How to fix Cubs’ hitting in four words or less: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado
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Cubs president Theo Epstein spent thousands of words talking to the media Wednesday about what went wrong with the hitting and theories for addressing it.
He could have used just two words: Bryce Harper.
Or maybe these two words: Manny Machado.
The Cubs got in the limbo line behind other big-market teams last winter to scrunch their payroll under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold and “reset” the penalty schedule to be in position to spend big again this year.
Does Epstein have the appetite to go big this winter for the kind of hitter that would immediately lengthen and quickly repair a lineup that scored one or no runs 40 times this year — with only two runs in its last 24 innings on its way to a quick exit from the postseason.
“I don’t know yet,” Epstein said of how much the Cubs might be willing to spend this winter after busting in 2018 on $185 million worth of pitchers in Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on players, and that’s not always the answer, to rush back out and spend more. There are a lot of attractive players out there and some impact players out there, and we’ll get together and figure out what’s possible, what’s not possible and all the best approaches to this offseason.”
For now, two things are sure:
First: “The offense broke, somewhere along the line,” Epstein said.
Second: With the luxury-tax threshold taking its biggest year-over-year jump ($9 million) this winter of the remaining years on the collective-bargaining agreement, and the Cubs’ reset, this is not the time to shy away from spending if a big-ticket player is the answer.
But while Harper in next year’s outfield or Machado in next year’s infield would certainly help, the bigger problems with the lineup’s recurring anemia might be right in front of everyone’s face.
“Of course there’s going to be thorough examination, and of course we’re going to spend all of our energy trying to fix it,” Epstein vowed. “And fixing it.”
Then he recounted the Cubs’ first-half production: first in the National League in runs and OPS, first in the majors in on-base percentage and third in the NL in slugging.
And the second-half free fall — a run fewer per game and NL rankings of 13th in slugging, ninth in OBP and 10th in OPS.
Twenty times in 70 second-half games, the Cubs scored one or no runs.
“Unacceptable,” Epstein said.
But don’t blame the new hitting coach, Chili Davis. Or some kind of shift away from the so-called launch-angle/slug philosophy to an all-fields approach that led to the power drop-off.
“This is not on the coaches,” said Epstein, who nonetheless said no determination has been made on whether all will be back next year.
Most of it is probably as simple as this: The Cubs had four hitters good enough and established enough to hit good pitching on any given day, and one of them, Daniel Murphy, was only there the last two months of the year.
Ben Zobrist was limited to 139 games because of a schedule built to give him generous rest to keep him healthy all year. Anthony Rizzo opened in a career-worst six-week slump.
And, most of all, Kris Bryant had the most injury-compromised season of his career at any level, missing lengthy stretches because of shoulder problems and playing at less than 100 percent for much of the season when he wasn’t on the disabled list.
The closest thing to an established hitter on the roster outside of those four is Jason Heyward, who has struggled in recent years. MVP candidate Javy Baez is still growing.
And nobody else on the roster has come close to proving he’s an every-day, professional, productive big-league hitter — despite internal pronouncements to the contrary and a questionable All-Star selection or two mixed in.
Bryant, who has seen Cubs doctors and his own for the shoulder, has been assured that rest will allow him to return to full strength next season. Murphy is probably not coming back.
“We have to be an offensive force,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We should be with our talent. But it’s probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating it in terms of production.”
Perhaps summed up in as little as two words?