Cubs

Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

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."

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

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USA TODAY

Cubs close to deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza, per report

The Cubs have made a roster move.

According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are reportedly close to a deal with free agent outfielder Steven Souza.

Souza, 30, missed the 2019 season after suffering a torn left ACL and LCL at the end of spring training. He also missed a chunk of 2018, playing 72 games while hitting the injured list on multiple occasions.

Souza had a career year with the Rays in 2017, slashing .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBIs and a 121 wRC+. Those figures were career bests for Souza, minus his batting average. He sported a walk rate (13.6 percent) above league average (8.5) that season, though his strikeout rate (29 percent) was worse than the MLB average (23).

The signing of Souza likely rules out a return of fan favorite outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. The Cubs have been linked to Castellanos throughout the offseason, but since they're looking to stay under MLB’s luxury tax threshold, re-signing Castellanos would require some financial maneuvering.

Souza has spent most of his career in right field (3,608 career innings) but has minimal experience playing center (33 1/3) and left (20). He’s above average in right (career 6 Defensive Runs Saved) and posted a career best 7 DRS in 2017.

The Cubs have a five-time Gold Glove right fielder in Jason Heyward, so Souza will see time at all three outfield spots. Heyward moved to center full-time last season after the Cubs acquired Castellanos and has played center at times throughout his career.

Assuming he stays healthy, Souza is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Cubs. He’ll add power to the middle of the order and add a proven bat to an outfield with some question marks. Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ have each struggled offensively at times since 2018. Souza offers another bat in case those two slump again. 

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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