Time for Cubs to focus on players’ production, not talent or potential
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About 20 minutes into his 70-minute, touch-all-the-bases news conference Wednesday, Cubs president Theo Epstein said something that didn’t get much attention afterward but should have.
He was talking about how the team might address its offensive struggles, which had been perfectly and painfully on display in a 2-1, 13-inning loss to the Rockies in the National League wild-card game the day before.
‘‘We have to be an offensive force; we should be with the talent on our roster,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘But it’s probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production. That means doing everything we can to produce.’’
The Cubs have been blinded by some of their young players’ potential. And it’s not just Epstein and manager Joe Maddon who have had eyesight problems. It’s Cubs players, fans and we in the media.
Ian Happ, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell are examples of players who have been given oversized praise in the last few years. That’s not to say they can’t be very good major-league players. It is to say that they haven’t always earned what has been handed to them.
For his 462 plate appearances this season, Happ gave the Cubs a .233 batting and 167 strikeouts. His .353 on-base percentage was good, but he didn’t do enough to merit the trust and the playing time he received.
At one point this season, Maddon said Contreras might be the best catcher in baseball. Not long after, Contreras began struggling behind the plate, where he couldn’t seem to block balls consistently, and at the plate, where his power went away. The more Joe gushed about him, the worse it seemed to get.
Almora hit .319 in the first half and .232 after the All-Star break. But even when he was doing well, he was getting a lot of ground-ball hits, which points to some luck. Almora’s playing time fell in the second half as he struggled.
Russell, the baseball player, has been an organization favorite since Epstein traded for him in 2014. But he’s a .242 career hitter and his power has disappeared. Maddon continued to play him at shortstop even after it became clear Javy Baez was superior at the position. Russell’s 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy make his on-field problems almost insignificant, but the point here is the way the Cubs fall in love with their own and stay in love.
Epstein always has said that the Cubs are a meritocracy and that playing time is based on performance, but that hasn’t always been the case. If it had been, Jason Heyward and his $184 million contract would have sat on the bench a lot more in his three seasons with the team.
I’m not comfortable putting Kyle Schwarber in the group of overrated Cubs, at least not based on this season. His on-base percentage (.356) and slugging percentage (.467) were good. But if Epstein is serious about emphasizing production over talent, he might be more willing to entertain trade offers for Schwarber, the fourth player taken in the 2014 draft. Maddon sent him to the plate to face left-handed pitchers only 91 times in 2018. Of Schwarber’s 26 home runs, one came against lefties. Teammates love him, but is that enough to override his limitations?
After the loss to the Rockies, first baseman Anthony Rizzo scanned the Cubs’ clubhouse and talked about all the talent he saw before him. Is it really there, or was Rizzo simply repeating what he has heard so often?
It’s something Epstein will have to weigh in the offseason. It dovetails with the issue of Maddon’s constantly changing lineups. The idea behind all those different lineups is that, with so much talent, the Cubs have to find at-bats for a lot of players. Hence, lineups that look like merry-go-rounds spinning.
The Cubs need to start being honest with themselves. Do some of these young players deserve all those at-bats?
‘‘I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘[If you have] eight guys for eight spots, then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries, your whole season’s down the tubes.
‘‘But I think it’s fair to ask ourselves: Can we handle it better? Do we need to communicate more? Do we need to spread the playing time around a little bit differently? Do we need to consider lineup issues differently? Is there a way to get everyone on the same page with it more, so the players don’t have any questions or doubts and we get the benefit of certainty while still having a surplus?’’
As much as anyone, Epstein fell in love with the promise of some of his players, so much so that he didn’t address offense much last offseason. But he’s not alone. Fans tend to cling to potential. We all cling to bright-eyed hope and fresh-faced possibility.
There has been a lot of clinging going on. Too much.