Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez. A nucleus that causes issues in preparation for any pitching staff. But the phrase “Core Three” just doesn’t sound right. Something is missing. One more pillar for what should be a scary Chicago Cubs lineup. Another guy capable of putting a team on his back and carrying them to a win, a division championship, a LCS and maybe even beyond. The teams that spent most of 2018 lingering in the hunt to win a World Series in 2018 all have that “Core Four” (and sometimes more).
The American League Champion Boston Red Sox are built around the guy who should win the 2018 MVP in Mookie Betts to go with J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts. The Astros have playoff freak Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. The Yankees trotted out Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez. The Dodgers have Cody Bellinger, Manny Machado, Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig (and could also have had Corey Seager). Finally, the Brewers have the trio of Yelich-Cain-Aguilar and apparently now I guess Orlando Arcia – who the hell saw this postseason performance coming – to round out their core.
The 2018 Cubs were clearly missing one impact player. And for a quarter of the season they were missing runs. Nearly 40 times, the Cubs scored one run or less. How they were able to still be in a position to clinch the NL Central Division and home field advantage through the NLCS in the last week of the season is mind-blowing with that sort of inconsistency.
The Cubs have three guys that have that ability to be the driving force behind the team’s success. Bryant is already a former MVP and Rookie of the Year. Rizzo is a multi-time MVP candidate and the heart and soul of the Cubs. Javy Baez showed in 2018 that he’s more than just an exciting player to watch – he’s a bona fide star both defensively and at the plate. But they just didn’t have that fourth guy to stabilize the lineup day in and day out. That’s where we look to 2019.
Free Agent Candidates
• Bryce Harper – A guy entering MLB free agency in the prime of his career, made possible by entering the Show as a 20-year-old. Loaded with power, an MVP on his resume, a dog named Wrigley, and Scott Boras as his agent, Harper would come at an expensive cost to the Cubs. But it is possible. And being somewhat close with Bryant doesn’t hurt the Cubs’ chances of reeling him in. Being the second potential left-handed hitter in the hypothetical core is also a key to watch for as Joe Maddon loves to alternate bats while building his lineup. Harper washed away his rough first half of 2018 with a much more customary second half, batting .300 with 11 home runs and 48 RBI in just 65 games. Being an OBP machine as well makes Harper a prime fit for the Cubs.
• Manny Machado – Another star entering free agency at an age most guys don’t. A plus defender at third base and capable shortstop, Machado does bring with him a hefty price tag too. I’m a believer the comments about not hustling are being made into a bigger story than is necessary. Nearly all MLB players in an honest moment would admit they don’t hustle 100 percent of the time – it’s a 162-game season spanning six months. Let’s be real here, Machado just announced it to the world, that’s all.
We tear apart athletes for not being honest but then when they are, they get torn apart for that too. And frankly, I can overlook it because the guy is an absolute offensive machine. Poised for a monster contract that could closely mirror Harper’s, signing Machado could cause a domino effect to the Cubs possibly moving Baez back to second base or Kris Bryant to left field. Neither move would be a detriment to the makeup of the team and the overall team defense wouldn’t suffer. Machado adds that wrinkle of positional versatility that the Cubs heavily value.
• A.J. Pollock – A threat on the base paths in addition to being dangerous at the plate, Pollock looked like an early MVP candidate in 2018. Then he did what he always does. He dove for a catch in center field and broke his thumb. Pollock has superstar talent but his body has done nothing to allow him to harness it. He’s missed 40 games each of the last two seasons and missed nearly all of 2016.
In order to bring him in, a team would need depth in the outfield – one thing the Cubs have currently have aplenty. However, the Cubs could use a guy to stabilize the position when healthy. Pollock could do that especially with Ian Happ and Albert Almora available to spell him when he is inevitably on the shelf. Pollock would come cheaper than Harper and Machado, but he will also be targeted by a slew of other teams. A good runner on the base paths, a solid hitter and good defender, Pollock has always been a guy brimming with five-tool talent. But the body has not held up for a majority of his career.
The In-house Candidates
• Kyle Schwarber – The guy most Cubs fans and probably even the Cubs organization would like to finalize their core would have to be Kyle Schwarber. The most fiscally responsible option as he’s home grown and currently still under team control through 2021. Schwarber has as much raw power as any hitter in the league, and in stretches, has been a star in his own right. When he’s locked in at the plate, his hands explode to the ball and he hits absolute tanks.
The lack of consistency and avoiding long drawn out offensive droughts has been what has held Schwarber back from being a guy taking that next step. He’s become, at the very least, an adequate left fielder, but if he can’t consistently crack the lineup against lefties, he can’t be relied upon day in and day out. It’s likely he is one of the guys Theo Epstein was talking about when he addressed production versus potential in assessing the roster during his end-of-the-year address. In the event the Cubs address this need via free agency, it’s likely Schwarber is a candidate to be traded for help elsewhere on the roster.
• Willson Contreras – The other in-house talent, Contreras was a guy many thought could be a dark-horse candidate for NL MVP in 2018 coming of a torrid second half of 2017. That never materialized. Contreras has more much more power than he showed in 2018. Everyone expected much more than 10 home runs from a guy who spent a chunk of the season in the heart of the Cubs’ lineup. Still only 26 years old, Contreras does have some value defensively but still needs to develop his skills as a signal caller behind the plate. A fiery competitor who clearly wants to be great, Contreras has the skills to be that missing piece but also the same issues that plague Schwarber – consistency has been missing.
He’s a great athlete and an aggressive runner, often times to his detriment when paired with his too frequent poor decision-making. Being a catcher, Contreras is tasked with more than just being a hitter, but he has the skills to be one of the best in all of baseball. It’s time to see that through. He can be an MVP but if he has another season like 2018, he may be finding a new home in 2020. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein need to figure out how to maximize those skills day in and day out.
This is not to diminish the need for other pieces in a lineup. Each of the teams I mentioned have other parts that vault them into contender status. Some, like the Red Sox, are also loaded with starting pitching and a solid bullpen. The Yankees have other potential stars in Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. The Astros and Cubs are made up of champions who know how to win in October. But all of the contenders have that contingent of guys to lean on in their lineups everyday and even more so into October.
Whether it means spending more of the Ricketts’ family money or having your own guys take the next step, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon have to find that extra piece. Otherwise the Cubs will spend another year falling short of a second World Series ring.
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