Assessing Cubs Free-Agent Needs
Jed Hoyer must fix a few key issues that have plagued the Cubs in recent seasons if the organization has division title aspirations in 2021.
There’s been a multitude of rumors flying around Chicago Cubs brass this offseason. Between Theo Epstein stepping down prematurely, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant’s trade rumors, and Kyle Schwarber’s non-tender, many fans are expecting a heavy rebuild this winter. Yet another set of Cubs fans are adamant a rebuild will not happen. Instead, they point to a “retool”. I tend to side with the latter, as I believe Jed Hoyer would be foolish to tear down the core of Cubs players that has made the postseason five of the past six seasons, and I explain why here.
Jed Hoyer has to Target Starting Pitching Depth
So, if the Cubs endeavor to field a competitive team with division title aspirations, where is improvement necessary? Well, there are multiple areas. First, they need to sign at least two starting pitchers. The 2021 starting rotation only has four names right now: Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, and Adbert Alzolay. I already wrote about why Jed Hoyer should bring back Tyler Chatwood, but that wouldn’t be enough.
Expect the Cubs to acquire another pitcher who, by injury or performance, had a down 2020 season relative to career averages. Cheap, high-upside arms are exactly how I expect the Chicago Cubs to attack the starting pitching free-agent market. Buying low keeps costs down and allows Jed Hoyer to spend more freely elsewhere. With the starting rotation as the strength heading into 2021, there’s no need to spend heavily in this area given the organization’s desire to cut payroll again. They have too many issues offensively.
Striking Out is only Part of the Problem
The offensive issues that have plagued the Cubs the past two seasons are much more complicated than simply “striking out too much”. Cubs media falls back on this narrative when assessing the lineup’s struggles, but it’s really a lazy way to put it. There are more compelling reasons, and I dissect those reasons below.
The Cubs’ Approach at the Plate is Flawed
For starters, there’s been a fundamental flaw to the Cubs’ plate approach the last two seasons, and FanGraphs’ plate discipline metrics shed light on these flaws. During 2019 and 2020, the Chicago Cubs saw the fewest strikes in MLB, as they were dead last in Zone%. Now, that would not be a problem if the Cubs weren’t swinging at these pitches outside of the strike zone. But that is not the case. During this two-year timeframe, the Cubs were 12th highest in O-Swing%, a metric evaluating how often a team swings at pitches outside the strike zone, and 22nd in Z-Swing%, a metric evaluating how often a team swings at pitches inside the strike zone.
To put these sabermetrics into perspective, the Cubs have been swinging at a disproportionately high number of pitches outside of the zone compared to inside the zone. Have you ever felt like the “patience” at the plate the last couple of seasons has been forced? Well, it has. The Cubs aren’t swinging at the few strikes they’re thrown. Then, they’re forced to chase pitches out of the zone once they’re in an unfavorable count. The whole point of exhibiting patience at the plate is to wait for a pitch you can drive. The Cubs have done the exact opposite and it’s resulted in the demise of a once lethal lineup. Jed Hoyer needs to fix this issue this winter if the Cubs are to have offensive success in 2021 and beyond.
Too Many Groundballs and Not Enough Contact
Not only have the Chicago Cubs exhibited plate discipline shortcomings, but they also have a launch angle issue as well. During the last two seasons, the Cubs have MLB’s fourth-highest groundball rate, third-lowest line drive rate, and fifth-lowest fly ball rate. This is a fact that eludes Cubs media, as “swinging for the fences” has been pegged as this lineup’s kryptonite when in reality, the inability to consistently drive the ball into the air has been the issue.
To make matters worse, the Cubs have the second-lowest contact rate and sixth-lowest HardHit% the last two seasons. So, Cubs hitters not only struggle to make contact, they struggle to square the ball up. And when they actually do hit the ball hard by MLB’s standards, they’re beating the ball into the ground rather than driving the ball into the air. That fact pattern is a disaster.
Launch angle is not a fad. It’s going nowhere. There’s a reason every single ballclub in MLB prioritizes it: because it is undoubtedly more efficient. Theo Epstein has even said this himself. The Cubs got away from this mindset the last two seasons for unknown reasons. They have to get back to consistently driving the ball hard and into the air. It’s the most optimal path toward offensive success.
Lineup Diversification Should be the Cubs’ Top Priority
In light of all these offensive issues, Jed Hoyer’s top priority this winter should be targeting free agents that not only exhibit better plate discipline habits but consistently put the ball in play and drive the ball into the air. A high contact rate that continually beats the ball into the ground will do nothing to fix this team’s offensive struggles. It would only exasperate them.
Michael Brantley and Eddie Rosario are two corner outfielders who fit that hitter profile quite well. They’re far from great hitters, but they do things the Chicago Cubs have been unable to do for quite some time. Injecting the lineup with different skillsets would also have positive effects on the pure sluggers the Cubs already have. It would require opposing pitchers to adjust their gameplan on a hitter-by-hitter basis, which leads to mistakes.
Lack of lineup diversification has made the Cubs too easy to gameplan against. It’s why we’ve seen this Cubs offense “break” down the stretch the last three seasons. You can’t have an entire lineup with identical strengths and weaknesses. Jed Hoyer has to fix that this offseason.