Less than 18 months ago, Theo Epstein was laying out his goals for the 2020-21 offseason:
“Productive contact hitters are at a premium, but it is important that we continue to integrate that into our lineup.”
Fast forward to the present, and Epstein is a consultant for the commissioner’s office. The three-true-outcomes hitters who powered the Cubs’ offense to a World Series and five playoff berths in six years are scattered throughout Major League Baseball. And building a diverse lineup highlights a different set of offseason needs for the Cubs.
How quickly the tables have turned.
Building a successful team takes more than filling out a pitching staff and eight spots on the field. The way the offense flows plays a large role in setting a team’s ceiling.
In the wake of the Cubs’ trade deadline sell-off, the club’s positional targets, with pitching and shortstop at the top of the list, have drummed up discussion among fans and media members — for good reason.
Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and his team addressed rotation concerns early in the offseason, adding Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley. And there’s still top talent available in a deep shortstop free-agent class.
Whenever collective bargaining talks end the lockout, teams will have to be ready for a flurry of activity. And while the Cubs fortify weak spots on their roster, they’ll keep in mind position players’ offensive fits.
The Cubs know what it’s like to watch a lineup full of talent hit a late-season slump. In 2018, after they posted a meager .663 OPS in September and early October, Epstein said, “Our offense broke somewhere along the lines,” driving home the lesson that a consistent offense takes a variety of hitting profiles.
For the past several years the Cubs have had plenty of sluggers but lacked contact hitters. When Hoyer took over ahead of the 2021 season, contact hitting was clearly a priority.
Most notably, the Cubs acquired second baseman Nick Madrigal at the trade deadline.
Madrigal has yet to suit up for the Cubs. A hamstring tear has sidelined him since June, but in his young career Madrigal has already established himself as an elite contact hitter.
“I’m a ‘contact hitter,’ ” said Nico Hoerner, a former Pac-12 rival of Madrigal’s, “but if you actually dive into it, he’s the best, right? There’s no one that puts the bat on the ball as well as him.”
Between last season and the beginning of this year, Madrigal made contact on 95.3% of pitches in the zone, according to Statcast.
He has the profile of a traditional leadoff hitter. And the Cubs have had so much trouble finding an everyday leadoff man in recent seasons that in 2020, according to Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo called the role “cursed.”
Now, the Cubs may have found their man, as long as Madrigal can pick up where he left off before the injury and stay healthy.
Either way, the Cubs have options at the top of the order. Ian Happ, Willson Contreras and Rafael Ortega all served as leadoff hitters at different points last season. Hoerner continues to develop. Frank Schwindel became a fan favorite late in the year batting second in the order, another spot traditionally reserved for contact hitters, and could slide right back into that role.
On the flip side, the heart of the order allows the most room for improvement.
When Epstein gave those comments about diversifying the 2020 lineup, the Cubs were bursting at the seams with potential No. 3-5 hitters. But because of the team’s leadoff hitter carousel and the wealth of pop in the batting order, several of them took on non-traditional roles for their skill sets. (Think Bryzzo at the top of the order.)
The 2021 trade deadline shifted the balance and opened opportunities for new hitters in prominent roles. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom established himself as the Cubs’ best power hitter by the end of the season.
Adding established power hitting, however, is never cheap.
“We have money to spend this winter,” Hoyer said in October, “but I think it’s really important that we do that in an intelligent way.”
Signing a player like Carlos Correa would address two thin spots in the roster, adding a heart-of-the-order bat and an elite shortstop in one move. The Cubs could then tap into Hoerner’s versatility and move him to the outfield.
Correa, however, is in high demand on the free-agent market. And the Cubs have to decide how much they’re willing to commit to a shortstop with plenty of areas to address as they build back up after this summer’s tear down.
The next CBA is expected to include the universal designated hitter, automatically deepening National League lineups. But to take full advantage of the change, and roll out a lineup that’s dangerous from top to bottom, the Cubs will need to remain active when the transaction window reopens.