The off-season begins in earnest with option calls and exclusive negotiation periods for free agents.
Roster rebuilds are the bread and butter of winter work for teams.
The Cubs have built a roster of utility players, i.e. players who can play multiple positions, In the past, utility players were bench substitutes, pinch hitters and Sunday starters. But with the new religion of advanced stats and match-ups, lefty righty, situational OBP, shift and base running at end of games becomes more important than having regular starters and bench players.
Joe Maddon loves multi-use guys. He likes to mix and match lineups to opposing starting pitchers. ESPN Chicago notes that in 2018, Joe Maddon wrote out 152 different lineups in 163 games (and
that's not even factoring in the pitcher's spot). That's a bump up from
2017 (143 different lineups) and 2016 (130 lineups in the regular
season of the championship year).
How does that relate to the top contenders around the league?
The last four World Series teams (2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and the
2017-18 Dodgers) averaged 145 different lineups per regular season. All
2018 MLB playoff teams (excluding Cubs) averaged 129.1 separate lineups
throughout the regular season. The Dodgers tallied 155 different lineups in 2018 and 147 in 2017 and
they made it to the World Series both seasons. The Astros posted 144
new lineups each of the last two regular seasons while the Red Sox were
at 134 lineups and the Brewers and Yankees sat at 137 lineups in 2018.
It seems that all teams are mixing and matching lineups. Front offices are living in a
world of extreme platooning, bullpening and shifting which equates to a lot
of different lineups.
If the rest of the league has adopted this philosophy, why would
the Cubs be any different?
In his post season press conference, Theo Epstein indicated that some players told him they would like less daily lineup shakeups. A regular lineup is what they felt would be good for them.
If the Cubs do not make major personnel moves this off-season (due to budgetary and luxury tax restraints), then the only major change would be how the players on the roster will be used in 2019. A regular, set lineup may be that major move.
In the past, starters earned "their job" and kept their position on the field until injury or demotion. Players in the minors worked hard to "earn" a position on a 25 man roster. It is that competition and fear of losing one's spot that keeps a player focused on playing hard and performing well. But when you have a dozen position players vying for 8 daily spots with a manager who likes to mix and match, you know you will play most of the time (but not necessarily a complete game at a time.)
Professional athletes are creatures of habit. They have set pregame routines (almost superstitions). They want to know their role so they can adjust their play to match the manager/team's expectations. There are two components of knowing your position: the place you play in the field and the number spot in the batting order. Most baseball players are more concerned about the latter - - - because where you hit in the order can affect your mental approach in an at-bat.
For example, a lead off hitter has to have the mentality of getting on base so the heart of the order can drive him home. A free swinging lead off hitter cannot "set the table." When the Cubs had Alfonso Soriano hitting lead off, it was not because it make sense but because Soriano demanded the spot because he felt he would see more fastballs he could hit.
Maddon only used the same lineup a total of 5 times in 2018.
Some believe the causes of this non-regular line up were:
1. Bryant's shoulder injury became an issue and he was out for an extended period of time.
2. Russell's nagging injuries affected his hitting and fielding in such a manner that he needed more rest.
3. Heyward's defense in RF was more important than his hitting (which then improved under Chili Davis securing more playing time.)
4. Contreras' slumping season at the plate caused him to slowly drop down the order.
5. Maddon likes to play favorites with his veterans like Zobrist, giving him more playing time than with Happ or Almora.
6. And the front office pushing Schwarber as a pure hitter so he had to play LF to get at-bats.
7. Maddon's odd approach of putting struggling hitters (including Rizzo) in the lead off spot. (The Soriano philosophy).
Granted, the Cubs won 95 games with this carousel approach. But in the second half of the season, hitting became a real problem and some players may believe it was because of the daily changes in the lineup.
The platoon situation works if you have multiple players who can evenly perform at a high situational level (righty-lefty matchups). But if your roster is filled with .240 hitting utility players, then it really does not matter which ones start a game. The Cubs multiple position player depth is not the same as having a deep bench where the bench player is as good as a starter who earns that position. The bench or role players on the club are now pretty obvious: Schwarber, Almora, Happ, Zobrist, Russell, LaStella, Heyward, Bote. You could start a game with these 8 players, but why would you?
Which players have "earned" a regular starting position? Those players who do not have enough fatal flaws to become a platoon player:
Rizzo at 1B. Bryant at 3B. Baez at 2B/SS.
If a team objectively self-scouts, you can see the need to upgrade all of the other positions with a full time player. That may be why fans are anxious to see if the Cubs will legitimately go after Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado. Those players would be penciled in to start 154 games.
Even if the front office is handcuffed into keeping its existing roster, spring training would be an open battle field to determine who will be the starting 8. If Bote can hit enough, that would move Bryant to the outfield. If Russell can regain his ability to hit the ball with power and RBI numbers, Baez can be set at second. Do you trust Almora to be your regular center fielder? Will Heyward be content being only a late inning defensive substitute? This is the perplexing problem the Cubs must address this off-season as Epstein was not happy with the direction of the club as it finished 2018.
Fans are like the players when it comes to a set lineup. They pay to see the best players on their team. If there is a set lineup, they are almost guaranteed to see their favorite player play.