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.”
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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.”