It has now been a little more than four weeks since the Chicago Cubs dropped a 13-inning thriller to the Colorado Rockies, capping a 95-win season for the North Siders in wild-card defeat. For the first time since Joe Maddon took over the managerial duties prior to the 2015 season, the Cubs failed to advance to the NLCS, despite winning 90-plus games for the fourth straight year.
Perhaps also a first since Maddon took the job in Chicago, the Cubs suffered from a multitude of under-performance by many of the same players that brought the city its first World Series title in better than 100 years. Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ MVP during that magical run two years ago, was perhaps the biggest disappointment for an offense that went cold down the stretch. While injuries are rarely a players’ fault, Bryant’s shoulder issues in 2018 went a long way in determining the fate of the club. Multiple DL stints limited the former All-Star to 102 games (a career low) while his injury sapped his power (13 home runs, .460 slugging percentage and .834 OPS – all career lows).
The Cubs’ downfall in 2018 cannot be entirely traced back in Bryant’s injury. During the second half of play, when the Cubs failed to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers despite having a multi-game lead in mid-August, eight Chicago hitters logged a batting average south of .250 (minimum 50 plate appearances). Of those eight, three hit less than .200, while only five Cubs players recorded a wRC-plus above league average (100).
Names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Jason Heyward all posted wRC-plus’s in the 80’s while Schwarber amassed the best slugging percentage of that group in the second half at .417 (Happ – .340, Heyward – .337).
All told, the Cubs finished the 2018 season by slugging .389 as a team in the second half, the 27th lowest mark in the majors. Additionally, the Cubs slipped to 17th in OBP (.316) and 24th in wRC-plus (89) while rising to first in team ground ball percentage (48.6 percent) post-All-Star break.
Where is the Focus This Winter?
The extreme lackluster effort by the Cubs’ offense was summarized in the final two games of the year. In back-to-back losses, the Cubs were a combined 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, leaving a total of 13 men on base while collecting just nine hits versus 24 strikeouts in 22 innings of play. Those performances produced just two runs and prompted Theo Epstein to suggest the Cubs’ offense “broke” down the stretch.
With the numbers provided above, it’s easy to see where that feeling comes from. Additionally, the numbers also make it very clear something needs to be done about this offensive group moving forward. That is not to say the pitching staff did not have their struggles in 2018. However, with Tyler Chatwood‘s ineffectiveness and the slew of injuries, both to the starting rotation and bullpen, the Cubs’ staff continued to perform at a high level, turning in the third best ERA (3.65) in the majors.
Under the direction of Jim Hickey, the Cubs’ newly appointed pitching coach and long-time Joe Maddon underling, that pitching staff is largely responsible for keeping the club competitive during the second half of play. As touched on above, the offense struggled mightily post-All-Star break, making the decision to fire hitting coach Chili Davis at season’s end an easy one.
The firing of Davis and the departure of assistant hitting coach Andy Haines for the rival Brewers will give the Cubs’ offense a brand new set of ideas (or maybe not so much), led by Anthony Iapoce, the former special assistant to Jed Hoyer from 2013-2015. By hiring Iapoce, the Cubs are attempting to rectify the firing of former hitting coach John Mallee, who served on the 2016 World Series club.
Theo: “In bringing back Anthony Iapoce we’re trying to return a bit to our roots, to our core.”
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) November 6, 2018
As strange as the Mallee firing seemed at the end of the 2017 season, letting Davis go after a lackluster effort in 2018 did not come as a huge shock, especially after reports surfaced suggesting the veteran coach had problems connecting with certain players in the clubhouse. That is certainly not good news for the state of said clubhouse as Davis was touted as one of the best for the job, one reason the break with Mallee occurred in the first place.
Also dubbed one of the best in the business, Hickey sports a long track record, including ten seasons as the Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching coach, where he and Maddon interacted on a daily basis. When the veteran coach became available, the Cubs, much like they did with Davis, jumped at the opportunity to add an established coach to their staff. With his connection to Maddon, Hickey looked like the perfect fit, and with his pitching staff’s performance in 2018, it seemed likely that fit would continue at least another season.
However, success does not always bread job security and it looks like Hickey is soon to find that out. As it has been reported by a handful of outlets, Hickey is soon to be on his way out in Chicago, another victim of the second round of coaching purges on the North Side in as many years.
The presumed firing of Jim Hickey gives fans an idea as to what the front office is thinking this off-season. Early on, in his end-of-season press conference, Theo Epstein talked about a broken offense, one where production would supersede talent and expectation moving forward.
However, in recent days, Epstein and the entire front office have changed their tone as reports of financial constrains have emerged. Already projected to blow past the first luxury tax tier, the Cubs seem to be fading from the Bryce Harper sweepstakes despite the youngster’s offensive capability presenting their best shot at fixing a, to use Epstein’s own words, “broken” offense.
Theo says 2019 is big year for where team goes next/competitive window (for him, mgr player core): "I think we’re really talented. … It’s time to produce or else there’s a chance for significant change for the group. So that’s really where our focus is. … It’s a pivotal year."
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubCub) November 6, 2018
Following Theo’s comments a month ago, many people believed 2018 was the pivotal year for the Cubs and more importantly, their young core. A down 2017 contributed to a World Series hangover was put to rest by a run to the NLCS for the third straight year. However, the success of past Cub teams, even if the majority of the roster has remained unchanged since 2016, will not win ball games in 2019 and beyond or keep a fan base happy that expects greatness from its players.
After so many years of bottoming-feeding in the National League Central, one would think Cubs fans had gotten use to questionable moves by the front office, ones that jeopardized the future of the franchise. Now, with great deal after great deal in his back pocket, Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs’ front office seem to be dropping the ball.
Harper is a generational talent, one the Cubs need to perk-up their stale offense of top-tier draft picks yet to make their mark at the big league stage. Instead of focusing on signing Harper or clearing salary for the youngster (dumping Chatwood, non-tendering Addison Russell instead of suggesting his return, etc…), the Cubs’ front office is more focused on making coaching changes and looking for players that will likely only have a marginal impact on this club moving forward.
Perhaps this is a spoiled Cubs fan talking, but for the last handful of years, we have relied on this front office to do the right thing, and they have not let us down. As the 2018-2019 off-season progresses, however, I cannot shake the feeling that this winter will be the one where all of that catches up to us. That feeling starts with the potential firing of Jim Hickey and progresses through the so-called financial restrictions and unwillingness to spend big for Bryce Harper and ends somewhere around the possibility that Addison Russell could still be a member of the Cubs in 2019.
None of these moves, or lack thereof, make any sense or track with what fans have been told and seen over the last handful of months and years. There is still time for me to be proven wrong, but right now it looks like this could be a long winter for Cubs fans, one that results in essentially the same roster configuration as 2018 and the same result, failure. Here’s to hoping I am wrong.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Work In Sports