CHICAGO -- Let’s be clear. When the Chicago Cubs take the field Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon could simply do what he’s done all season, and things might be just fine vs. the New York Mets.
The Cubs suffered three losses to the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, but counting that series, they played on 20 consecutive days, and Milwaukee was off for 48 hours before the series. So perhaps Chicago just hit a wall at the wrong time.
Remember, they’re still in first place and still in control of their destiny, so anything resembling a panic move wouldn’t make much sense. But there’s panic, and then there’s outside-the-box thinking, which often has worked for Maddon. It’s time for one of those moments when it comes to his offense.
It’s become obvious that most of the success the Cubs have had in the second half has come via the long ball, which, as Maddon put it on Sunday, has been “negated a bit.” If that continues, the Cubs have to find other ways to get the job done at the plate. They’ve scored just 16 runs in their last eight games -- and eight of those runs came in one game.
Though many have protested Maddon’s 125 different lineups (excluding pitchers) this season, the total has been out of necessity. The plan was to have Kyle Schwarber lead off all year while giving World Series MVP Ben Zobrist more rest throughout the season and allowing Jason Heyward to take his game to another level. But none of that has worked out, so Maddon has been left to play the matchup game, platooning several positions to get the most out of his roster.
To an extent, it has worked. The Cubs are in first place and the offense has improved, but it doesn’t take a sabermetrics expert to understand there are shortcomings, especially against better pitching staffs.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cubs are hitting .228, with a .306 on-base percentage and .382 slugging percentage, against the Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals and Brewers combined. That’s pretty awful, yet their record is 20-20 against those clubs. It’s a reminder that pitching still is the key to winning against the best teams. But a few more runs wouldn’t hurt.
So how can the Cubs get more runs? Here is a lineup suggestion to help spark the offense and max out the trends of the season. This lineup presumes Addison Russell won’t return anytime soon:
Real or imagined, it at least seems that the Cubs could use some consistency at the top of the order. Kyle Schwarber didn’t work out there, and neither has Jon Jay. Jay has been a valuable piece for the Cubs, but he’s simply not getting on when he bats first. He has an on-base percentage of .313 when batting leadoff, and if you’re looking to jump on the opponent in the first inning, Jay is not your guy. His OBP is just .261 to start a game. For context -- and the other extreme -- Dexter Fowler had a .479 on-base percentage in the first inning last season.
Schwarber, Jay and even Zobrist are not the answer at No. 1. Neither is Ian Happ, though he could be someday.
The Cubs need an every-day player in that spot who’s already hitting near the top of the lineup because the hope is he won’t change his game just because he’s moved up a place or two in the order.
Kris Bryant should be the Cubs' leadoff man. Before you throw your laptop out the window, realize there are plenty of unconventional leadoff men these days. The Astros' George Springer and the Rockies' Charlie Blackmon each has more than 30 home runs as a leadoff hitter this season.
Bryant has a .402 on-base percentage, but has struggled driving in runs this season. It’s probably a one-year anomaly, but the trend is the trend. He’s hitting .204 with men in scoring position and has 18 solo home runs. Take him out of that middle-of-the-order role and let him do what Schwarber was supposed to do: Scare the opponent to start the game and earn some free passes while the opposing starter is getting settled in. Plus, Bryant is a fantastic baserunner.
And most of all, Bryant is there every day. There is no mixing and matching when it comes to the MVP of the league. He’s your leadoff hitter for every game the rest of the season.
This should be Ben Zobrist’s place as often as possible. He has also trended against driving in runs. Zobrist actually is hitting even worse than Bryant with runners in scoring position, just .196 this season. Those two are among the top four Cubs players in at-bats with runners in scoring position this year simply because they’ve hit in the 2-4 spots most of the season. It hasn’t worked.
Zobrist is getting on base more since getting healthy, though. Since Aug. 1, his on-base percentage is .354. Why not put that strength to work and bat him in front of Anthony Rizzo, instead of behind. Also, because Zobrist may not play every day, replacing him with Tommy La Stella (or Happ) for a day makes sense in the No. 2 hole. The leadoff man is left alone, which is one goal of this new lineup.
This is easy. Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras return to where they were before the Cubs catcher went down with a hamstring injury. They should be penciled in here no matter who bats ahead of or behind them.
It’s time to give Javier Baez a chance to drive in some runs from a higher spot in the order -- and not just against lefties.
Baez is willing to swing outside the zone, where opposing pitchers tend to throw when the pitcher is on deck. Maddon was asked recently why he’s kept Baez batting eighth most of the time.
“People always make suggestions, but then you look at the names,” Maddon said. “For me, where do these names fit best for that day based on 1 through 8? For me, I still like him there. ... If he’s eighth for you, that’s pretty good. That’s kind of a nice thing too. You like to have that scariness all the way down 1 through 9.”
Maddon continued on the thought by praising what Baez has done against righties lately. But the Cubs can’t afford the “scariness” of lengthening out the lineup with Baez at No. 8 when they don’t have someone succeeding at 5, 6 or 7. Give Baez a chance behind Contreras and forget the lefty/righty strategy Maddon and many managers like to employ.
Jason Heyward has been as consistent as he’s going to be. He has a .259 batting average, including a .250 mark with men in scoring position. And that’s who he is. He’ll drive in some runs and, of course, play Gold Glove defense. Until three or four other guys go on a tear, he needs to be in the lineup for all his intangibles and that glove. Plenty of Cubs are hitting below expectations; at least Heyward contributes in many other ways.
Here is where Maddon can employ the first of two platoons. Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr. can rotate depending on matchups. Against lefties, Almora plays every time. There’s no debate there. If Jay continues to slump, Almora should face some righties as well -- though Jay’s numbers when batting lower in the order have been very good. We’ll see if that’s a coincidence or if there’s something to it.
More outside-the-box thinking, but Maddon should put the pitcher here again. That way if Bryant gets really hot batting first, it should create more opportunities for his bat to do damage later in games. It’s a better idea when Jay hits in the 7 spot in front of the pitcher, as he’s more likely than Almora to have patience at the plate.
Here is another platoon spot for Maddon between Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber. It seems that Happ has done well when the Cubs’ internal projections have suggested he play against certain pitchers. In other words, they’ve done a nice job of spot-starting him. Batting him ninth gives the Cubs a second leadoff man in front of Bryant, in the form of someone who is even faster than the MVP. That 1-2 punch of speed could come in handy when the lineup turns over.
On other days, Schwarber will hit there, giving the Cubs a different 1-2 punch from bottom to top. More power with less batting average and speed, but perhaps equal on-base ability.
This proposed order would give the Cubs some stability at Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and mostly at 2, along with a known rotation near the bottom of the order.
Based on season trends, this might be the combination that works given the strengths of individuals right now -- and those strengths have been hard to find in 2017.