Since the additions at the trade deadline, the Cubs offensive lineup has looked as good as any team in baseball. While they did have two games against the Reds where they scored three runs total, metrics still say the Cubs have performed as well as any lineup the last two weeks, and there’s a reason for that: Nicholas Castellanos and Ian Happ. Below shows various statistics since the deadline, along with their rank in the National League, which prove that notion.
For those who do not know, ~.750 and 100 is the league average for OPS and wRC+. While OPS is a simple addition of on base percentage and slugging percentage, wRC+ provides a better picture of how a team is performing offensively by utilizing external factors and eliminating randomness to show how sustainable the offensive production will be as the season progresses. The Cubs sitting atop the National League in both categories shows how dominant the lineup has been top to bottom. In addition, the Cubs have not had All-Star catcher Willson Contreras for eight of those eleven games since the deadline. Before his injury, one could argue he was the best bat in the lineup. With how well the offense is performing recently, adding Contreras arguably makes the Cubs the most dangerous lineup in the NL.
Speaking of the acquisitions at the deadline, trading for Nicholas Castellanos and calling up Ian Happ has provided an energy boost to an already talented offensive team while simultaneously fixing some of the club’s biggest weaknesses. The Cubs were in dire need of another bat at the top of the lineup who can drive the ball from gap to gap. Castellanos provides exactly that. The Cubs were also desperate for more production at second base, and Happ has been pivotal to fix that weakness. Robel Garcia was a temporary solution, but opposing teams started to expose his weaknesses at the plate and Happ’s arrival came at the perfect time. Castellanos and Happ already have a WAR of 0.6 and 0.7, which is remarkable given how recently they joined the Cubs. Both of them have essentially eliminated the Cubs weaknesses in the lineup, as it constantly felt like the Cubs were one or two bats short before the trade deadline. It’s amazing how many more runs a team can score without two automatic outs at the bottom of the order, not including the pitcher. And before Castellanos and Happ’s arrival, that’s what the bottom of the order felt like at times.
Like I said, the Cubs were already very talented offensively before the arrival of Castellanos and Happ; they just needed some more depth to round out the lineup from top to bottom. Jason Heyward is having his best offensive season since 2012. While he’s not a perfect leadoff hitter, he’s the best equipped to man that spot of the order down. The Cubs have had to do a lot of searching for that leadoff spot and it appears they have found a solution in Heyward. As stated earlier, Castellanos will hit second in the order for the foreseeable future. As a Cub, he has a wRC+ of 196, indicating he’s hitting 96% above league average. That is astounding. To put it in perspective, Mike Trout has the highest season wRC+ in baseball at 185. As a Cub, Castellanos has outperformed Trout by 11% (Source: FanGraphs).
Moving forward with the lineup, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are quietly dominating this year and are perfect hitting third and cleanup. Bryant has a .923 OPS, which is 13th best in the National League. He’s been in a little bit of a slump the past few weeks since tweaking his knee in San Francisco, but hopefully his clutch go-ahead three-run home run against the Reds on Sunday helps him get back on track. Moving to cleanup, Rizzo is mister consistency, as it seems he has an OPS right around .900 every single year, and this season is no exception. Next, Javier Baez is at his best when batting fifth. It gives him an opportunity with runners on base to do what he does best: slug. He leads the team in RBI’s and home runs, so this role is perfect given his skillset. He rarely walks, but he’s the best bad ball hitter I’ve seen since Vladimir Guerrero. This type of approach works for him, so it is in the Cubs’ best interest to let him be himself and swing away relentlessly.
When Willson Contreras comes back healthy, I assume he will hit sixth in the order behind Baez. He was in a little bit of a slump before his injury, which was probably more of a byproduct of fatigue. It is not ideal to have one of your best bats as a catcher, as they need constant rest because they are worn down over the course of the year behind the plate. I have been advocating for Contreras to play more outfield to keep him fresh, but it does not look like that will happen this year. The Cubs have arguably the best backup catcher in baseball in Victor Caratini, so they need to utilize this asset and rest Contreras often when he comes back so he is healthy for the potential of October baseball. A healthy and fully rested Contreras batting sixth makes this lineup as dangerous as any in baseball. Next, if Happ continues to hit the way he has since he was called up, there is no reason why he shouldn’t start every day and hit seventh in the order. Not only does Happ work deep counts and walk at a high rate, but he also has some of the best pure power on the team. Happ hit a broken-bat home run last Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds, shown below:
It’s rare to see a broken-bat home run, and there are not many players in baseball that can do that, which is a testament to Happ’s raw power. Also, Happ has the highest walk rate on the team at 13%, which is the main reason I would slot him right ahead of Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber has been raking since the All-Star break with a .989 OPS and 148 wRC+, according to FanGraphs. He is starting to look like what the Cubs envisioned he would be: a guy who works deep counts, walks a lot, and scolds the ball whenever the pitcher makes a mistake. It looks like he will start every day against righties and sit against lefties, however. Joe Maddon has been starting Albert Almora in place of Scwharber against lefties, but I would rather see Tony Kemp. Kemp could start at second base, then you could start Happ in center field. That would allow Heyward to play his elite defensive position, right field. Almora has proven constantly this season that he is not a starting center fielder, and while Tony Kemp hasn’t been lighting up the box score since his arrival to Chicago, he deserves more of an opportunity.
That rounds out the “best nine” that would appear each game whether it be against a righty or lefty. Obviously, these players will receive days off, which is where Caratini, Kemp, Almora, David Bote, and Ben Zobrist will receive occasional starts. Being a depth piece is perfect given these four player’s abilities and Zobrist not playing professional baseball for so long. What got the Cubs into trouble the first half of the season was having those types of depth pieces starting every day, which rendered the bottom of the Cubs order well below league average. The Cubs’ depth has gotten exponentially better since the trade deadline, and having those guys available off the bench is crucial for pinch-hit opportunities in tight games.
After taking a step back and looking at the one through eight batters in the Cubs lineup when playing their best nine, I honestly believe it is better than the 2016 lineup that won a World Series. There is really no weakness with that lineup, especially against righties with Schwarber starting. With Contreras returning in a few weeks, it's shaping up to be one of the best lineups in baseball if everyone is healthy. With this said, Joe Maddon needs to continue playing the best nine on a daily basis. There will be occasional days off, but Maddon cannot go back to platooning multiple positions like he did in the first half of the season. They have to put their foot on the gas pedal and do their best to run away with the division and build a comfortable lead heading into the final couple weeks of the season. The last thing the Cubs want to do is have the Brewers and the Cardinals, and even the Reds, be within striking distance with a few weeks left. We all know what happened last year when the Cubs relinquished the division in the final week of the season, and it cannot happen this year. The Cubs have the talent to win this division by eight games, so it's about time they prove that.
Featured Photo: USA Today