We can make much about where and how the Cubs are going to improve through free agency. We've also talked about the farm system and it's potential impact. More than likely neither of those things will happen on a grand scale in 2014, but I think we could see some improvement in some key areas that doesn't necessarily involve the signing of major free agents or bold, risky trades.
We noted on several occasions that the Cubs may not have been as bad as their record indicated. This wasn't a team that was getting blown out in game after game. They weren't the Astros, the Twins, or even the Phillies. They were in a lot of games last season. The run differential numbers at the deadline were that of a .500 team and their Pythagorean record last year was 71-91 at years end, 5 games better than their actual record (and the previous year's Phythagorean record) despite the big sell off at the deadline. So there was some improvement, even if you have to squint to find it sometimes.
For those unfamiliar, the Pythagorean record was developed by Bill James and is an estimate of a team's winning percentage given their runs scored and runs allowed.
That's all well and good but there is one fundamental component missing in James' formula: the sequencing of those events. That is, it matters when those runs are scored and when those runs are allowed. Thus, there is an element of luck involved. That's the part the Cubs can't control. You could also chalk some of that up to game management, which is something the Cubs can improve to some degree. They can change how they play the game, but they also need to improve in a few areas to make better game management possible and to find ways to create their own luck.
They don't even have to go crazy and spend a ton of money. This is how I would attempt to improve the Cubs without necessarily making a major signing or trade...
Yeah, I know RBIs aren't predictive and are largely based on things a player can't control. And yes, clutch hitting is largely a myth. But that doesn't mean you can't control the situations you are in a little better. The Cubs sometimes fall victim to what I call the Corey Patterson syndrome. It doesn't matter what the situation is -- swing away and swing hard. You mean there is a man on third, one out, and the team is down by one late in the game? Why by all means, take your biggest hacks early and often! Don't wait for a pitch you can lift into the air for a possible sac fly. And heaven forbid you take a walk if you don't get that pitch to hit and let the next guy take his shot.
If you don't think those two little things are important, then take a look at sacrifice flies and teams around the league. Of the 11 teams that ranked at the top in sac flies, 8 of them made the playoffs and one, the Orioles, won 85 games and were in the hunt. Six of the top 7 teams with the most walks with men on base were in the playoffs. That is something I honestly would not have guessed, though as pointed out by mjvz, both are intertwined with getting on base in the first place.
I don't mean to say specifically that the answer is the Cubs should focus on sac flies and walks. It is meant more symbolically. You don't have to be a hero every time you step up to the plate.
This is where both the front office and managing/coaching come into play. Rick Renteria and his instructional abilities will be put to the test, as will that of the new hitting coach, whomever that ends up being. It's the front office's job to get those disciplined hitters with intelligent approaches. It is the coaching staff's job to work to each hitter's strengths to try and do the right things in any given situation. Not every player is going to handle the same situation the same way. I'm going to take two long shot roster candidates to illustrate what I mean. If Brett Jackson is up to bat, I'm making sure he only swings at good pitches while I may have a bit more leeway with a player who can make consistent contact and put the ball in play, such as Josh Vitters.
The Cubs ranked last in hitting and OBP with runners on base. They slugged fairly well but finished 25th in slugging with runners on last year even though they were right in the middle of the pack at 17 with runners empty. Part of that is bad luck, part of it is the need to get better and/or more experienced players, and part of is just bad situational hitting. The Cubs just help the pitchers out all to often and get themselves out with the game on the line.
I'm not saying they need to develop some sort of magical, mythical clutch hitting ability. I'm only saying to be better prepared in those situations and go up to the plate with a better approach in given situations. You can't control what will happen, but you can at least give yourself a better chance to succeed.
Perhaps the best way to put it is this: One way or the other the Cubs need hitters with good approaches . They need guys who swing at good pitches in all situations and hitters who can take the ball where it's pitched when necessary. The Cubs are teaching that in the minors now, but perhaps they can find affordable players with some of those abilities on the open market.
That's all I ask. Easier said than done, right?
As we alluded to above, the Cubs actually hit for some power last year, finishing 2nd in the NL in HRs, 3rd in doubles, first in extra base hits, and first in ISO. I'm not that worried about that part of the Cubs lineup, though I do think they need to replace Alfonso Soriano's power somehow. What's more important, however, is that the Cubs actually get people on base to drive home. They ranked 2nd to last in the NL and 28th in all of baseball in OBP.
As we noted above, the Cubs need to hit better situationally but to put it simply, if they can also combine it with getting more people on base to begin with, then they will have even more favorable situations in which to hit. That alone will be an improvement because you will score more runs simply by giving yourself more opportunities -- but if you can do both, that is, increase the number of those opportunities AND take better advantage of them , then you will score a lot more runs.
It's not rocket science.
The problem is getting OBP, as it is not the market inefficiency it once was. The Cubs will have to improve internally and take some flyers on players who have shown good plate discipline in the past and hope they can hit enough to make it matter. The Cubs recently took a flyer on former A's prospect Aaron Cunningham and maybe there is still hope for internal candidates such as Brett Jackson, Mike Olt, and Logan Watkins, all of whom have shown solid approaches but need to improve their bat to ball skills. Here are some more of those possibly available players:
- Logan Morrison
- Nate McLouth
- Scott Sizemore
- Drew Stubbs
- David Murphy
- Daniel Murphy
- Travis Snider
The Cubs are slow. There is just no way around that. Their base stealing rate was just 66%, which is counterproductive and actually costs them runs. They also ranked 22nd in Fangraphs' UBR (ultimate base running) metric. I'm not saying the Cubs have to be the 1982 Cardinals, but smaller market playoff teams like the Rays, Athletics, Pirates, and Cardinals all ranked in the top 10 in the UBR category. It's a market inefficiency that they can exploit until the day (year) they find the right player(s) and situation in which to spend big.
Speed can be yet an additional boost to the the offense by complementing the previous two areas of OBP and situational hitting by taking that much needed extra base which could sometimes mean the difference between a run and yet another runner left on base.
Here are some good baserunners who could be available:
- Daniel Murphy
- Drew Stubbs
- Nate McLouth
- Denard Span
Part of the runs allowed factor depends on the defense behind the pitching staff. The Cubs have done a remarkable job improving this area and actually ranked 6th in all of baseball in UZR/150, an advanced metric that encompasses all aspects of defense. But one place they can improve is the OF, where they ranked 17th. Specifically, I'd like to see the Cubs add some range in CF to take the pressure off of Nate Schierholtz and move Ryan Sweeney to a corner, where he can be a well above average defender, though he showed he can play a solid CF as well if the Cubs instead pick up a corner OF'er.
Possible OF value additions:
- Denard Span
- Drew Stubbs
- David Murphy
- Franklin Gutierrez
- Chris Young
- Nate McLouth (LF)
Nothing symbolizes bad sequencing in terms of when you allow runs than those allowed by the bullpen. The Cubs bullpen imploded in the first half last year and may have destroyed any chance of the Cubs going into the trade deadline at .500.
The Cubs bullpen ranked 25th in ERA, had the 4th most blown saves, and the 6th most walks in all of baseball.
While you never want to spend big on the bullpen, there are plenty of bargains to be found on the market while the Cubs continue to develop potential impact bullpen arms in their farm system.
I think the Cubs can add a veteran or two to the mix but the Cubs showed some promise late in the year as young power arms like Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Hector Rondon started to come into their own. The Cubs also have up and coming arms such as Arodys Vizcaino, Armando Rivero, Zach Rosscup, and perhaps starters such as Dallas Beeler who can make that conversion. Here is a link to some more internal bullpen candidates we talked about in a previous article from August.
Here are some potential value arms I've mentioned in the past they should consider adding:
- Andrew Bailey
- Tommy Hunter
- Kevin Jepsen
- Jim Johnson...according to Buster Olney, some in the industry say he could be the Orioles "most painless cut" given their budget constraints.
I'm sure there are names I've missed and perhaps you can add some. There are obviously big ticket players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo who can fill in a lot of these missing boxes but that's not what this article is about.
Guys like Nate McLouth, Denard Span, Drew Stubbs, Chris Young fill in some of the boxes much more cheaply and may not impede the long term plan quite as much. The Cubs may have to mix and match, possibly sacrificing in one area so they can add in another, such as Logan Morrison, Daniel Murphy, or Franklin Gutierrez.
I'm serious when I say the Cubs can make some important incremental improvements at the margins and lessen the need to spend on multiple free agents or make costly trades. That's not to say the Cubs can't mix in those kinds of additions. If opportunities present themselves where they can pick up surplus long term value through trades or free agency, then they should definitely do that. But even if that happens, the Cubs need to keep making these behind the scenes value signings like ones they've made in the past to complement the core and improve the team while it transitions. And who knows?Perhaps you find a long term piece or two in the process. It certainly won't cost much to find out.
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