Betts, Benintendi, Ramirez (Hanley) and Martinez, that is the top four hitters in the lineup fielded most often by the World Series Championship Boston Red Sox during the 2018 regular season. At the top, Mookie Betts slashed .346/.438/.640/1.078, winning American League MVP honors along the way.
Slotted behind him, Andrew Benintendi posted a 123 OPS-plus, a more than 60 point decrease from Betts’ production, but still 23 percent above league average, helping to counter-act Hanley Ramirez‘s sub-par performance at the plate in 2018. Cleaning up and batting fourth for the power-house Sox last season was J.D. Martinez, the power-hitting slugger that signed a five-year contract with the club prior to the 2018 campaign.
Martinez rewarded his boss’s near $110 million investment by slashing .330/.402/.629/1.031 during the regular season, appearing in an All-Star Game, winning two Sliver Slugger awards and finishing three spots behind his teammate in the MVP voting.
These four names made up what was perhaps the best one-through-four combination in the game of baseball last season, helping to drive a Boston offense that scored 876 runs, the most in the majors.
The Cubs Could Have a Similar Group in 2019
If, for a second, you thought you had clicked on a Red Sox article by mistake, I promise that is not the case. Instead, I first wanted to paint a picture of what acquiring the best offensive player available on the free agent market can do, and how it can transform a lineup.
Last season, the Red Sox inked Martinez to a hefty contract, knowing he could be the centerpiece for what they hoped, at the time, would be a World Series-capable team. Not only did Martinez help the Red Sox win the World Series in 2018, but now the club is primed to make at least two more runs at a championship before Betts becomes a free agent.
This off-season, there are two players with the offensive capability of Martinez available on the free agent market: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. In no need for another middle infielder, Harper makes the most sense for a Cubs team that desperately needs a shot in the arm after a lackluster second half last season.
I recently broke down a trade that could make it possible for the Cubs to free up enough money to land the super-star 26-year-old. Clearing the remaining $106 million from Jason Heyward‘s contract would be a major first step in the Cubs’ ability to rival what the Red Sox have in Boston.
There is little doubt the Cubs have one of the best young cores in baseball, despite their less-than-stellar play across the board in 2018. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber form the foundation of a solid lineup, one that has seen the postseason four years in a row, winning the World Series in 2016.
In order to run that streak to five straight seasons, the Cubs’ front office will likely have to take action, instead of sitting back as their division continues to grow stronger. One way to quickly upgrade the roster would be replacing Heyward with Harper in right-field, a move that would lump together two former MVP’s in the same lineup.
At the top of their order featuring Harper, the Cubs would likely slide Ben Zobrist into that role, at least for 2019. Zobrist, a switch-hitter, fulfilled that role in 27 games for the Cubs last season, posting a solidly above average year offensively in the process at the age of 37. Entering the final year of his contract in 2019, it’s likely Zobrist will be relegated to part-time play, an effort to maximize his strengths. With the uncertain situation surrounding Addison Russell, Zobrist will seemingly be the Cubs’ Opening Day second baseman, moving Baez to shortstop.
As mentioned above, Zobrist is nothing more than a part-time player at the this stage in his career, no matter what the numbers suggest. In 2018, Zobrist appeared in 139 games, about 16 games more than his career average. Next season, it would not surprise me if Zobrist played in as little as 120 games, barring injury, with Joe Maddon working to get the veteran the best possible match-ups.
For that reason, fans will likely see a slew of players in the lead-off spot in 2019, a practice patented by Maddon over the last handful of years. Last season, 10 different players appeared in the lead-off role for at least one game, one of those being Baez (four games).
Baez was solid in his short stint atop the lineup, averaging .278 with five hits, two of which were triples, helping the Cubs go 3-1 in the games he led-off. However, it was further down in the lineup where Baez really produced, splitting time between the two-through-four-holes in the order, racking up 34 home runs and 111 RBI along the way to a second place finish in the NL MVP voting.
2018 was by far Baez’s best year as he amassed 28 offensive runs above average (Off) according to fangraphs, more than 10 times higher than the mark he posted in 2017, his previous career high in the category.
There is little doubt just how good Baez was in 2018 as his instincts for the game of baseball can not be quantified with numbers. What can be quantified with numbers is just how good the Cubs’ two-through-four hitters can be if Harper comes to the north side of town this off-season.
Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, suffered a season plagued with injury in 2018 that limited him to just 102 games and forced him onto the DL for the first time in his big league career. Lingering shoulder issues sapped Bryant’s power-hitting ability for large portions of the season, a skill that has allowed the 26-year-old to hit 107 home runs in his career, including 39 in his MVP season.
Despite a year in which his strikeout rate increased (23.4 percent), his walk rate decreased (10.5 percent) and his ISO hit a new career low (.188), Bryant still managed a 2.3 WAR and 13.6 offensive runs above average.
The newly hitched Anthony Rizzo also experienced a down season in 2018. His, however, did not transpire due to injury but rather a slow start that saw the slugger hitting just .149 at the end of April. Luckily for Rizzo and the Cubs, the veteran first baseman figured things out as he finished 2018 with a batting average 10 points higher than the .273 mark he posted in 2017. With decreased power numbers however (.187 ISO, .470 slugging percentage), Rizzo missed the 30 home run plateau for the first time since 2013. Still managing to drive in 101 runs, Rizzo neared a three-win season, posting a 2.9 WAR and 14.9 offensive runs above average last season.
Perhaps sticking with the mantra of a ‘down season,’ Harper was just a 3.5-win player in 2018, marking just the third time in his career he dipped below four wins. Much of the talk surrounding Harper’s ‘down’ season revolves around his lackluster .249 batting average, a mark compiled, in part, due to his lofty 24.3 percent strikeout rate last season. It also doesn’t help things that Harper hit .319 in 2017 and neared five-wins.
Moving past the batting average, Harper posted well above average numbers with his .393 OBP, .496 slugging percentage and .247 ISO, which culminated in 34 home runs and 100 RBI, the latter of which was a career best for the youngster.
It’s easy to look at Harper’s statistics and say he suffered a down season in 2018, at least in context to the numbers he has posted in the past. However, Harper was still way better than league average as his 135 wRC-plus and 29.9 offensive runs above average suggests.
If you have been keeping up, which I hope you have, the four players listed at length above (Baez, Bryant, Rizzo and Harper) compiled 86.4 offensive runs above average in 2018. While that’s still 54.9 runs behind the top three producers in the Red Sox’ order last season (Betts, Martinez and Benintendi), that’s not a bad group of players to assemble within a lineup.
Also, consider Rizzo and Bryant each had one of the worst seasons of their careers in 2018 and it becomes clear there is much more production available when those two produce like they have in the past.
A look at the Steamer projections for 2019 confirms last season was just a down year for the Cubs’ biggest sluggers, and suggests Bryant will have a monster come-back. In fact, Bryant is projected to post the highest WAR in the National League, a 5.8 mark that would make him a prime candidate for another MVP award. His .503 slugging percentage and .885 OPS would be a welcomed sight after fans watched him struggle through an injury shortened 2018 campaign.
With a slugging percentage back up over .500, Bryant is projected to hit 29 home runs and best that mark with 33 doubles. That offensive production would give Bryant a wRC-plus of 138 in 2019, one of the highest marks in the National League, but not the highest on his own team.
That distinction would belong to Rizzo who is projected to amass a 139 wRC-plus, a number that would tie for the second best mark in the National League as things stand right now. Rizzo’s .385 OBP and .510 slugging percentage is slated to produce an OPS 10 points greater than Bryant’s despite his projected WAR being 1.5 wins lower than the third baseman’s in 2019.
Still looming this off-season is where Harper will sign. I have made the case for the Cubs signing the generational talent and it’s firmly my belief Chicago will at least take a run at the former MVP. Looking at Harper’s projected offensive contribution for 2019 makes me want him even more, as it no doubt makes every fan wish their team would sign the youngster.
Following a season in which he hit 34 home runs, Harper is projected to best that mark in 2019 with 35 long balls, even if that means dropping his RBI total back below 100 (93). After logging a walk rate north of 18 percent in 2018 and building a robust career average of 14.8 percent, Harper is slated to continue drawing walks at a high clip, 17.5 percent in 2019, totaling 111 free passes, the third most in the majors. That number helps to drive his .399 OBP and .926 OPS when paired with his projected .528 slugging percentage.
Those lofty numbers all rank near the top of the majors with his projected wRC-plus of 148 trailing only Mike Trout‘s insane 180 mark for the upcoming season.
All told, the combination of Harper, Rizzo, Bryant and Baez is projected to produce 109.6 offensive runs above average in 2019, a number that rivals the mark posted by the Red Sox’ best hitters last season (141.3), and one that is 23.2 runs better than the figure posted by the same group of players in ’18.
For perspective, the trio of Betts, Benintendi and Martinez are slated to produce 92.4 offensive runs above average in ’19, eight less than the trio of Harper, Rizzo and Bryant (100.4).
Even without Harper added to the mix, the Cubs are primed to field a very solid lineup in 2019. With a bounce back season from Bryant, increased production from Rizzo and improved offensive contributions from the likes of Schwarber and Willson Contreras, the Cubs should have no problems in the batter’s box next year.
With that being said, look at a possible lineup with Harper batting third and tell me you wouldn’t want that at Wrigley Field in 2019.
That is a very scary lineup, especially one-through-four as I have attempted to show above.
Off-seasons are very fluid with anything and everything likely to happen. For the Cubs, fixing a ‘broken’ offense requires one step in my mind. Follow in the Red Sox’ foot-steps of a year ago and sign the best hitter on the market, Bryce Harper, and watch as he leads you to a World Series Championship.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Federal Baseball