How Cubs plan to combat recent offensive woes and bad 'baseball luck'


How Cubs plan to combat recent offensive woes and bad 'baseball luck'

ST. LOUIS - Anthony Rizzo did all he could.

A batted ball with a .940 expected batting average is not supposed to be an out, obviously.

But that's what happened in the eighth inning of the Cubs' 2-1 loss to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon, their third straight defeat and eighth in the last 10 games.

Rizzo's looping liner with two runners on should've tied the game, but instead it settled into the very edge of Kolten Wong's glove. It was a great defensive play, no doubt, but it was also a microcosm of the Cubs' last week-plus: A mix of bad luck and lack of execution.

Make no mistake - nobody in the Cubs clubhouse is whining or throwing a pity party. They understand they won't get where they want to go this season by making a bunch of excuses.

"It's not like we're in here moping around - 'poor us, we can't get a hit right now with a runner in scoring position,'" Rizzo said. "We're doing our best and we're just falling short."

Since the eighth inning of last Monday's game in Houston, the only runs the Cubs have scored have come via home runs or on outs. They have only 1 hit in 33 at-bats with a runner in scoring position, but that hit was a bunt single by Daniel Descalso Saturday night that loaded the bases and did not plate a run.

"We just haven't driven in runs," manager Joe Maddon said. "We just haven't. We just gotta get better at doing that."

Sounds simple, right? But how do the Cubs actually go about fixing the issue?

Maddon wants his Cubs hitters to reorganize the strike zone and get back to an approach utilizing the middle and opposite fields and not focused on hitting home runs - an approach they had when they were one of the best lineups in baseball for the first quarter of the season.

Strikeouts have been a big factor lately, as the Cubs whiffed 9 more times Sunday (5 combined by Kris Bryant and Javy Baez).

"I really think the reduction in [production] with runners in scoring position is because we have not been in the oppo gap enough and I think strikeouts are attributable to that, also," Maddon said. "We've hit some home runs and maybe we're all a little bit home run happy. I want it all - I want two-strike approach, I want opposite gap, I want scoring one run and not having to worry about scoring all 3 or 4 [with one swing]. I want all of that stuff.

"We showed you we can do that. It'll come back. We're in a little bit of a bad stretch. We've faced some good pitching, but [hitting coaches Anthony Iapoce and Termel Sledge] do a great job and the guys are gonna get it. It's gonna come back to us. We just have to endure this moment right now."

Rizzo believes the hitters just need to keep putting themselves in opportunities with runners in scoring position and eventually a breakthrough will come.

He and his Cubs teammates are just trying to grind out tough at-bats and ride the wave until things turn.

"I think trying to do too much is the key that we're struggling with right now," Baez said. "Being nice to the ball and let the game come to us is the key to get back on track."

This is a game defined by failure, where even the best players don't come through more than 3 or 4 times out of 10.

But this is also a Cubs clubhouse filled with veterans who have been through just about everything this game can throw at a player and even the younger guys on the team know what it's like to ride the ebbs and flows of a long season.

This year is proof of that, as the Cubs got out to a 2-7 start after spending all winter talking about the need for urgency and getting off on the right foot in a year of reckoning.

"There's always a point of frustration with baseball," said Cole Hamels, who took the tough-luck loss Sunday despite not allowing an earned run in 7 innings. "It is a game of failure. It's a game of learning from your mistakes, capitalizing when you can and not getting too down on yourself when you have bad breaks.

"That's the nature of what sports are. You have to persevere. These are just moments that we're gonna have to persevere and dig deep and do the little things to win ballgames. Obviously we were able to do that after the first week of the season, so there's times that it happens again.

"You just kind of go with it. We all know who we are and what we're capable of doing, so to not be down and out on that. We'll come back and we have a game tomorrow and that's a good thing, so just start the homestand on a good note."

This also a sport with a degree of luck built in - where you can do absolutely everything right and execute perfectly and that doesn't guarantee you success.

Take Rizzo's looping liner Sunday - 94 times out of 100, that falls in and maybe that would've changed the entire rest of the game. Meanwhile, two batters earlier, Kyle Schwarber looped a fly ball down the left field line that fell in for a single...even though it had an expected batting average of only .050.

Earlier in the game, Bryant had finally broken up Adam Wainwright's no-hitter with a single to left field, but Rizzo came up and promptly lined into a double play, as he hit a hard smash right at Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, who made a nice leaping catch. That ball had a .710 expected batting average and it was the second time in the game the Cubs had lined into a double play.

The night before, it looked like Bryant had come through with runners on, hitting a hard ground ball up the middle with the bases loaded. But the ball deflected off the glove of St. Louis pitcher Andrew Miller and instead of a game-tying 2-run hit, it wound up going as a force out at second base and the Cubs managed just 1 run.

Obviously it's also about a lack of execution. Before Rizzo's liner was caught by Wong in the eighth inning, Wainwright struck out Bryant with a 90 mph fastball on his 123rd pitch of the afternoon.

"The game will beat you up if you permit it," Maddon said. "It's a cyclical game. We were doing really well about a week ago and all of a sudden, we've had a tough week. We played Houston - a really good pitching staff. We come in here and they've pitched well against us. It'll come back.

"Things haven't been [going our way]. It's the weird part of playing 162 games. We just gotta keep fighting through it. There's nothing to cry about."

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition


Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

Listen to Lee Smith's entire Hall of Fame induction speech in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast


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Cubs trade rumors: Nick Castellanos drawing interest and could be the perfect fit


Cubs trade rumors: Nick Castellanos drawing interest and could be the perfect fit

Ever since infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist hit the restricted list for personal reasons on May 8, one of the biggest talking points around the Cubs has been the team’s need for a steady, veteran bat.

Enter Tigers outfielder Nick Castellanos.

Sunday, Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reported that the Cubs have emerged as a "serious suitor" for Castellanos, citing a source. 

McCosky’s report follows that of MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, who reported that the Cubs had a scout in attendance at Friday’s Tigers-Blue Jays game in Detroit.

It’s currently unclear what a trade package for Castellanos, 27, would look like, but his fit with the team is obvious. In Castellanos, the Cubs would acquire a veteran outfield bat, one that hits extremely well against left-handed pitching.

Castellanos, who is a free agent after this season, has mainly hit second and third for the Tigers and led the team with 23 home runs in 2018. He holds a .280/.339/.467 slashline, with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs this season. Those numbers are even better against left-handers — .377/.451/.639 — albeit in a small sample size of 61 at-bats. However, in his 6+ MLB seasons, he's hitting .302 with an .871 OPS against left-handed pitching. 

The Cubs have struggled against left-handed pitching in 2019, ranking 23rd in average (.243) and 28th in hits with 164. Castellanos would rank first among qualified Cubs hitters vs. left-handers in average and OBP and only trail Javier Baez’s .776 in slugging percentage.

While it's true that Castellanos hits left-handed pitching well, he'd instantly become an everyday player in the Cubs outfield. Thus, the Cubs depth chart would be hit with several ripple effects.

Albert Almora Jr.'s  playing time against right-handed starting pitching would be affected. Almora held a .282/.315/.369 slashline against right-handed pitching in 2018, but those numbers currently sit at .255/.291/.427.

Almora's numbers against lefites (.210/.247/.296) aren't better, but his 2018 slashline there (.295/.340/.402) leaves room for hope. Also, Kyle Schwarber is only hitting .224 against lefties, so adding Castellanos would likely mean Almora starts less against righties and Schwarber less against lefties. Almora does provide Gold Glove caliber defense, so the Cubs may be more inclined to let him work through his struggles at the plate.

Similarly, David Bote's playing time could also be affected by Castellanos. Without the latter, the Cubs have more of a need to play Kris Bryant in the outfield, meaning third base is open for Bote to play. Adding Castellanos might mean Bryant playing more third base and less outfield, so Bote would have to crack the starting lineup at second base, more likely than not. The same goes for Robel Garcia, though his bat is making it hard to keep him out of the starting lineup right now.

Between Almora and Schwarber's numbers and Zobrist’s absence, the Cubs have a glaring need for more outfield offense. Adding Castellanos could be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Cubs offensively.

Update: Our David Kaplan added that the Cubs have also had discussions for Tigers closer Shane Greene.

Greene, 30, is arbitration eligible this offseason. The right-hander has converted 22 of his 25 save chances this season and has 40 strikeouts compared to 11 walks. However, his 3.54 FIP is a far cry from his 1.25 ERA, and the overriding thought has been that the Cubs would seek left-handed relief help rather than right-handed.

Greene entered Sunday with a lower ERA against lefties (0.64) than righties (1.29), though lefties are hitting .222 against him compared to .097 by righties. If the Cubs were to acquire him, he obviously wouldn't slot into the Cubs closer role, as Craig Kimbrel has the position locked down. As Kaplan noted, the cost to get both Castellanos and Greene would be steep, especially with the latter being a top relief arm on the trade market.

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