Chicago Northside

Reconstructing the Cubs Lineup

The Cubs' core has struggled mightily this season, while two surprise players have carried the offense. It's time to explore a lineup change as the team gears up for the playoffs.

At 28-20, with just 12 games left (in 14 days) in this wild, abbreviated season, the Cubs find themselves with a tidy four game lead in the NL Central. Certainly, this year has witnessed its share of struggles and frustrations — particularly after a 13-3 start soured — but if we’re being honest, struggles and inconsistency were to be expected heading into the season. Overall, it’s hard to be too upset with a first place team that maintains a 99.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

Each element of this roster carries positives, surprises, and questions. Concerning the rotation, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks combine for a nifty one-two punch, although it’s hard to trust Jon Lester given his struggles this season, questions remain despite Alec Mills’ last two outings (including, of course, his historic Sunday afternoon), and Adbert Alzolay has yet to establish himself with Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood remain on the IL.

The bullpen has felt the weight of blame this season, although as it stands the unit has evolved into a capable one — however unsustainable that might be. Despite his early season struggles, Craig Kimbrel is looking effective once again, Jeremy Jeffress has surprised with a fantastic season (0.98 ERA, 54.4 ground ball rate), and Rowan Wick has established his presence (3.52 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 26.9 strikeout percentage), stabilizing the back-end of the ‘pen. The rest of the relief core has some hits and misses, and the carousel will likely continue the next two weeks as the front office determines the best makeup for the postseason, but since August 15 the unit has impressed. Surrendering a meager .221/.308/.365 triple slash, Cubs relievers have the seventh best ERA (3.57) over the last month, along with the best strikeout rate (29.9) of any bullpen.

And then… there’s the offense.

Is it too Late to Fix the Lineup?

Speaking of surprises, the Cubs offense has been powered by newly minted leadoff hitter (and fringe MVP candidate) Ian Happ, and offensive-scapegoat-since-2016, Jason Heyward. Both players have produced a wRC+ of 151, Heyward slashing .293/.413/.535 with six home runs, Happ an equally impressive .273/.384/.571 with 12 long balls. It’s impossible to overstate their impact this year, as they’ve helped buoy an offense that has otherwise struggled.

Photo Credit: Jon Durr, Getty Images

The positives essentially end there, however. The superstar trio of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo has floundered, for various and inexplicable reasons. While Rizzo has maintained sturdy walk (11.6) and strikeout (16.7) percentages to go along with solid power (nine home runs), his triple slash (.205/.323/.392) is nonetheless disappointing, yielding a wRC+ of just 92. KB’s minor, nagging injuries have thrown a wet blanket on his season, as he’s hitting an unsightly .200/.270/.324 with just two home runs and a horrifying wRC+ of 60. Javy has regressed back to his rookie days, striking out a whopping 33.0 percent of the time, walking a lowly 3.7 percent, turning in a .203/.239/.362 slash with a wRC+ of 56.

The season-long slump of the team’s presupposed offensive core demands a change in the lineup. While David Ross should be lauded for many things in his rookie managerial campaign, and while his insistence on lineup continuity has merit, stubbornness in constructing the lineup is far from flattering. We’ve already seen Rossy impose a significant change, placing Happ atop the order as Bryant struggled and spent time on the shelf. And he has done a nice job tweaking the lineup with day-to-day personnel changes based on match-ups, complete with some new veteran pieces to help shape the lineup.

Yet leaving the middle of the lineup practically unchanged, hoping against hope things get better, is not a particularly effective strategy.

Before submitting my lineup reconstruction, I should note this is simply an attempt at theoretically fixing what has ailed the Cubs the most. My lineup changes are submitted as 1) a realistic response to this season’s events, 2) adhering to Ross’s affection for altering handed-ness, 3) maintaining consistency atop the lineup, and 4) weighing performance for this season over career arcs.

Am I dead wrong? Probably. It was a fun exercise nonetheless.

Versus Righties

  1. Ian Happ, CF (S)
  2. Jason Heyward, RF (L)
  3. Willson Contreras, C (R)
  4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (L)
  5. Kris Bryant, 3B (R)
  6. Kyle Schwarber, LF (L)
  7. Javier Baez, SS (R)
  8. Jason Kipnis, DH (L)
  9. Nico Hoerner, 2B (R)

Versus Lefties

  1. Ian Happ, CF (S)
  2. Jason Heyward, RF (L)
  3. Willson Contreras, C (R)
  4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (L)
  5. Kris Bryant, 3B (R)
  6. Javier Baez, SS (R)
  7. Cameron Maybin, LF (R)
  8. David Bote, DH (R)
  9. Nico Hoerner, 2B (R)

Change Can’t Hurt

What’s immediately noticeable is I’ve promoted Heyward to the two hole. I love the idea of your two best hitters atop the order back-to-back, with the opportunity for the most at-bats in a game. Slotting Willson third is a nod to his power and ability to carry the team, while being protected by a still powerful, contact oriented, patient Rizzo. KB rounds out the top five despite his struggles, though moving him down should lessen the pressure on him. I also like the young Hoerner turning the lineup over, as he’s flashed potential this year at the plate while also proving brilliant on the base paths.

Schwarber is dropped from the lineup against lefties, as he’s hitting just .186 against same-handed pitchers in 50 plate appearances. Maybin replaces him in the lineup, as he’s hit .308 against lefties this season and is a certain upgrade defensively.

(It should also be noted that Victor Caratini will obviously plug in as the starting catcher when Darvish toes the rubber, which would likely move Contreras to DH.)

While I eschewed Ross’s R/L/R/L approach at the bottom of the order against lefties, I did so intentionally. The lineup will toggle handedness through the first five batters, with spots six through nine each a replaceable player as the game progresses. A right-handed reliever, for example, could be forced to face lefties Schwarber or Kipnis, or switch-hitters in Caratini and Ildemaro Vargas.

This is far from perfection, but so it goes with a flawed roster that’s punctuated with struggling stars. And perhaps hoping against hope that positive regression is on the horizon while keeping the lineup as is provides a show of confidence. Mixing things up feels like the better answer, however, and as the Cubs open their two game set with Cleveland to cap off the final two weeks of the season, perhaps a lineup change is just what they need.


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