Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein met with reporters last week to offer his thoughts on the 2018 season. Epstein spoke for more than 70 minutes and offered direct comments about struggles this successful team faced on offense.
The Cubs scored two runs in the last 22 innings of the season, a pair of 1-run losses, the first of which enabled the Brewers to win the Central Division, the second of which bounced the Cubs from the playoffs.
"We have to learn from it and we have to get better," said Epstein, architect of a club that qualified for its fourth straight postseason. "Something happened in our offense in the second half where we stopped walking, we stopped hitting home runs, we stopped hitting the ball in the air, and we stopped being productive. Not being able to get two runs is really unacceptable..."
When the Cubs scored two runs or more in the second half of the season, their record was 37-13.
The Cubs scored one run or less nearly 25 percent of their games this season, an eye-popping stat when one considers the talent assembled, going from Most Valuable Player candidate Javiar Baez to slugger Anthony Rizzo to former MVP Kris Bryant to extremely capable -- and handsomely compensated -- veterans such as Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP of two years ago.
Only the Baltimore Orioles, the worst team in baseball, had as many games where they scored one run or less.
Injuries were part of the problem, sure, as Bryant struggled this season, suffering a shoulder injury that sidelined him for sizeable chunks of the year. He was also beaned in the head by a fastball in the season's opening weeks and I sometimes wondered if he fully rebounded from that scare. (Bryant suffered career lows, by a wide margin, in games played, runs, hits, homers and RBIs.)
Heyward, who put his past offensive woes behind, suffered a hamstring injury late in the season and spent a stint at a key time on the disabled list.
Key time? That was another item Epstein addressed. The Brewers got hot at season's end (they remain hot) and made up four games on the Cubs in the final 3-plus weeks. Joe Maddon's team went 6-5 in its last 11 games. And while those games matter, they only count as much as the contests in April and May. Manager Joe Maddon likes to use the term "meat loaf" when talking to reporters after a series in which the Cubs have won two of three games. The artist Meat Loaf sang "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."
And while winning two of three each series, which the club did often, is wonderful, Epstein indicated the Cubs should ramp up their sense of urgency throughout the 162-game stretch. Putting a team away in the final contest of a 3-game set might enable the club the distance itself more from chasers like Milwaukee come September.
That urgency may fall on Maddon, the World Series winner who enters the 2019 season without a contract extension.
For him to earn an extension, I think the club must improve on its early wild-card exit. For Maddon to earn his $6 million next season, I think he needs to get the offense performing with more consistency. I hope he starts by settling on a set lineup that features players in consistent spots each day. For players who seem to crave routine, it might be a little unsettling to show up each day and search for your name on the lineup card and locate it anywhere from the lead-off spot to the 9-hole.
I also hope Maddon ends his bizarre strategy of batting the pitcher -- always the worst hitter in the lineup -- eighth. He does this because he likes the ninth batter to set up his lead-off hitter. If the lead-off hitter needs to be set up, he shouldn't be batting lead-off. Power-hitter and run-producer Anthony Rizzo, for example, should always bat third or fourth, never first, as he did dozens of times this year.
Likewise, starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks should never bat eighth, neither should Jon Lester or Cole Hamels or any starting pitcher. Having the pitcher bat eighth results in the pitcher coming up more often, and earlier in the game than the batter in the 9-hole. It's a matter of simple mathematics. If batting the pitcher eighth was a good idea, most managers would do so.
Lastly, part of the season's woes fall on Epstein himself. The team president was counting on Yu Darvish to deliver more than one victory for his $126 million contract. The team president also believed Tyler Chatwood would be serviceable as a No. 5 starting pitcher, not the man who came to lead the league in walk percentage by a wide margin. And, I have to believe that Epstein believed three or four young position players would make the jump from potential star to productive star. They didn't.
Lastly, the team president has yet to find a lead-off hitter to replace the success the Cubs had in Dexter Fowler, a key piece to the 2016 World Series puzzle.