For the World Champion Chicago Cubs, the paint is still wet on the magical landscape that is the 2016 season. However, it’s not too early to think about next year. Comments from the peanut gallery aside, the seven-game series against the Indians exposed a few weaknesses the Cubs must correct in order for the Windy City winners to build a dynasty. If not for Kyle Schwarber’s rather miraculous comeback, this story may look quite different.
To fix holes in the team’s lineup and pitching staff, we’ll see some changes by the time the champs head to Arizona for Spring Training 2017. As Fox’s broadcast analyst pointed out, the batting order “lengthened” once Chicago injected Schwarber into the order. In other words, if the last two games took place in the National League park without a DH, the folks in Cleveland would be the ones celebrating right now. In fact, in order to repeat next season, the Cubs’ lineup needs to look more traditional. Let’s start with a few assumptions before building the perfect one-though-nine batting order.
1. Dexter Fowler will not return
At $8 million for the 2016 season, the Georgia native was a bargain. Considering the field of available free-agent outfielders, Dexter Fowler’s value on the open market is far more than the Cubs should pay. Let some other teams use fool’s gold to bring Fowler to their outfield. While the Cubs’ center fielder has good OBP numbers, he lacks in runs scored and stolen bases — two essential stats for the optimal leadoff hitter. Also, his 124 strikeouts are far too many for a top-of-the-order table setter.
2. Jason Heyward will be much better than in 2016
Analysts loved discussing J-Hey’s inspired rain-delay team meeting, but getting timely hits in the postseason — not to mention the regular season — would’ve proved more valuable. Any way you look at his 2016 numbers, they are awful. The worst of the worst stats involve Heyward’s seven homers and wretched .306 OBP. Keep in mind, the 27-year-old former Braves star has experienced off years before (2011, 2013), but he’s never had back-to-back off years.
3. The pitching staff will look different
Aroldis Chapman is a free agent. Despite his triple-digit fastball, he will not be worth what he could command on the open market. That money is better spent getting a solid backup catcher; David Ross is retiring and Miguel Montero is not worth the $14 million salary due next season. Plenty of teams could use a veteran backstop — well at least one whose offensive skills and leadership outweigh his defensive liabilities.
The Cubs’ neither-fish-nor-fowl pitchers involve a lot of former starters turned middle relievers. In that realm, we include Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery. Shipping off some of their excess pitching could land some utility players who give the team more infield depth.
This leads to the 2017 lineup.
The Chicago Cubs’ projected starting lineup
The biggest challenge facing the Cubs will be at leadoff. We assume that Albert Almora, Jr. will replace Fowler in center field, and he is not suited to bat first. Almora’s OBP is in the low .300s and he has anemic stolen base totals. The best solution for leadoff (hold your laughter) is a more recognizable Jason Heyward. His three previous seasons — ones before the 2016 disaster — had him with OBP in the .350 range and a decent number of steals and an OK strikeout-to-walk ratio.
As the World Series proved, Schwarber needs to bat second. That puts Kris Bryant batting third and Anthony Rizzo fourth. This gives you a nice left-right-left order that puts the opposition in a tough late-inning position. Given Addison Russell’s progression, he deserves the fifth slot, which would add a power right-handed bat behind Rizzo and give the first baseman some protection. Yes, Russell ahead of Zobrist, a World Series hero whose power numbers are on the wane.
After Zobrist, the Contreras/Baez combo is a tossup. Javier Baez does not deserve to bat this low in the lineup (for that matter neither does Contreras). However, until the young infielder learns better plate discipline, his liabilities at the plate are fairly significant. Truth be told, if Baez learns to be more selective at the plate, he’d be a great leadoff man. His 108 whiffs to 15 walks might say otherwise, but the talented Puerto Rico-native has top-of-the-order in him; whether it comes out is another story.
Such a lineup does speak to the fact we have no obvious spot for Almora if he took over center field. Such a logjam means either the Cubs platoon Heyward and Almora or Heyward plays center with Schwarber in left and Zobrist in right. As the best right fielder on the team, Heyward presents lineup problems in which defense is sacrificed for the offense. The offseason, especially the Winter Meetings, will clear up the final lineup issues.
Clearly, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer know what they’re doing.
Information courtesy of ESPN.