Cubs

More than ever, the Cubs need to add a big free agent like Bryce Harper to their lineup

More than ever, the Cubs need to add a big free agent like Bryce Harper to their lineup

Bryce Harper to the Cubs has been a hot rumor for years, but for a while, it was really more of a fun pipe dream than anything substantial.

Until recently, that is.

More than ever, it's become apparent the Cubs could really use Harper or one of the other big free agent hitters to help supplement a lineup that underperformed for a large chunk of 2018.

At this time a year ago, the Cubs were still reeling from their NLCS loss to the Dodgers when the offense went quiet at all the wrong moments in October. But even with that narrative, it still was hard to see how Theo Epstein's front office could justify spending a ridiculous amount of money to supplement a position player group that was seen as the strength of the team and only projected to get better.

So much has changed in that year. 

The Cubs just tied with the 115-loss Baltimore Orioles for the MLB lead with the most games scoring 1 or 0 runs (40) and had 21 such occurences after the All-Star Break including Game 163 and the NL Wild-Card contest.

From July 23 (the Cubs' first 1-run performance of the second half) on, the Cubs' offensive ranks were eye-popping — 20th in batting average, 22nd in runs scored, 25th in homers, 27th in OPS, 27th in wRC+, 29th in hard contact percentage, 30th in fly ball percentage.

They were actually 1st in one category, but no team wants to lead baseball in ground balls — especially in this day and age of "Launch Angle" and "slug comes from hitting the ball in the air." 

None of these are new stats, however. Not if you've been paying attention.

Like Epstein said, something "broke" with the Cubs offense after the All-Star Game.

That wasn't supposed to happen.

Nobody would've been surprised if the Cubs faded down the stretch because of a lack of pitching. That would've been understandable given the injuries to Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow and then Pedro Strop plus the ineffectiveness of Tyler Chatwood. But it was the pitching staff — and the prudent trades for Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez — that kept the Cubs afloat atop the NL Central (until Game 163, that is) and gave them a chance to even make it to the NLDS.

But the offense failing? That would've been tough to predict, even while flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways in the first half.

The rebuild was all about these young position players. This offensive core was supposed to be together for a while, lifting the team to contention each season thanks to a relentless, American League-style lineup. 

Pitching was supposed to be the main challenge for Epstein and Co. — not the offense.

Yet we're still waiting for guys like Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ to take that next step offensively and truly break out. They've had their moments, sure — namely Schwarber and Russell in October 2016.

The Cubs' championship window is far from closed — they have at least another three years (when Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo all hit free agency). 

But even Epstein admitted it's time to start evaluating the Cubs players based on production, not just potential.

"It's our job not just to assemble a talented group, but unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' season ended. "Because that's ultimately all that matters. It's an assessment on those two fronts — the talent that we have and who's going to be productive, who's not or where we can find that production. 

"And then also understand the environment and are we doing everything that we can in creating just the right situation to get the most out of these guys?"

You know who's pretty damn productive? Bryce Harper. And Manny Machado. And Josh Donaldson.

More than ever, it's clear the Cubs need established, veteran hitters in the lineup. The August trade for Daniel Murphy and his subsequent playing time late in the season proved that.

Young players are a lot more prone to ups and downs, which explains the streakiness and inconsistency of this lineup in recent seasons. When they're hot, they're hot, but it also means slumps and cold spells, which seemed to happen all at the same time in 2018. 

Sure, getting Bryant back healthy and renewed production out of Willson Contreras will help this lineup immensely. And it's fair to bet on a rebound for a lot of these talented players.

But when you have World-Series-or-bust expectations and a championship window that is firmly open, it's not a time to sit back and "hope."

"We had far more players underperform expectations than meet expectations," Epstein said. "Dramatically. In a lot of ways, that's what this year was defined by. Some because of physical issues, some because of the mental side of the game, some because of the fundamental stuff, some for reasons we haven't yet determined.

"We had more players underperform our projections for them and their expectations — things they've done in the past — than exceed. So I think regression will work in our favor. It's not something you want to hang your hat on and count on."

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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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.