Cubs

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

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USA TODAY

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

Want to know how the Brewers caught the Cubs for the NL Central crown?

Take a look at the September numbers.

The Cubs slashed .239/.303/.367, scored 116 runs and hit 21 homers in the month of September. The Brewers slashed .250/.343/.445, scored 144 runs and hit 39 homers in the month of September.

No, it doesn't tell the whole story. But the Brewers have swung hot bats for the last month and the Cubs haven’t. At the very least, you could count on more consistent offensive production from the Milwaukee lineup than the Chicago one.

And that’s what played out in Monday’s Game 163. The Brewers might not have lit up the scoreboard, but they banged out 12 hits and came through in the moments they needed to. The Cubs had three hits on the day and gave themselves few opportunities.

“They got 12 hits, we got three,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Anthony Rizzo) obviously righted the ship for us a little bit (with his game-tying solo home run). But we weren’t really striking the ball with any kind of consistency.”

The Cubs don’t need to worry about the Brewers right now. The focus is squarely on Tuesday night’s win-or-go-home NL wild card game against the Rockies at Wrigley Field. The question is: Can they figure out what’s plaguing their offense and score enough to see the Brewers later this week?

“Well it’s been going on for a bit,” Maddon said of the Cubs’ offensive inconsistencies. “It’s just the consistent hard contact has not been there, more than anything. And I can’t give you a solid reason.

“We’ve got to find it. Quickly. The capabilities are within the group, there’s no doubt. We have one more shot tomorrow to right the ship and then move on from there. I don’t have any really solid answers.”

That’s probably some pretty scary stuff for Cubs fans to read, but they know it to be true after watching this team for the last month.

The good news is the Cubs do get to turn to Jon Lester, and Cole Hamels later on, who have a ridiculous amount of high-leverage playoff experience between the two of them. The pitching has been good, as evidenced in Monday’s game, with Jose Quintana and a parade of relievers limiting the Brewers to just three runs. Quintana surrendered just one before getting lifted after the sixth inning’s first batter.

The bad news is the mystery. Who knows what this offense will be able to do? The Rockies will throw Kyle Freeland, who owns a 2.85 ERA and has quite simply been one of the NL’s finest starting pitchers this season. The Cubs scored 33 runs in this year’s six games against the Rockies — but how much difference does that make when Colorado scored the exact same amount against them?

There’s no magic bullet or one thing this lineup needs to do to turn things around.

“Hopefully we score more runs,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “That’d be a nice start, I’d like to get more hits.”

Yeah, that’s what Cubs fans are hoping for, too.

“Guys have really good routines, preparation, going over the starting pitchers, going over the bullpen. We’re engaged on the bench,” Rizzo said. “Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not.”

Again, perhaps not the explanation Cubs fans want to hear with the season on the line Tuesday night.

But this team has earned the benefit of the doubt, too. The Cubs have played deep into October in each of the last three postseasons, and that doesn’t happen without figuring out how to come up with the right hits at the right times. Heck, even in what is being looked at as a more disappointing season to this point than its predecessors, only one NL team has a better run differential at the close of the regular season: the NL West champion Dodgers.

“We won 95 games. It just wasn’t good enough,” Rizzo said. “We won 98 games one year, and we were happy we were in the the wild card (game). It’s just the way it’s shifted around here, the expectations have gone up, and we hold ourselves to an extremely high level. I think tomorrow it’s all about focusing on having good at-bats. And usually if you have good at-bats, good things come out of it.”

Even external factors can make all the difference. Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals featured plenty of the hard contact Maddon has been searching for, just right at St. Louis defenders. In Monday’s game, a different direction of wind might have changed the game entirely, with Rizzo and Jason Heyward both seemingly launching balls into the seats, only for them to settle in outfielders’ gloves.

“We need the wind to not knock mine down and Tony’s there at the end,” Heyward said. “Because if we’re playing in Milwaukee, those two might’ve been gone.”

So while Murphy’s comments about getting more hits and scoring more runs might’ve seemed a bit simplistic, they aren’t wrong.

The Cubs have one more shot Tuesday night to save their season, and like many of the games they’ve played this year, it won’t be easy. But look at what this team has done before, where it’s been, and perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that counting these players out makes as little sense as these offensive struggles.

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.