Seeds of Cubs’ Playoff Failure Largely Sown Last Offseason
Yes, the Cubs won an impressive 95 games this season. Yes, they finished with the second-best record in the National League. Yes, they overcame myriad injuries and a crazy-busy final quarter of the season. But bottom line: The Cubs lost the two last and biggest games of their season.
This meant not a single playoff win for the first time since Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt shared playing time at third base. What the priorities should be this off-season will certainly require what Theo Epstein termed “a thorough examination” during his postmortem press conference. A big question will also be whether the Ricketts Family authorizes blowing through luxury tax limits to go after Manny Machado or Bryce Harper or a bigger contract through trade.
Any scrutiny of what went wrong in 2018 should include the flaws exposed in the front office’s 2017-18 offseason strategy. Not that “blame” cannot be fairly spread among executives, coaching staff, and players, but any deep dive must start with the front office.
Under-prioritizing offensive flaws
After the Dodgers easily flicked the Cubs from the 2017 NLCS, Epstein convincingly spotlighted three offseason priority areas. He needed to replace two-fifths of the starting rotation; overhaul the back-end of the bullpen; and address the inconsistent offense, especially against elite pitching.
On paper, the team addressed the first by signing Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. They also replaced departing Wade Davis and Hector Rondon with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. Ironically, only one of those four pitchers made any second-half contribution, and pitching (second-best overall NL ERA) proved the team’s strongest feature, especially with Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez’s amazing post-trade rebounds.
But Epstein and team did nothing to address the offense, save replacing hitting coaches. Signing Lorenzo Cain for center field and leadoff, and trading a couple surplus young bats for young pitching, would have given them a proven gamer, a base stealer (30 this year), a World Series-tested veteran leader, quality defender, and established hitter against power arms.
Matching or beating the Brewers’ five-year $80 million deal for Cain, would have prioritized improving the offense ahead nailing down Chatwood as fifth starter. Plus, it would have denied the Brewers their second-best offseason acquisition after Christian Yelich. Being denied Cain, the Brewers probably would have been forced to follow a Plan B of outbidding either the Cubs for Darvish or the Phillies for Jake Arrieta. Ah, the hindsight falling dominoes.
Deceptive bullpen depth
Epstein also emphasized the dire need to revamp the bullpen, but then only changed two of eight relievers. However, like a good hype man, he still trumpeted – sometimes angrily – the relief corps’ great depth. Following suit, others even called it the deepest in Cubs history.
But none of that ballyhooed depth deepened the bullpen’s back end. None of the declarative chest-beating made Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Wilson better lights-out options. Thus, neutral observers found it hard to identify any additional relievers beyond Morrow and Cishek Maddon should or would trust with a playoff lead.
Defenders liked to point to the bullpen’s league-low ERA, but this was always a tad deceptive. First, the bullpen’s ERA leaped from 3.09 in the first half to 3.72 in the second half as Morrow stayed on the DL and the weight of an extreme workload caused cracks (the Cubs bullpen finished with the fifth most innings in the NL).
Second, the Iowa Shuttle of relievers way out-performed most reasonable expectations. A group of 10 pitchers made 140 appearances, covering an amazing 24 percent of all regular-season relief innings, with a combined 3.58 ERA. One would have expected a couple of these pitchers to shine in a season, but not for most to be above-average. By comparison, that comparable group in 2017 combined for a 6.61 ERA, which is closer to typical for 4A relievers.
These musical-chair relievers just not sucking lowered the bullpen’s overall ERA and gave a false sense of security on paper that never quite matched the end-of-game product on the field. They certainly did yeomen’s work, but the group did not include a single lights-out back-end option like Bobby Jenks for the 2005 White Sox or David Price for Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Rays. And there the mirage of bullpen depth ended.
One of the great unexplored stretch-run questions was why in September the team did not promote its best relief prospect, Dakota Mekkes. Though Mekkes needs to lower his 4.6 BB/9 rate at Triple A Iowa, his 11.2 K/9 rate and 1.72 ERA seems to indicate everything you’d want in a young back-end bullpen piece. You wonder if the front office prioritized service-time considerations or worried about putting him too soon into Maddon’s over-use clutches.
Undervaluing base stealing
Epstein and Jed Hoyer regularly stated they’d love to get a classic leadoff hitter, but in many ways this was just a luxury. However, in those 40 games in which the 2018 Cubs scored one or no runs, the lack of diversification in the offense became woefully apparent. When the boppers were over-powered or out-finessed, the team lacked additional means to pressure the opposing pitching and defense.
The rebounds of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, as well as Albert Almora Jr. hitting .300 for two-thirds of the season, provided the contact hitters needed to start rallies against power arms. But this wasn’t enough. Likewise, Javier Baez’s electric running stole a couple low-scoring wins for the Cubs, but bad baserunning by the likes of Willson Contreras and others gave away far more outs and scoring threats.
By comparison, three of the other four NL playoff teams ranked in the league’s top five in steals. Milwaukee led the NL, paced by – surprise, surprise – Lorenzo Cain and his 30 steals. When Maddon did pinch run Terrance Gore, the change in dynamics and run-scoring potential was palpable.
Sadly, Gore’s minus-minus bat does not make him a good regular-season option. But the 2018 campaign did prove some of the fallacy of Epstoyer’s “speed leadoff hitter as luxury” theory. If you want to solve some of the mystery of the Cubs’ hot-and-cold offense, look no further than the proven truism “speed doesn’t slump.”
The Tyler Chatwood Experience
If the sabermetrics era needed a humbling, Chatwood’s 2018 threw it a nasty high-spin slurve. Last offseason, the stats community absolutely loved Chatwood. They loved the spin rate. They loved the road splits. They loved Chatwood at sea level. The Cubs even tried to sneak one past the league by including a Cy Young-vote incentive in Chatwood’s contract.
No one seemed to care that the Rockies dropped Chatwood from their rotation for a month in 2017 after his ERA soared over 5.00. Of course, I shrugged at his signing since he was still just a fifth starter. But doesn’t that $38 million contract kind of itch the neck like an Edwin Jackson albatross?
While some were dubious of Chatwood, far fewer were smart enough to single out Miles Mikolas (who CI liked) or Joulys Chacin (who CI really liked) as the true diamonds of the 2017-18 free agent pitching field. And ultimately, that pair notched wins in two of the Cubs’ final three regular season games to deny Chicago a bye to the NLDS. Ah, the roads less traveled.
Backup catching matters
After all the money spent on the starting rotation, the Cubs seemed to have little for a proper backup catcher. This proved very costly as Willson Contreras led the majors in innings caught but faded dramatically after making his first All-Star team.
Going the cheap route with superannuated Chris Gimenez and the defensively choppy Victor Caratini proved bad bets. Even more head-scatching was when Caratini went down to Iowa. You expected him to get everyday reps behind the plate that he couldn’t get backing up Contreras. Instead he got precious few catching starts.
So it seems clear the organization sees no value in investing in Caratini as a long-term backup solution. Thus it’s back to square one to address this important role this offseason.
Of course, wish lists are just that. Few front offices can check off every need exactly as desired. Last winter, Epstein and Hoyer had three priority areas and seemed to address one fully (starting pitching) and another partially (bullpen rebuild). In hindsight, prioritizing a fifth starter over offensive improvements proved their biggest mistake. This was followed by their backup catching approach and choice to not trade at least one young bat for young back-end relief help.
How they learn from that and better identify and prioritize needs this time around could lay the foundation to 2019 playoff success.