Tom Greene | November 14th, 2019
In the middle of July, things seemed great on the North Side. The Cubs were leading the division by multiple games and it seemed as if the Cubs were going to cruise to a division title… until the bottom fell out and the Cardinals ended up division champs. Joe Maddon jumped ship and the North Side is now asking the question, “How do we get back to 2016?”
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What Went Right
Finishing the season over .500, even if it’s considered a disappointment, means that there are some things that went right. The offense hit a combined .252, which is in the top half of the major leagues. The starting ERA was 4.18, which isn’t the worst. Remember, on the north side, the wind can blow out at any moment, which can inflate that number.
Clearly, the trade for Nicholas Castellanos helped this team tread water when it needed it most. After complaining about how much of “a joke” Comerica Park was in his final days in Detroit, he was acquired at the deadline and made a difference. In 51 games, he hit .321 with 68 hits, driving in 36. While he (and the rest of the offense) didn’t drive in the runs the Cubs desperately needed, he provided a spark to give the Cubs the opportunities to drive in said runs. He also provided an emotional lift for the team, as things seemed to go south before the deadline. It’s crucial that the Cubs sign him this offseason.
Another bright spot was Yu Darvish‘s second half of the season. With a 2.76 ERA in 81.2 innings, Darvish also helped the Cubs when it mattered most. Castellanos and Darvish kept the Cubs afloat when the ship was sinking. Also, timely hits by the offense mattered. Now, three things that went wrong.
What Went Wrong
To make an epic collapse like the Cubs did in September, multiple things had to go wrong. The first would be leadoff hitting. The Cubs hit .202 from the leadoff spot, which is the worst in all of baseball. Theo Epstein addressed this on 670 The Score with Tony Andracki. He was embarrassed by the numbers, and so are Cub fans. Finding a leadoff hitter will be something the Cubs need to address this offseason.
Next, the bullpen. The problem started in April when the Cubs really couldn’t find a closer that would stay consistent. Epstein signed Craig Kimbrel in June to attempt to fix that problem. Statistically, he certainly helped. He went 13/16 with 30 strikeouts. But, with an ERA of 6.53 and 15 runs allowed in 20.2 innings, he sadly became another part of the problem. The average ERA was 3.98 coming out of the pen. If the pen’s ERA is close to that of the starters’, this means theoretically, the starters should stay in longer. In today’s MLB, that never happens.
A few more relief pitching stats from Joe- Cubs relief pitching, in high leverage situations, had the highest FIP in the NL (5.83). They tied for the highest BB rate in the MLB (15.4%). Relievers had the lowest K rate in the NL (20.7%), and they had the 5th highest wOBA against in all of baseball (.352). The off-field issues with Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist also did not help. While the positions weren’t solidified, neither were the bats, which caused a dip in offensive production.
Also, management accountability. Maddon is one of the most experienced managers the Cubs have ever had. He made the playoffs every year with them, except this season. The players felt very comfortable around him leading the team, and the game seemed so fun. But, as time goes by, people seem to run through the motions in life. If you do the same thing for a while, eventually it becomes natural, and you may get lazy doing the same routine every day.
While I’m not accusing Maddon or the Cubs of being lazy, natural tendencies to become complacent and rely on things going your way just happen. This happened after Maddon’s fifth season, and the Cubs hired David Ross to take care of it. We will see how this changes the narrative next season. To have a championship-caliber team like the one in 2016, you must have great talent as well as great accountability, which Ross provided. Let’s look at what the Cubs have in store for next season.
Impending Free Agents
The Cubs have 18 free agents to consider coming into the Winter Meetings. Castellanos, Zobrist, Cole Hamels, Brandon Morrow, Derek Holland, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler, Brian Duensing, David Phelps, Xavier Cedeno, Tony Barnette, Kendall Graveman, Jim Adduci, Jonathan Lucroy, Jemile Weeks, Mike Zagurski, and Alex Wilson.
Do the Cubs need to sign each and every one of these free agents to become successful next season? Absolutely not. Do they need to make room for more hitting and better relief pitching? Absolutely. Most of these players on the list are relief pitching, so Epstein must evaluate carefully and let those that weren’t effective walk.
Also, looking at other Free Agents in the pool like Corey Dickerson or Yasiel Puig would be a great way to go. A trade for Mookie Betts is not out of the question. While trading for Betts most likely won’t happen, it’s imperative to take a look at the trading block as well as free agency pool and evaluate carefully. It could mean the difference between success and failure in Ross’ first season at the helm.
2020 Players to Watch For
We’ve seen a few of these players already shine at Wrigley Field, but there are a few more to be mentioned who could make their way to the majors next season. Nico Hoerner and Adbert Alzolay had made positive strides towards the trade deadline. There were rumors of trading Alzolay last year for another pitcher or batter the Cubs needed, but it didn’t come to pass. The Cubs were able to trade for Castellanos while holding on to Hoerner and Alzolay, who also found their way on the field after the deadline.
The players we haven’t seen at Wrigley yet are Miguel Amaya, Brennen Davis, and Brailyn Marquez. All have impressed in the minor leagues and are awaiting their chance to impress the North Siders. If free agency doesn’t work out well for Epstein and the Cubs, perhaps these pieces could be a part of the path to get back to the Fall Classic. Watch for them in the upcoming season.
The Cubs are hitting a fork in the road, and they’re hitting it rather quickly. When they traded Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana, respectively, they were trying to win a championship now while building for years to come. We’ve seen in other sports that this strategy can put your team in neutral for many years.
While this strategy brought home a championship, the first of its kind on the North Side in 108 years, it is also rearing its ugly head, and it’s doing it now. Epstein will have to decide now whether to begin a rebuild, which could anger Cub fans for three to five years, or pursue one more title, which is what fans want.
Up front, it looks like the rebuild is apparent. Hamels just became a free agent, Maddon is gone and the Cubs are moving to a new TV network, Marquee Sports Newtork, launching in February. Kris Bryant seems unhappy, as rumors have swirled, and Ross is here to see what will happen. But, that also helps people think that one more could happen, with an accountable man at the helm.
It will be interesting to see what the offseason brings for the North Side. Will it help bring a second title to Wrigleyville in five years, or will the Championship costs be too much for the Cubs to handle? We shall see.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images