The Chicago Cubs are deservedly basking their 2016 World Series win. The storylines from their championship are extensive and alluring. Of course, Fortune declaring Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein as the world’s greatest leader has ventured beyond afterglow and into propaganda the likes of which we normally see out of North Korea.
There’s no doubt about Epstein’s bona fides as a baseball executive and he has all but punched his ticket into the baseball Hall of Fame. That said, the Cubs are not without their issues, and to repeat as champions, they must be addressed.
Given that Epstein now has about as much power as any non-owner executive and can do as he sees fit, he is not deviating from his preferences of financial sanity and flexibility. The idea is to have a chance at winning that World Series but not compromise the future toward that end. Within that context, the Cubs did not retain Dexter Fowler or Aroldis Chapman; they chose not to pursue Chris Sale.
Had they wanted, they could have done all three. If they had, they would be better right now, but over the long term with a depleted farm system from a trade for Sale and veterans making big money and expected to decline, their fate could easily have mimicked Epstein’s Boston Red Sox clubs that eschewed intelligent design for star power.
Two weeks into 2017, the Cubs are treading water and hovering around .500. Some factors leading to that apparent mediocrity are of the “don’t worry about it, they’ll be fine” variety. Javier Baez will not spend the entire season with an OPS of .544, nor will his defense be surprisingly shaky. Kris Bryant will not hit .230 for the duration. Ben Zobrist will not bat under .200.
These are not problems. They’re glitches and will resolve themselves with the passage of time.
Others are of legitimate concern and must be dealt with. Let’s take a look at them.
Kyle Hendricks and Brett Anderson
The fundamental flaw with categorizing players in general and pitchers, in particular, is that there will be an ongoing state of disbelief that it is real. Such is the case with Kyle Hendricks. Acquired from the Texas Rangers at the 2012 trade deadline as a throw-in with Carlos Villanueva in exchange for Ryan Dempster, Hendricks is a soft-tossing righty who needs command, control and a strong defense to be effective.
He’s got the strong defense and the opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a solid .244. But his control in 2017 has been worrisome with seven walks in 16 innings. He’s surrendered four home runs in those 16 innings after allowing 15 in 190 in 2016. These could be shrugged off were it not for his noticeable decline in velocity.
Pitchers like Hendricks have little margin for error. If their stuff is a shade worse than it was, they cannot count on muscling their way through with velocity, movement and reputation. It’s as if the shoe is hovering in thin air, ready to drop at a moment’s notice.
To have a mediocre fastball from the start and see it drop two miles per hour, to have the sinker do the same, to have a curveball and changeup drop in velocity — altogether, these problems create a host of issues that result in an ERA above six after three starts.
For a pitcher to have lost that much velocity so early in the season when he should be at his strongest is indicative that there’s an injury, a mechanical flaw or he’s having a massive falloff following his career-high workload in 2016. In any event, it’s not good.
Brett Anderson is a different matter entirely. At a cost of $3.5 million and always somewhat useful as a backend starter when healthy, Anderson is rarely healthy. He was good in his first two starts this season and got blasted by the Milwaukee Brewers in his third. Anderson is not a key component for the Cubs – he’s there to provide innings and be a living, breathing human to provide those innings as the fifth starter.
However, with Hendricks’ struggles, it could become more important to the Cubs’ chances that they have the Anderson from 2015 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Is it believable that he’ll pitch 180 innings as he did in 2015?
The 2016 Cubs proved that they could win a World Series without being overly reliant on their starting pitchers. In 2017, they must get to the postseason first and the back of their rotation could hinder them from that if they don’t get a rapid improvement or fix it.
We’ve heard the story over and over that it was Heyward’s pep talk during the rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series that inspired the Cubs to overcome having blown their lead and win the title.
Is this some attempt to boost Heyward’s flagging self-confidence and self-esteem to think that in a season where he contributed next-to-nothing his fiery oratory was essential to the championship? Were it the recent title-winning San Francisco Giants or the late 1990s New York Yankees, the veteran players would have rolled their collective eyes and told Heyward to sit his .230-hitting backside down and shut up.
If there’s a certain amount of frustration and outright disgust at Heyward within the Cubs organization at this point, it’s perfectly understandable. For all the talk about his remade swing and how hard he’s working to get back what it was that sparked the Cubs to make him the highest-paid player on the team, the reality is that he’s still not producing as they need him to.
Heyward was awful during spring training with a .164/.270/.327 slash, but that was dismissed as spring training. For the first two weeks of the regular season, he’s batting .294. That batting average is a soft .294. He has 15 total hits, 14 of which are singles. Four are infield hits. The extra-base hit is a triple. He has no home runs and a slugging percentage lower than his on-base percentage.
Heyward got that contract because of his advanced stats and cumulative skills. In an eerie similarity to his World Series speech, to focus on his batting average is, at best, hypocritical and a desperate search for the bright side where there may not be a bright side.
As the season moves along, Heyward’s contract should not be enough to keep him in the everyday lineup. They’re paying $21.5 million for a stellar glove in the outfield and little else. Eventually, something drastic will have to be done.
The Cubs have the wherewithal and the willingness to handle these concerns. The question is will they and when.