game. Even the pitchers that throw 95-97 (mph), they still make mistakes. I don’t think the game is harder. Remember, you’re talking about guys that are 21, 23 (years old). All we got to do is be patient.

“I know they’re going to be good. They’re going to be maturing. They’re going to have their ups and downs. All we got to do is be patient, because I know they got an awesome team.”

Up next is 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, who won a Cy Young Award 10 years ago, followed by Jacob deGrom, the NL’s reigning Rookie of the Year.

“There’s good pitching everywhere,” Maddon said. “Look at the bullpens…every guy they bring out is throwing 97. It’s industry-wide right now, so I don’t see where the breaks are.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: