Yesterday, I covered how the Cubs should go about addressing their rotation and bullpen for 2017. Today, I cover offensive depth.
The Cubs NEED to Implement Their “Depth,” Platoon Aggressively, and Joe Maddon NEEDS to be Willing to Adjust… Like the Dodgers and Dave Roberts
I put depth in quotes because Chicago’s “depth” has a far greater offensive ceiling than the veterans playing ahead of them. Ian Happ’s OPS of .842 as a 22-year-old rookie was higher than any season Zobrist has had since 2012. A juiced ball and park factors helped, but that doesn’t negate Zobrist’s 82 2017 wRC+. Ridiculous Gold Glove nominations aside, Zobrist is the better defender, but at 36, with his arm noticeably weaker, and after a season with multiple injuries, it’s unclear if that is going to be the case much longer.
Happ is also one of the streakiest hitters in baseball, potentially creating a different kind of platoon situation. His “platoon” should be more based on if he’s running hot or cold, than handedness of the starting pitcher. (Happ hits for average from the right side, and power from the left.) This will also allow Maddon to fully utilize their depth when the Pittsburgh native is slumping.
And then there’s Javy Baez. Already one of the most exciting players in the game, and a defensive wizard at three infield positions, at 24 he “finally” showed sustained bursts of the offensive potential that was expected of him after a monster minor league career. With a general void of nothingness behind Addison Russell and “El Mago” at shortstop, plus the nagging injuries Russell has faced over the past two years, the depth Baez gives the Cubs up the middle is second to none. If the Cubs do trade Baez for pitching—and they absolutely should not—they must make a corresponding move to fill what will now be a massive hole.
Heyward may very well be the best right fielder in the game, but back-to-back seasons of poor offensive play, particularly against left-hand pitching (OPS’s of .586 and .662, respectively), have proven he is, in his current state, a platoon outfielder. Including Happ, and given Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber’s big second halves—two more “depth” pieces with high upside offensive ceilings—the Cubs are loaded with young and diverse outfield bats that can be platooned with Heyward and mixed and matched with Zobrist.
With the departure of Jon Jay, a light hitting, hard to strikeout, contact guy without a career history of massive platoon splits… hang on, this sounds an awful like Zobrist. Yes, he was awful against lefties last year, but that can (probably) be blamed on a wrist injury. (For his career, Zobrist is a little better against southpaws.) A healthy Zobrist should be able to replicate Jay’s .749 OPS, and by paring back his plate appearances to the 400 range, like with Jay, it should also keep his aging body a little fresher, while giving the Cubs’ better and younger bats more consistent playing time.
Despite their enviable offensive depth, Maddon kept running out his best defensive lineup during the playoffs. This strategy works when Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras are hitting, like the 2016 playoffs, but they largely disappeared in 2017, and the Cubs offense tanked. Instead of adjusting and plugging in more offensively driven options like Happ, Tommy La Stella, or Schwarber, Maddon even went as far as starting Zobrist and his .553 OPS against left-handers in an elimination game against Clayton freakin’ Kershaw.
Dave Roberts, faced with a similar situation, went the other way. Curtis Granderson struggled from the moment he put on a Dodgers uniform, slashing .161/.288/.366 in 132 regular season plate appearances. His offensive output then circled the drain in the first two rounds of the playoffs, as he went 1-for-15 in six games, starting three of them.
Instead of continuing to start the veteran of 57 postseason games, the MLBPA player representative, and most likeable guy in baseball against right-hand starters, the Dodgers removed him from the World Series roster and inserted the flawed, but talented Joc Pederson into the starting lineup in five of seven World Series games. He rewarded them with three home runs and a ludicrous 1.344 OPS. If Chicago is going to keep competing against smart managers and front offices willing to adjust to the current situation and not past performances or a rigid plan, they will continue to put themselves behind the strategic eight ball.
The Cubs play in the third-largest market in the United States, their owners are billionaires, and they consistently are one of the most profitable franchises in baseball. It’s time to spend that cash on payroll and continually push their opening day expenditures near the luxury cap. In the era of the Super Team, it’s time for the Cubs to act like the Dodgers and pay for and, if necessary, trade lesser pieces to fill their gaps. BP Wrigleyville’s Zack Moser has advocated for this before, prior to 2016, and it still makes sense. Doing so allows the Cubs to keep their major league position player depth. Maddon will also have to use that depth more efficiently moving forward to land the second World Series that this young core group of Cubs, and their fans, expect.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports