The Beer List: This Offense is For The Birds Edition

This is The Beer List. It’s an opportunity, once every so often, for the staff here at BP Wrigleyville to get together (virtually, of course) and respond briefly to one specific, usually quite general, question. Despite the strenuous efforts of certain members of the writing crew to make it so, it has nothing to do with beer and is therefore agnostic between, for random example, Busch Light and Daisy Cutter. This week’s question is this: What’s your ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the Cubs’ offense finally turning around? In other words, what sign are you looking for that will signal that the offense is turning around?

(1) Javier Baez is called up. The Cubs’ offensive struggles are well documented, and nowhere more so than with the double-play combination of Starlin Castro and Addison Russell. Castro—the longest tenured and most accomplished of the Young Cubs—has floundered to an unthinkable 59 OPS+. While Russell has made significant strides in this, his inaugural jaunt, he has still managed a tAV of just .249. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a ready made, power-hitting, electric shortstop waiting in the wings to spell the youthful middle-infield tandem during their occasional offensive slumps.

Ah, but there is! As recently as mid-summer 2014, Javier Baez was a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. One mostly unsuccessful cup-of-joe in the big-leagues later, and popular opinion has largely written off the immensely talented young man with the MLB logo tattooed on his neck. This is a mistake. Sandwiched between an unfortunate broken finger, Baez has parlayed massive swing changes into a Triple-A on-base percentage of .389. He has also lowered his strikeout percentage by three points, while raising his slugging percentage by nearly 50 points compared to last year’s stint in Iowa. Adding Baez into the equation could be exactly the spark this Cubs offense needs to reach the postseason for the first time in seven years. —Isaac Bennett

(2) Tommy La Stella returns from the DLNow that the trade deadline has passed without any offensive reinforcements being brought in, it’s clear that the Cubs are counting on internal improvement from the offense. That could come from players already on the roster or from a callup of Javier Baez, but I think the big change will be kick-started by the return of Tommy La Stella, who has missed almost the entire season with a rib and oblique injury.

La Stella, a second baseman that the Cubs were planning to play a little third base or even shortstop, was acquired in the offseason from the Braves for reliever Arodys Vizcaino. He’s a high-OBP, low-strikeout player that they had hoped would be able to help them strike out less often as a team. He just started a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee, and after an initial 0-for-4 he is 3-for-8 in his last three games with zero strikeouts in 11 plate appearances. It’s a small sample, and he may not be back for a few weeks still, but I think his eventual return will allow more occasional days off for the Cubs’ young infield and provide a high contact pinch-hitter or late game double-switch candidate when he’s not in the lineup. —Ryan Davis

(3) Dexter Fowler gets his pop back. The power of Fowler is a curious thing, make one map weep, make another swing. Unfortunately, though, amazing, not-at-all forced Huey Lewis references are the only similarity between the Beer List and American Psycho. Fowler’s power at the top of the order was an important factor in the Cubs strong offensive start. Through May 22, or the team’s first 40 games, Fowler was slugging .445, with seven doubles, three triples, and five home runs.

The pop, however, would fade dramatically. From May 23 through July 11, a span of 44 games, Fowler slugged just .290 with three home runs. The Cubs went 22-22 during that stretch, with the offense sputtering. These days, though, the power seems to be returning. Since July 12 (the Sunday before the break) Fowler has slugged .468 in 17 games. The team has gone 10-7. He has hit two home runs during the stretch, including a lead-off a home run in last Wednesday’s series-clinching win against Colorado. Perhaps the return of Fowler’s power from the top of the lineup will be a key to helping the Cubs offense find its early season form. —Andrew Felper

(4) Cubs starters give the team a chance to win. A leading indicator of a Cubs turnaround will be improved performance from the four and five spots in the rotation. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, the team has gotten very little production from its starting pitchers not named Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, or Kyle Hendricks. From July 7 to July 28, Dallas Beeller, Clayton Richard, and Jason Hammel (fighting through an injury) combined for seven starts. In those games, the three pitchers combined for an 8.12 ERA, a 5.3 BB/9, and a 1.13 K/9.

Although the Cubs managed to win three of those seven starts, it wasn’t because the starting pitching kept them in the game. Going forward, the Cubs need their fourth and fifth starters to give them a chance to win. With the acquisition of Dan Haren and the imminent return of Tsuyoshi Wada, and barring further injury to starters, we have likely seen the last of Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler in the majors this season. While neither Wada nor Haren are sure bets for dominant performances (but who is?), both should be significant upgrades over the team’s recent starters in the four and five spots. If the Cubs get reliable starting pitching from those two spots, it will preserve the bullpen and prove to be the turning point towards a playoff appearance on the North Side. —Jeff Lamb

(5) Bryant starts mashing. A recent power surge has propelled the Cubs to five straight, mostly the product of a hot Anthony Rizzo (well, he’s always hot, but you know what I mean). The other cog in the middle of the order, Kris Bryant, hasn’t caught the home run fever yet. His 14 dingers are solid, but he’s not on pace for the 30-plus most predicted going into the season. He totalled seven in May, three in June, and four in July; hardly inspiring numbers going forward.

The good thing is that he’ll be facing a lot of NL Central pitchers over the next few weeks, some of whom he’s seen before. Only two of his home runs thus far have come against divisional opponents, a strangely low number, but I am confident that the next few times he sees the league, he’ll give the Cubs the power boost they sorely need. I’d tag him for ten homers in August and September. —Zack Moser

(6) Castro gets back on track. Oh Starlin—we thought you were “back” after bouncing back in 2014 from that disastrous 2013. But so far this season you’ve just been bad. You look terrible rolling over everything and grounding weakly to the left side. But that’s not the worst of it: the bottom of the order is a joke, with Addison Russell learning to adjust and the pitcher hitting eighth. Don’t even get me started on the days Ross is catching. So Castro needs to bounce back, and when he does we’ll know that the offense as a whole is progressing, and that the Cubs are a threat to score no matter what part of the lineup is coming up. —Carlos Portocarrero

(7) David Ross applies his old-man guile. It’s clear that Ross is the spirit animal of this year’s team. (Rizzo is the heart, Bryant the face, Schwarber the beefy torso, etcetera.) But Ross’s old-man guile has given the team a talismanic boost, an infusion of veteran craftiness and old-school cunning.

And it’s also clear that Ross has skills far beyond what he’s shown this season—whether it’s pitching a perfect inning, crushing mad homerz, or subtly guiding his team through masterfully understated gestures (see below), the gray-bearded Ross is slowly revealing all of his wizened magical powers. I’ll know that he (and the offense) will have fully emerged, like a beautiful old-timey butterfly, when he unleashes his 4.3-speed and is hitting a few stand-up triples per game.

Joel Reese

(8) Joe Maddon shaves it all off. Statistical context clues can give off hints on when a team is about to change their fortunes on either side of the ball. We can look at BABIP for a quick gauge on luck, we can go to line-drive percentage for a reference on how hard the balls are being hit, and we can go to BB:K ratios to get a gauge on plate discipline. For the Cubs one of the biggest context clues as to how their offense will turn things around comes from an unlikely place: Joe Maddon’s beard.

Beards have come in vogue as the lumberjack look has caught on of late. That said, Maddon’s beard is an affront to beards everywhere, as his scruff is more reminiscent of mug shot peach fuzz than the full-on lumberjack. It’s thrown the team into a funk, and the quicker Maddon ditches the 10 o’clock shadow, the quicker Russell and Castro should turn their seasons around. —Mauricio Rubio, Jr.

(9) Anthony Rizzo returns to form. My answer to this question was always Anthony Rizzo. It was Rizzo, even when the question was asked, right before Rizzo started the torrid offensive streak he’s on now. In fact, when the question was asked, Rizzo was just bottoming out. On June 12 against the Reds, Rizzo went 0-for-5, snapping an 18-game on-base streak. In fact, that contest (the Cubs’ 59th of the year) was just the fifth time all season Rizzo had failed to reach base.

Starting that day, though, the Cubs’ best hitter went into a tailspin. Rizzo hit .211/.316/.354 in 174 plate appearances from June 12 through July 28. It’s no coincidence that the Cubs went 19-21 in those 40 games (that is, precisely, the only 40-game stretch of the season over which the Cubs have been below .500), nor that they scored only 140 runs (3.5 per game, whereas they’ve scored a shade over 4.0 runs per game in the other 64 games of the campaign). The difference between Rizzo over that prolonged slump and Rizzo the day before he fell into it (.327/.446/.592) is a hit every other game, three times on base every four or five games, an extra base per game. It’s not Rizzo’s fault that the offense went lifeless without him; plenty of other guys slumped concurrently. But when Rizzo is right, he can carry a team to two or three or four runs in many games, even if others don’t play up to their talent level. We’ve seen that over the five-game winning streak the Cubs carried into Monday. Even after going 0-for-4 on Sunday (*gulp* Don’t slump again, Tony), Rizzo was a healthy .421/.450/1.105 in those five games, and either drove in or scored (sometimes both, of course, but not double-counting those) 11 of the Cubs’ 20 runs during the win streak. If Rizzo can stay hot, this offense can get hot, permanently. Matt Trueblood

(10) Soler turns up the power. The Cubs offense will turn around when Jorge Soler starts hitting homers. Bryant and Rizzo have been great, with a solid combination of power and patience, but with the struggles behind them in the lineup, opposing pitchers can pick patience and let them draw walks and die on base. This all changes when Soler starts making pitchers pay with a few more long balls, and there are many reasons for optimism these days. His exit velocities can be ridiculous. He’s got an unusually low flyball rate, but a high line-drive rate to go along with a low home run to fly ball rate in 2015. And finally, he had an awful called strike zone early in the season, both inside and out of the zone. I can’t help but think his strike zone will normalize and he’ll start turning a few line drives into home runs. This will help not only Soler, but the guys in front of him too. —Michael Wenz

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