It's almost the All-Star break, and the Cubs are still broken.
It's the most obnoxious story of the baseball season to date. Everyone has a take. They're suffering from a World Series hangover. Their clubhouse culture is poisonous. They miss Dexter Fowler, they miss David Ross. Their pitchers have just piled up too many innings over the last two years. They can't handle the expectations. Joe Maddon never should have batted Kyle Schwarber leadoff. The front office never should have saddled Maddon with Schwarber as a primary left fielder.
There's truth to all of these, but none of them are the whole truth and even together they don't come close to explaining the struggles of what remains, probably the second- or third-best team in baseball. Nothing explains that, really, other than all of those things, plus the significant variance that happens over half a baseball season, plus some bad luck and some health issues. Besides, lost in all of their inconsistency, their third-order winning percentage is .540. That'd put them in first place in the NL Central, and no one would be searching desperately for the solution to a series of problems that only time can solve, really.
Alas, after blowout loss Wednesday, the team is below .500 at 42-43. Thus, I'll offer this guide to fixing the 2017 Cubs, because it's kind of fun to think about all the possible creative solutions a team this deep and talented has available to them—even if the problems are ephemeral anyway.
What We’re Not Doing Here
It makes sense to lead off by enumerating (and for these purposes, eliminating) the easy and obvious ways that the Cubs could get right. Say Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber hit the way they can the rest of the way. Say the team finds a surprisingly good deal, one that doesn't empty their farm system or cannibalize their 25-man roster, on someone like Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, or Marcus Stroman. Say Kyle Hendricks gets healthy and his velocity bounces back, and that Jake Arrieta finds a consistent feel for the ball. Any of that makes the Cubs easy, runaway division winners, and restores their co-favorite status to win the NL pennant. None of that can be taken for granted, and little of it can be done proactively.
We’re going to assume, for now, that everyone on the current team performs roughly in line with their median expectation, and we're not going to imagine adding anyone to that group (other than Hendricks, who sounds likely to be back after the All-Star break). What follows are just some steps the team could follow to improve itself over the final 77 games, using nothing but managerial decisions.
Switch to a Max-Defense Starting Lineup
The idea here, roughly, is to return to the 1980s model of player usage, because it happens to work well for this team. The lineup I'm talking about would go:
- C – Willson Contreras
- 1B – Anthony Rizzo
- 2B – Javier Baez
- 3B – Kris Bryant
- SS – Addison Russell
- LF – Ian Happ
- CF – Albert Almora
- RF – Jason Heyward
There are four guys here (Rizzo, Baez, Russell, and Heyward) who have demonstrated elite defensive ability at their respective positions, and the other four have at least flashed above-average skills. Happ, who has played mostly center field or second base so far this year, would be the second-fastest left fielder in baseball, and by season’s end he'd probably be one of the seven or eight best overall defenders at that spot. In fact, the only below-average runner in this entire group (per Sprint Speed) would be Rizzo. They'd be a team capable of putting pressure on their opponents on the bases in the early innings.
Of course, there's a problem with this lineup. Baez and Almora struggle against right-handed pitching. Heyward and Happ aren't good against lefties. All four of them, plus Contreras and Russell, are good players only when they can provide defensive and positional value, without being exposed to bad matchups in key spots. Look, though, at the bench that lineup would have behind it.
Sub in Big Bats to Get Big Hits
That group can rake. La Stella and Jay are great for the role of pinch-hitter too, because they can both make solid (if not always powerful, in the way we think about it these days) contact almost any time it's needed. Zobrist and Schwarber might seem strange fits, but in truth, Zobrist is peculiarly (maybe uniquely) suited to the job. He's the very rare hitter who, over a large sample, has proved to hit starting pitchers better the first time he sees them than in later at-bats within a game, and to hit relievers better than starters.
More importantly, neither Schwarber nor Zobrist (nor, probably, the others) would be asked to play the traditional role of a pinch-hitter or super sub. They wouldn't be reserved for the eighth inning, and would stay in the game not just as part of a double-switch or in case of extra innings, but often for the final three or four frames.
Imagine a situation in which the Cubs need a run. Maybe it's tied, with runners on first and second in the top of the sixth inning, and Russell is due to bat against the opposing, right-handed starter. In this vision, Maddon would pinch-hit for him with, say, Schwarber. It'd be an ambush. Opposing managers might eventually start trying to anticipate it, getting their top lefty up in the middle innings or something, but that would just further stretch the Cubs’ advantage over time. No one is ready for that kind of mid-game power grab.
Then, almost regardless of the outcome of the plate appearance, Schwarber would enter the game, with Baez sliding to shortstop and Happ coming in to play second. Say it's Heyward in the same spot. Zobrist could pinch-hit, then come into the game at either Heyward’s spot in right or at second (with Baez sliding to third and Bryant moving out to right), depending on what the Cubs’ pitching plan and matchup outlook for the rest of the game might be. The plan would work, theoretically, by leveraging Chicago’s versatile position player group. Substitutions don't have to be direct with this corps, so big at-bats can go to the best hitters without their having to be shuffled right back off the field in favor of a defensive specialist.
Thirty years ago, most teams had a starting-caliber bat on their bench and the best glove-and-leg men they could field in the starting lineup. Ever since the Moneyball period of the sabermetric movement, on-base percentage has ruled, and good-field, no-hit guys have been shuttled to the bench, to await late leads they can help protect. When you think about it, that's a little silly, given the other major shift in player usage since 2000: the hyper-specialized, strikeout-happy bullpen model. Cubs starting pitchers have whiffed 21.3 percent of opposing batters this season. Cubs relievers have fanned 26.7 percent of opponents. Which group really needs the better defenders behind them?
So, the second step would be to use a slugging bench as a mid-game gut punch. But the bench laid out above is a little light on guys who can hit lefties. They're going to need a right-handed bat (minor-league outfielder Mark Zagunis had a cup of coffee last month and would fit the bill) if they want to make it work, especially because they still need to pinch-hit for pitchers. That's where this plan would become personal, and painful.
Designate Hector Rondon For Assignment
Baseball is cruel. Winning baseball? Even crueler. Rondon was one of the Epstein-Hoyer group’s first great finds, a Rule 5 draftee in 2012 who was a dominant closer by 2014. Rick Renteria had complete faith in Rondon, and Rondon responded to it, rewarded it.
Maddon never felt quite the same way. It's just not the way he operates. Maddon’s rap is a never-ending string of hippie platitudes, but his actual managerial style is transactional and utilitarian. He took away Rondon’s closer role at one point in 2015, and seemed always to have a short leash with him. That visibly gnawed at Rondon, though he never complained. It drew some good things out of him—like an extra mile or two per hour, late that summer, and a few moments of manful, chest-pounding ferocity when the Cubs needed it most.
However, it eventually sapped his confidence and his energy. Maddon rode Rondon very hard over two separate stretches in 2016. One wore him down enough to compromise his effectiveness for a month and facilitate (maybe even necessitate) the trade for Aroldis Chapman. The second was right around the time Chapman arrived, and resulted in a triceps injury from which it's not clear that Rondon has ever fully recovered. Since hitting the disabled list last August, he's been inconsistent, hittable, and no part of Maddon’s high-leverage relief plans.
I've indulged this digression not to illustrate Rondon’s plight—there are many stories like his, some attached even to guys who have rings from last year’s Cubs—but to make clear why Maddon could make this silly gambit of roster management work, if he really needed to. It's because—while he's conscious of the need to massage and maintain egos throughout a roster, and while he encourages people within and outside his clubhouse to keep their finger on the human pulse of the game—when the chips are down, he's an Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, or Albus Dumbledore. He understands what everyone around him can offer him, which games they can help him win, and how his own treatment of them can affect the chances that they reach that potential.
He also understands their limitations, and is not invested in altering those limitations. He gets the most out of players by knowing when not to try to get any more out of them. When a player’s utility to Joe Maddon is gone, so is Maddon’s loyalty to that player—at least in a professional capacity. Rondon is a luxury hardly any team can afford, in 2017: a reliever without options, whom the manager will not use in crucial situations. That the Cubs need to be able to carry just 11 pitchers to make this ambitious plan for self-improvement work is almost immaterial; what matters is that guys like Rondon ossify the edges of the roster.
Here's the pitching staff the Cubs would employ, after cutting their former relief ace:
- Jon Lester
- Jake Arrieta
- Kyle Hendricks
- John Lackey
- Mike Montgomery
- Wade Davis
- Carl Edwards Jr.
- Koji Uehara
- Pedro Strop
- Brian Duensing
That's 10 guys. The 11th spot would be a rotating door, through which might pass Eddie Butler, Justin Grimm, Felix Pena, Jack Leathersich, or any of a handful of other guys. Given the light individual early workloads most of the above names have carried, they should be able to make this anachronistic (and yet, in one way, quintessentially contemporary, with all the roster manipulation and specialization it would require) approach work.
I'm not recommending this, per se. I think it would be really fun to watch a plan like this implemented. I think the idea of putting your best fielders out there behind a starter, knowing the way modern bullpens work, should generally take root a little more throughout the league. I think the modularity of this roster and roster usage is what the future of baseball looks like—an increasing emphasis on athleticism leading to guys being able to play multiple positions, and that leading to easier, more frequent substitutions.
What I don't think any of it is, in the moment, is what it almost has to be, before it can come to fruition anywhere: excruciatingly necessary. To see a team really start turning their roster inside-out like this, we’d probably need a team more desperate than the Cubs. That team would also probably need to have a bit less overall talent than the Cubs have: it’s very hard to tell Zobrist and Schwarber they're going to play only the final three or four innings of most games. It's very hard to take guys like Baez, Russell, and Heyward out early.
Eventually, someone will try these (mostly familiar, if you have read up on the Weaver-era Orioles) ways of using players, developing hybrid roles and giving each player the chance to put their biggest strengths to their highest uses. For 2017, though, the Cubs are very, very likely to be good the rest of the way, and to win their division, without doing one single weird thing, and without making any enormous deadline acquisition. They can't be fixed, because they're not really, truly broken.