The Cubs are entering a very crucial part of the season. They’ve wrapped up one of the tougher stretches of play that they’ll likely face all season, and despite entering Tuesday on a five-game losing skid, things aren’t as bad as they appear. Yes, the losing stretch exposed some of their holes, but that may turn out to be a good thing. If they can stay afloat through the All-Star break as the team gets healthy, these recent missteps could help guide the front office as they decide what weaknesses need to be addressed and in what way—via trade, just getting healthy, or by supplementing the roster through the minor leagues.
“Any time you can improve from within, that’s the best and most efficient way to get better,” Theo Epstein told reporters a few days before his team started its current losing stretch. “You can’t always count on that, but if you can improve from within—and we know we have a manager and coaching staff that help our players relax and play their best, so we can continue developing in the big leagues. That’s always beneficial to improve the organization from within. It doesn’t mean you stop considering what may help us improve from the outside.”
Some of that ‘improve(ment) from within’ that Epstein was referring to, among others, include the likes of Neil Ramirez, who returned to action on Sunday, and Jorge Soler, who is in the midst of a rehab stint in Iowa and could return as early as Friday when the Cubs start a stretch of 10 straight at home prior to the All-Star break.
As Epstein mentioned while talking with reporters, the Cubs have essentially had their entire bench wiped out for one reason or another. Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt have missed majority of the season due to injuries. Arismendy Alcantara proved ineffective in the majors and may not return until the organization is convinced he won’t be exposed by big-league pitching. Chris Denorfia missed a significant portion of the early part of the season, and upon his return, he’s been thrust into a starting role due to Soler’s absence, which has revealed him for the player he is: a very useful fourth outfielder who will prove to struggle with regular playing time.
The return of Soler will push Denorfia to the bench, strengthening that unit significantly, while also making one of Matt Szczur or Mike Baxter a fifth outfielder, rather than a name we see penciled into the lineup on a frequent basis. The infield depth is a little more unclear, as Javier Baez’s injury has muddied up what appeared to be a possible strength when the season began. It looks as though Alcantara has yet to gain the trust of those who matter, with clear holes in his game continually being displayed when with the big-league club; when and if that changes remains to be seen. Olt has value, but whether he has a role with this team is yet to be determined.
Regardless, the Cubs bench is something that can be fixed with a little health, and with the return of Ramirez, the bullpen doesn’t appear to be as pressing of a need (though an upgrade is still a possibility, but we’ll get a clearer idea of how essential that is once Rafael Soriano arrives stateside and is tossing against live competition). The talk of late has focused on improving the starting pitching, with Epstein being clear that that’s an area they’ve zoned in on. Even without Tsuyoshi Wada’s injury putting Donn Roach in the rotation, it’s clear that acquiring a starting pitcher seems like an obvious choice. Jacob Turner was recently shutdown and the only realistic options outside of Wada and Roach are Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch. With the Cubs having playoff aspirations, that’s certainly not going to cut it.
But over the last seven games, another weakness has been uncovered: the offense. The Cubs scored 11 runs in their last seven games, and just seven in their last six, culminating in their current five-game skid. Yes, they faced some strong pitching during that stretch (Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez are among the best arms in the National League), but they also failed to cash in on numerous scoring opportunities as the bats are proving to be a liability for a team that’s suddenly scrambling for an easy W. It’s important not to overreact to just a small stretch, but the reality is, the offense has been a slight problem for a while now, but some impressive pitching performances along with a scoring outburst here and there had previously helped camouflage these issues.
Outside of the obvious struggles with men on base, it’s also been glaring that the youth—players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell—have found themselves in offensive slumps. Bryant is slashing .158/.250/.342 with a 38.7 percent strikeout rate in his last 11 games—a stretch that includes his two-homer game against Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Russell is at .225/.311/.300 in the month of June. The lack of power stands out for both players; Bryant has just three home runs on the month, the two against the Dodgers and a grand slam off a position player, while Russell has a total of only four extra-base hits in June.
Now let’s be clear, these aren’t reasons for concern with these individual players, but rather just the Cubs offense. Bryant and Russell are performing quite well for rookies, and their futures are undoubtedly quite bright. However, currently, the Cubs are relying on them to carry a heavy load, with only Anthony Rizzo proving to be a consistent force in the Cubs lineup (this is where a consistent Starlin Castro would come in handy, but more on him later). And we see what happens when Rizzo isn’t producing at a high level—over the weekend he went 1-for-10 with a walk and no extra-base hits and the Cubs got swept by the division-leading Cardinals while managing just four runs.
“It’s kind of a delicate balancing act, you don’t want to use youth as an excuse,” Esptein prophetically said last week. “But we have to constantly remember that these guys are 23 or younger, and even the veterans are just 25, and not the most experienced in the world. They’re going to put themselves in slumps really quickly and maybe have a longer time coming out of them because it’s the first time they’ve been through a lot of this stuff. I think it’s a testament to how mature they are that sometimes you and I can forget that. So it’s key to remind yourself of that.”
Epstein wasn’t referring to the fans and the media with that quote, but rather himself and others in the organization. Even they can get carried away with this group of young talent they’ve accumulated, and perhaps this stretch of struggling to score runs coupled with some losses could open their eyes to the fact that the offense is in need of some upgrades as well.
“Sometimes we get a little bit spoiled when we get on a roll,” Epstein continued. “I know I do, I start to evaluate us through the lens of what you want to see instead of what you have. We have to recognize that we are young; it’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality.”
Here is where the Cubs coaching staff could prove to once again be invaluable.
Joe Maddon has a background in player development, as does first base coach Brandon Hyde, and bench coach Dave Martinez is praised all around baseball for his ability to identify areas of improvement and clearly communicate that to the staff and the front office. And that communication appears to be a big key. We often hound on the fact that it’s imperative for a coaching staff to be open to the suggestions of the front office and willing to take on the information provided by analysts and pass those things along to the players in a way that they’ll accept and implement them into game action. However, it’s equally important that the front office is disposed to hear what a coaching staff is telling them is working and not working on their 25-man roster.
“We talk all the time and they’ve been wonderful to me in regards to soliciting what I’m thinking and vice versa,” Maddon said of the open communication he has with the front office. “When you get in these conversations with these guys, it covers everything. It’s wide open, nobody is worried about somebody else’s feeling or saying it’s gotta be my idea or it’s no good. I have felt that when we get in conversations that they do respect what I’ve done in the past regarding development of younger players. It’s been a really good, healthy relationship. The exchange is really good, always. Primarily because nobody has all the answers and nobody has to be right, it’s just about getting it right.”
The coaching staff meets regularly with the front office as they try to figure out how to best improve the team, whether it be via trade or supplementing the roster with a call-up from the minors. And no voice is overlooked.
“Everybody’s input is valuable here,” Martinez told me “I might see something that another coach might not see, or Joe doesn’t see, or vice versa. We go over different things and different scenarios and how guys are progressing. It’s very important, because through the course of the year it takes more than just the 25 guys on the roster to actually get to where you want to be at the end of the year. It’s definitely a group effort, I like to be involved. I like to keep track of guys who might be able to help us, if not right now, then in the near future.”
It appears that improving the starting pitching staff is something most in the organization is on the same page on. Wada has shown flashes, but the fact is, both his health and his inability to go very deep in a game are concerns. By upgrading the front or middle of the rotation and pushing Kyle Hendricks, and perhaps even Jason Hammel, back a spot, the Cubs should solve a big problem. As will some consistency from Jon Lester, but that’s a whole separate issue.
But as June turns to July, it will become clearer to both the front office and the coaching staff whether upgrades in the offense are needed as well. Soler’s return should fill at least one hole in the lineup, which would leave two spots where upgrades could be had: left field and shortstop. Chris Coghlan’s .290 TAv (along with defense that advanced metrics haven’t hated as much as previous seasons) is strong, but whether it’s adding the likes of Ben Zobrist via trade or calling up Kyle Schwarber in mid-August, that’s a spot some in the organization believes could be improved upon.
Shortstop is a less obvious hole and clearly much more of a hot-button topic. Starlin Castro has an abysmal .231 TAv, has played average defense (to those who are being generous), and there’s a logical replacement for him playing to his left. But the situation in which the Cubs would trade Castro is a bit of a paradox. It’s unlikely they’ll move him now unless a team is willing to hand over a frontline pitching talent. Perhaps three months ago a return of Steven Matz was possible (and maybe at that time, it would have been much less than the Cubs would have accepted, but both players’ values have changed drastically since then, in opposite directions), but at the moment that seems unreasonable. So what the Cubs need to happen is for Castro to get hot at the plate, and in doing so, get his trade value back to a high level. But then one has to wonder why they’d trade a bat that’s performing well to improve one weakness, only to expose another.
There clearly isn’t a simple answer to this issue, and every one that’s presented seems to bring up another question. Which is why it’s imperative that Epstein, Maddon, and the rest of the front office and coaching staff are all working together to come up with the best plan to get this team into the playoffs. Yes, they’ll still keep the future in mind, but there’s no question this group still believes they can make some noise in 2015.
“I believe in magic,” Maddon told reporters last week. “But I believe it has to be earned.”
The Cubs record in one-run and extra-innings games coming into the weekend suggested that they have had a little bit of magic on their side. But the sweep at the hands of the injury-depleted, yet always-competing Cardinals shows that some more work needs to be done before they truly earn it.
Lead photo courtesy of Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports