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Reversing downward trends key to getting Cubs’ offense back on track in 2021

The Cubs have struggled against velocity the last two seasons and have gotten away from grinding at-bats, which led to much of their success before that.

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

MESA, Ariz. – When you look at the names in the Cubs’ lineup, it’s hard to imagine that what was once one of the most feared lineups in the majors has struggled in the last couple of seasons.

The lineup, which includes a National League MVP, an NL MVP runner-up and several NL All-Stars and Silver Slugger winners, has seen its share of success. But after consecutive seasons of disappointing offensive showings, many are wondering whether this group still can have success.

Starting pitching has been the Cubs’ strength in recent seasons, and it has helped buy the offense time to find itself. But with an overhauled rotation this season, the offense will have to come to life if the Cubs hope to have any chance of winning the NL Central again.

‘‘I think this is a really talented offensive group,’’ president Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘We’ve struggled in certain aspects of the game that we have to improve on. [Manager David Ross] and I have spent a ton of time over the course of the winter talking about how we can get this group back to where they belong.’’

The 2020 season left a bad taste in the mouths of the Cubs’ hitters. Except for outfielders Ian Happ and Jason Heyward, no offensive player performed to his career average. Shortstop Javy Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, catcher Willson Contreras and first baseman Anthony Rizzo all had subpar seasons, making it almost impossible for the offense to succeed.

Still, because of the nature of the season, it’s more difficult to know what’s real and what’s not. The small sample size of 60 games and the external factors that came with the pandemic make it easy to point to factors that would impede offensive success.

Some of the Cubs’ offensive woes, however, have started to become trends. One area of concern for the Cubs last season was their inability to deal with velocity, something that was exposed against young Marlins fireballers Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez in the postseason.

Teams weren’t scared to be aggressive with the Cubs’ hitters last season, and it showed. The Cubs hit only .202 against power pitchers (95 mph or more) in 2020, which ranked 13th in the NL, and .209 against them in 2019, which ranked 11th in the NL.

‘‘We’re in an era where it’s the highest velocity ever thrown and the most spin ever in the history of baseball,’’ Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. ‘‘Each year it’s gone up. Now it’s the percentage of fastballs at the top of the zone, which is the most ever. So guys are trying to combat that all around baseball, not just with the Cubs.

‘‘How do you keep getting better at that? If you’re missing fastballs, that’s not necessarily your plan or being over-committed or trying to see the ball too deep. A lot of it can be cleared up by thoughts and shifting the field. But I don’t think the guys will have any issues getting back to who they are in a full season.’’

Not being able to drive fastballs in the strike zone created a weakness in the Cubs’ offense and carried over into the quality of the players’ at-bats. That had been one of the staples of the Cubs’ lineups when the team was making deep playoff runs.

Hoyer spoke about how the Cubs’ decision-making at the plate had deteriorated during the last three or four seasons and said getting back to working counts has been an emphasis in the organization.

‘‘I don’t think it’s frustrating when you see a player put in the work,’’ Iapoce said. ‘‘If a guy’s not working, it may be frustrating. But when you see behind the curtain and you get to work with these guys and see the work that they put in, it’s not frustrating at all . . . because they’re working their butt off.’’

The Cubs think that the true version of their offense will return in a full 162-game season and that the recent trends will revert to normal.

Right-hander Trevor Williams faced the Cubs multiple times as a member of the Pirates in recent seasons and knows firsthand what the offense is still capable of.

‘‘They’re still a World Series-winning lineup,’’ Williams said. ‘‘That respect has never been lost. They can go from a one-run inning to a five-run inning quickly because they have power threats throughout the lineup.

‘‘They were always a tough matchup — even last year, when they hadn’t been producing offensively like they know they’re capable of. But it’s a lineup that is revered in the NL Central, knowing that they can string together homers and can also string together really good at-bats to make the pitcher work.’’