One of my less endearing schticks this season is to look at the opposing pitcher’s splits and wonder aloud why the Cubs are fielding a lineup that doesn’t play into those on-paper advantages. I realize the lineup for a given game really shouldn’t make much of a difference, but there’s something to be said for maximizing the potential to win 162 times. There’s also something to be said for closing out, or failing to, series and weekends.
The most glaring example of this is the team’s 3-13 record on Sundays, a trend that has long since become too alarming to chalk up to mere coincidence. But where can we lay the blame for a disappointing season that looks more and more like it’ll lead to a third straight sell-off? It’s not as simple as saying David Ross can’t put together a lineup or that his bullpen decisions are awful, which they really haven’t been anyway.
Nor can we just say Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins can’t properly evaluate talent, though there’s something to be said for this roster’s highly suspect construction. While the Cubs weren’t built to be guaranteed contenders, they were put together with the hope that meeting something around maybe 80% percentile production would have them in position to win a weak division.
The goal was never to be sellers again, though that was clearly a possibility from the start. To that end, this team is kind of like a mid-tier racecar that doesn’t have the best engine or driver. The hope is that it’ll be able to finish the race in one piece and maybe have a shot at the podium if other cars drop out, but it’s built in such a way that a catastrophic wreck will result in pieces flying everywhere to disperse the force of impact should a worst-case scenario unfold.
Don’t ask me about putting it back together, we can worry about that when the green flag drops again.
Anyway, back to the lineups, which have been more than a little vexing at times. The truth of the matter is that Ross really doesn’t have many options when it comes to who to bat where. As tough as it is to see struggling hitters Nico Hoerner, Seiya Suzuki, and Ian Happ at the top of the order, it’s not as though other hitters are proving they should be up there.
A quick look at their performance reveals that only Cody Bellinger has been an above-average run producer since the start of June (min. 50 PAs). His 168 wRC+ over 91 plate appearances in that time is 72% better than Dansby Swanson in second place on the team. Mike Tauchman is at 91 and Christopher Morel is at 86, then you’ve got Happ at 83.
Yan Gomes is anything but nice with a 69 and Hoerner is at 61 and falling with a plate approach that seems to indicate he’s fighting himself up there. Suzuki’s 47 and Trey Mancini‘s 42 bring up the rear, with those two combining for -0.7 fWAR over a combined 126 PAs. If we remove Bellinger’s 1.2 fWAR since the start of June, the rest of the players mentioned have combined for two-tenths of a win.
Four of those tenths come from Swanson, who’s been out since just before the break with a heel bruise. You know who else would be on this list and having a huge impact if he’d accumulated more than 42 PAs? Nick Madrigal was at a 172 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR, making him the Cubs’ best hitter by far on a relative basis. You’ll probably be shocked to know that Tucker Barnhart (150 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR) and Miguel Amaya (139, 0.2) have also outperformed their peers in very limited samples.
The argument could be made that Barnhart and Amaya need to displace Gomes more frequently, though that’s just one spot unless you’re DH’ing Amaya. Might not be a bad idea. Another not-bad idea would be to get Matt Mervis back to Chicago for the remainder of the season to see if he can tap into that power potential.
The moral of the story is that the Cubs have just one regular who’s hitting right now and the two others that had been are still on the IL. Until Madrigal and Swanson return, assuming they maintain positive production, there’s really no way to put together a lineup anyone can feel confident about. That could turn around, of course, like with Happ hitting the hardest home run of his career in Monday’s loss to drive in Suzuki following a hard single.
Barring a shocking surge, however, the Cubs are likely to limp to the finish line yet again. Then it becomes a matter of how they reload for a 2024 season in which they have no choice but to be competitive. The only question is whether ownership trusts Hoyer to assemble a roster and Ross to lead it. Do you?