CHICAGO — After a winter makeover on the mound — which still might see more changes — the Chicago Cubs enter spring training with a very familiar group at the plate. In fact, when it comes to position players, there is not one new face outside of a backup catcher (Chris Gimenez) who might or might not make the team.
The Cubs lost Jon Jay to free agency but will go to battle this season with every other hitter who helped them to a third consecutive playoff berth last year. That might come as a surprise, as the team expected a potential trade for a pitcher this offseason, but phone calls with opposing front offices never led to anything.
That part should not come as a surprise, considering what other teams are looking for and how they value certain Cubs hitters. Multiple executives indicated throughout the offseason that if they were calling Chicago, they weren’t looking to “buy high” on Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ, for example. Meanwhile, the Cubs undoubtedly view both those players in higher regard. They know them. They know their drive. Even Schwarber’s obvious body transformation wasn’t enough to sway a rival executive to give up an elite pitcher. Shortstop Addison Russell was dangled as well, according to league sources, but the match never fit there, either. All this means the core group gets another chance to do something special.
“I think 2018 is the year where our guys are going to take a big step forward,” general manager Jed Hoyer said last week on his way to Mesa, Arizona, for spring training. “Most of our guys are in their mid-20s, entering their prime years. I think this group is really going to come together.”
More than ever, the Cubs will need to become more reliant on their offense, as their lack of pitching depth is starting to catch up with them. They drafted hitters high, which means at some point those players need to be the strength of the team as the front office figures out how to revamp the staff. Six free-agent pitchers should help, but they also bring question marks.
On the other hand, there should be no questions about Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo & Co. But there are once you get to the “& Co.” Sure, a healthy Willson Contreras has become someone to count on, but what about three other core guys who have shown inconsistent tendencies? This trio will decide if the Cubs’ offense becomes a dangerous beast or continues to show its warts.
Those who have scoffed at his body transformation simply because it doesn’t mean he can hit fastballs again actually do have a point. We don’t know if he’ll return to being a fearsome hitter — at least not yet. What we do know is that getting into great shape has never hurt anyone. If Schwarber can leg out one more hit per month, it can be meaningful. If he plays defense, say, just 25 percent better than he has in the past, it can be meaningful as well. Those things are now possible, but he’ll be judged on his contact rate more than anything. The power is there.
“I know I can hit home runs,” Schwarber said this winter. “I’ll always have power. I have to get back to being a hitter.”
That is what Theo Epstein and the coaching staff echoed. Can Schwarber be a hitter and not just a slugger? The answer will make a huge difference in the Cubs’ lineup.
Let’s face it: 2017 was a throwaway year for Russell. He was hurt, faced off-the-field issues and rarely looked like his old self, both in the field and at the plate. Talk about a misleading stat: Russell actually hit one point higher in 2017 than he did in 2016, but no one who watched him would think that his season last year was anything close to the season he had when the Cubs won the World Series. The big hits and big plays were few and far between in 2017. It leads to one simple question: Are Russell’s health issues behind him? If so, then his paltry .304 on-base percentage in 2017 should improve, as should his play in the field. The bar is high for him on defense. It’s not like he was bad last season, but he needs to stay healthy.
The favorite of many a fan, he can frustrate even the most die-hard Baez lovers. It’s not so much how many times he strikes out as it is how he goes down. Usually, it’s on a breaking pitch nowhere near the plate. Having said that, Baez’s OPS was .796 last year. One more leap, and he will be a real difference-maker. He was having just an OK season on defense until Russell went down with an injury. Then he picked up his game. If Baez can play 162 like he did while filling in for Russell, he will finally shed the “inconsistent” label. First things first: Lay off those breaking balls, and take some walks. Everything else will follow.
Of course, the team isn’t reliant on just these three hitters, but these three have the highest ceilings. It’s these three players — with a nod to Albert Almora as well — who are X factors who have shown flashes of greatness, but we don’t yet know how good they can be over the long haul. This is the year when they need to bring it for a full season.
The Cubs are counting on it. After all, they kept everyone around.