Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

Why Theo Epstein believes Cubs offense will click on all cylinders

What if the “hitting young” theme Cubs manager Joe Maddon keeps talking about lasts all season? What if team president Theo Epstein doesn’t see that anticipated growth until late in the year or this even drags into 2018?

“I hope not,” Maddon said with a laugh.

“You’d really have to roll snake eyes,” Epstein said skeptically.

This is a 95- or 100-win team on paper that has already been at the .500 mark at 10 different points this season and hasn’t yet pulled away in the weakest division in Major League Baseball. Between going 0-for-6 on a West Coast trip and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, the overreactions swing from “World Series hangover” to “The Cubs are back.”

There doesn’t need to be any sweeping conclusions after Tuesday night’s 10-2 blowout where the Cubs beat an underwhelming starter (Jeff Locke) and a flawed Miami Marlins team to extend their winning streak to five games at Wrigley Field.

As Epstein said without sarcasm — more of a reminder that the solutions will come from within rather than a trade-deadline deal or the shock treatment of demoting guys to the minors: “These players won the World Series.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Cubs (30-27) always look better when Anthony Rizzo drills a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers, but this diversified approach also saw them score six runs on six hits in the seventh inning and finish at 6-for-16 with runners in scoring position Tuesday.

Still, more than one-third of the way through the 162-game marathon, the Cubs have already been shut out five times, beginning the day ranked 10th in the National League in OPS (.730) while hitting .216 with runners in scoring position (or next to last in the majors).

Some of this is cyclical and a reflection of how Big Data can stifle offense. There are elements of bad luck and bad weather when you still need a winter coat in Wrigleyville in early June. But roughly 54 percent of the team’s 2,000-plus plate appearances this season have gone to seven players between the ages of 22 and 25: Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant.

Could this learning curve stretch through most — or all — of 2017?

“I mean, it can,” Epstein said. “Usually not collectively. Teams are 25 individuals. You’d really have to roll snake eyes, regardless of age, for players to underperform their projections or their talent level that uniformly over the course of a whole season.

“Could it happen? Yes, it could happen. We don’t think it’s going to happen. We also have a lot of good players. We have a lot of different lineups that we can put out there. We have a lot of different players that we can lean on to carry us.

“We don’t need everyone to get hot. We don’t need everyone to hit their projection. We don’t need everyone to have a nice, steady progression building off of where they were last year. We just need a few guys to get going to make our offense really viable.”

Russell (.636) and Schwarber (.635) are among the bottom 10 percent of all qualified big-league hitters in terms of OPS. Baez has walked three times since the beginning of May. Happ now has almost as many career games in The Show as he does on the Triple-A level (26) and will have to keep making adjustments. Contreras is in the middle of his first full season in the majors. Maddon is trying to make sure that Almora doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“We need time,” Epstein said. “Over time, our guys are going to continue to progress. And when that gap (between talent and performance) exists, it’s a better position to be in than not having the talent, because then you’re fighting and scratching and clawing to get more talent because you’re not good enough.

“But we are plenty talented. It’s on us to figure it out, sooner rather than later.”

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Eighth inning. Two outs. 3-2 Cubs lead in Game 2 of Saturday's day-night doubleheader.

That's when it became clear the Cubs were not going to be trading for Jacob deGrom.

OK, that's an exaggeration. 

But when Pedro Strop gave up a seeing-eye single to Cardinals infielder Yairo Munoz just past the outstretched glove of Ben Zobrist, it was another reminder just how important both Javy Baez and Addison Russell are to the Cubs' success.

Munoz's single tied the game and the wheels fell off from there as the Cardinals scored 3 more in the ninth for a 6-3 win.

Remember, Baez had been ejected from the game in the fifth inning for throwing his helmet in frustration to a check swing call.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Joe Maddon said. "...Listen, I'm not gonna deingrate Zo at all — it's just a play that Javy might've been able to make."

Many have wondered how Baez's arm, athleticism and flair would play at shortstop for good, but the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs defense is a huge weapon when Baez is at second and Addison Russell is at short.

That defense is what the Cubs can hang their hat on and project to show up every single day in October. By nature, the offense will always come and go (especially facing the best pitchers in the game) and the Chicago pitching staff is filled with question marks.

So how do the Cubs acquire a starter of deGrom's caliber and years of team control without giving up a piece like Russell in return?

All of that is a long-winded way of gaining some perspective on all the Cubs fans who want their team to go out and get deGrom.

The Cubs couldn't get the Mets ace and NL Cy Young candidate without severely weakening another aspect of their big-league team. There simply isn't enough top talent in the way of prospects for the Cubs to pry deGrom and his 2.5 years of team control out of New York.

There are no Eloy Jimenezes or Gleyber Torres's left in this Cubs system. The Cubs had zero prospects in the Top 50 midseason list released by Baseball Prospectus earlier this month.

"We're in a more difficult position to [make a big-name trade]," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Sunday. "I don't think it's impossible. But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands.

"Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective. We're hopefully pursuing lots of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunisitc.

"And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The [Jesse] Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probabaly not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us. So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."

It's easy to dream about this Cubs team adding a pitcher like deGrom to the front of its rotation, improving the clear weakness of this current team.

But it would come at a cost. Is it really worth it to lessen the October defense up the middle by a significant measure or weaken the team's depth for a guy who only pitches one out of every four games in the postseason?

Some might think so and there's a valid argument this Cubs team is one dynamic pitcher away from being the best in baseball. But it depends on what you have to give up to acquire said "dynamic pitcher."

Pitching is obviously important in the playoffs, but the Cubs are better off trying to make it work with the arms they have. They've already invested a ton of capital in a starting rotation that is signed through the 2020 season.

After all, they boast the best record and run differential in the NL and have opened up a 3.5 game lead in the division on the morning of July 23.

They've done all that in spite of an inconsistent rotation, even if many were calling it one of the best in baseball before the season once Yu Darvish signed.

The Cubs are in the position they're in thanks to a defense that has looked more like the historical 2016 squad than last year's up-and-down team and don't discount the incredible position player depth that has allowed Maddon to keep everybody fresh and rested. This team has been built to withstand injuries and prolonged slumps from its best players — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — thanks to that amazing depth.

How could the Mets trade deGrom at this point without demanding at least Russell or Ian Happ as a headliner of the return back to New York?

And from the Cubs' perspective how do they subtract pieces from the deepest roster in the league that has needed every bit of its depth this season?

The best course of action for the Cubs in 2018 is to add another bullpen piece or two (like Zach Britton) and work to get their starters back on track — or, in Darvish's case: healthy.

The track records of guys like Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana indicate they are pitching pretty well below their career norms. Even with Jon Lester due some more regression, he's still a very effective pitcher who is battle-tested and boasts a history of rising to the occasion when the lights are brightest in October.

Mike Montgomery may not have cracked the Cubs' rotation until mid-May, but he's a different pitcher as a starter (3.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). Tyler Chatwood's control issues have been well-documented, but he's also sporting a walk rate nearly double his previous career high, so history indicates something may click in that regard eventually.

As Epstein said, each year is different. 

The 2016 Cubs had a clear need at closer and a guy like Aroldis Chapman was enough to push the team over the top to claim the first World Series title in 108 years.

The 2017 Cubs needed a jolt and starting pitching depth and Quintana was exactly that.

The 2018 Cubs have a clear need for a reliable, front-end starting pitcher, but with no elite prospects to deal, it may just be too costly to subtract much from the major-league roster in an effort to address this particular weakness.

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series


Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: