Ian Happ

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."

Looking for the Cubs' missing home runs

Looking for the Cubs' missing home runs

In 2017, the Cubs hit 223 home runs – second most in a season in franchise history. Six players hit at least 20, which had never before been done by the North Siders. 
 
Then 2018 happened. They fell from 223 to 167. That’s 56 home runs. Consider that Nolan Arenado led the National League with 38 in 2018. Subtract that plus 18 more. That’s the size of the dropoff by the Cubs from 2017 to 2018.
 
But where did all those home runs go? Let’s go through and find out.
 
Theory No. 1: It’s part of the league-wide drop in home runs
 
There’s no doubt that home runs were way up in 2017. The league hit 1.26 home runs per team game; an all-time high. In raw numbers, the Major Leagues topped 6,000 home runs (6,105 to be exact) for the first time. The previous high was 5,693 in 2000. 117 different players hit at least 20 home runs, up from 111 the year before, which was way up from 64 in 2015.
 
Yes, home runs were down from that all-time high in 2017. But not enough to account for the entire drop in home runs.

Home runs in Major League Baseball – last 4 seasons
  2015 2016 2017 2018
Home Runs 4,909 5,610 6,105 5,585
HR/team game 1.01 1.16 1.26 1.15
At-Bats per HR 33.8 29.6 27.2 29.5
Players with 20+ HR 64 111 117 100
Cubs home runs 171 199 223 167

League-wide, numbers basically came back down to 2016 levels. Which were already near the highest in MLB history. The Cubs had 199 home runs in 2016. Fewer than they had in 2017 (223) but considerably more than their output of 167 in 2018. I’d say this can account for roughly 25-35 of the missing home runs. Let’s keep digging…
 
Theory No. 2: The Cubs hit too many ground balls in 2018
 
Yes they did. 46 percent was the third-highest ground ball rate in the Majors in 2017. But is that the biggest reason the home run rates dropped in 2018? You might be surprised...

Cubs ground ball & fly ball rates – last 4 seasons
  GB% MLB Rank FB% MLB Rank
2015 43.0% 25th 36.0% 4th
2016 42.5% 26th 36.3% 1th
2017 45.5% 10th 34.9% 19th
2018 46.0% 3rd 32.6% 26th

The high ground ball percentages – which were such a topic of conversation after the 2018 season ended – were already high in 2017… when they hit 223 home runs. Compounding the problem, the fly ball percentage has dropped noticeably each of the last two seasons. That will need to turn around.
 
Theory No. 3: Did Wrigley become a tougher home run park?
 
Let’s run the numbers over the last four seasons looking at Cubs games at home and on the road.

  Wrigley Field On The Road
  Total HR Cubs HR Opp. HR Total HR Cubs HR Opp. HR
2015 171 92 79 134 79 55
2016 163 90 73 199 109 90
2017 209 116 93 208 107 101
2018 165 79 86 159 88 71

The Cubs were outhomered at home, and the 79 homers at Wrigley were a 37-HR dropoff from the year before, which could be something. However, the total number of home runs at Wrigley (Cubs plus opponent) was right on line with 2016, which is consistent with the leaguewide home run numbers presented earlier. Maybe there’s something here, maybe not. Let’s keep an eye on this in 2019.
 
Theory No. 4: A bunch of guys had down years
 
As I mentioned before, six players hit 20 or more home runs for the Cubs in 2017 (a franchise record). Nine players hit 10 or more home runs (tied a franchise record). 
 
All nine were still with the team in 2018. Let’s see how they did:

Cubs Home Runs – Last 2 seasons
  Rizzo Schwarber Bryant Happ Báez Contreras Zobrist Heyward Russell
2017 32 30 29 24 23 21 12 11 12
2018 25 26 13 15 34 10 9 8 5

Three of the six 20-HR players failed to hit 20 again…and the three players who were in the teens fell to single digits. Báez is the only one who increased his home run total; it’s fairly remarkable that eight of the nine players with double-digit home runs in 2017 had fewer in 2018. Did they all necessarily have down seasons?

Cubs wRC+ - Last 2 seasons
  Rizzo Schwarber Bryant Happ Báez Contreras Zobrist Heyward Russell
2017 134 103 146 114 98 122 82 85 88
2018 125 115 125 106 131 100 123 80 99

Mixed bag. A down year for many of them, a few improved. Yet still home runs down for all but Báez. 
 
Bryant’s case is very interesting. He hit 13 home runs in an injury-plagued season, down from 29 the year before. There’s no way to truly know the degree to which his injuries affected his power. One thing is for certain: Any player the Cubs had to use in Bryant’s place isn’t of the same quality.  
 
The way I see it, the best explanation for the 2018 dip in power is a little bit of everything. A return to normal after a historic 2017, fewer fly balls hit, regression, variance and injury are all part of the equation. With a new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce and a healthy Bryant leading a team looking to avenge an early exit, they’re a good candidate to bounce back in 2019.

Cubs' offense appears to be heating up at the right time

cubs_offense_en_fuego.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs' offense appears to be heating up at the right time

The Cubs are nearing the end of a brutal stretch where they have reported to the ball park 30 days in a row. Naturally, as that stretch is nearing its end, the offense seems to be catching fire. 

After scoring just 15 runs in their previous seven games, the Cubs have scored a combined 14 runs in two games on 21 hits. They scored nine runs on Tuesday alone, beating the Diamondbacks 9-1 in Arizona.

Scoring nine runs in one game is a great sign, but the fact that the entire starting lineup is contributing is an even better one. Every player in Tuesday's starting lineup got at least one hit, minus starting pitcher Mike Montgomery. 

Daniel Murphy entered Tuesday hitting .191 in September that included a 3-for-26 stretch dating back to Sept. 8. Tuesday, he went 2-for-3 with a leadoff single and a two-run home run.

Javier Báez was in an 8-for-30 "slump" entering Tuesday that dated back to Sept. 8. He hit a two-run home run in the first inning, his second home run in as many days. Kris Bryant hit safely for the third straight game, while Ian Happ hit an RBI double from the ninth spot in the batting order.

Baby steps, people.

Jason Heyward made his first start since Aug. 30 on Tuesday, hitting a double and scoring on an RBI double by Happ. While Heyward exited after two at-bats, it was likely to not push him too hard as he comes back from a hamstring injury.

Heyward's return is important due to his defense, but also because of his .276 batting average and respectable .743 OPS. Adding him to the lineup, no matter where he hits, is only a good thing for the Cubs' offense. 

Willson Contreras is just 1-for-9 this series, but he has been driving the ball with authority. After posting a 19.6 percent hard contact rate in August (his lowest over an entire month all season), he has posted a 32 percent hard contact rate this month (entering Tuesday's game), according to Fangraphs.

With 11 games to go, the Cubs now hold a 3.5 game lead over the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Their magic number to win the division dropped to 8 following Tuesday's win and the Brewers 3-1 loss to the Reds.

Talks of fatigue have surrounded the Cubs recently due to their current 30-day stretch without a day off. The fact that the offense has scored as much as it has this series is quite ironic; perhaps the team sees the light at the end of the tunnel? 

Fatigue or not, the Cubs have to like they way the offense is trending as the regular season comes to a close.