By no means were the bats the primary reason why the Cubs just dropped a series to the lowly Pirates. The Cubs' pitching staff is running out of steam, and their ace let a game get away from him at the worst possible time. Still, they have missed too many opportunities to score--to come from behind, or to build bigger leads. It's been a long period of struggle, at the end of a very volatile season for the offense.
To give his team the best possible chance to escape their current doldrums, David Ross should give his lineup one final shake--one last zap from the defibrillator paddles. Here's the lineup that ought to start every game the rest of the way, regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher.
- Nico Hoerner - 2B
- Cody Bellinger - 1B
- Seiya Suzuki - RF
- Christopher Morel - DH
- Ian Happ - LF
- Dansby Swanson - SS
- Yan Gomes - C
- Miles Mastrobuoni - 3B
- Pete Crow-Armstrong - CF
Let's break that all down a bit. Firstly, it's past time for Hoerner to reclaim the leadoff spot he (rightfully) lost a few months ago. Since the All-Star break, he's batting .307/.385/.410, in 287 plate appearances. He's drawn 25 walks, been hit by eight pitches, stolen 21 bases in 25 tries, and continued to play relentless, high-level baseball. In the fug of negativity that has thickened the air in Cubdom lately, Hoerner's brilliant and thrilling second half isn't getting nearly enough attention.
I don't hold with those who think this season will be defined, if it ends the way it's trending, by a September collapse. If they do miss the playoffs, count on me to run a piece here listing a dozen games they should (not merely could) have won, but most of them came in the first half. This remains the only Cubs team ever to fall 10 games below .500 and then reach 10 games over .500 at any point. Their season will be defined by that resilience and that tenacity, and Hoerner is the exemplar of that.
If there's an indelible image from Thursday night's game that should be regarded as a microcosm of this Cubs season, it came in the bottom of the first inning. Hoerner smashed a double off the wall in the left-field corner, but the way he steamed all the way into and even around second base, it was clear he was thinking about the possibility that Bryan Reynolds would misplay the ball as it hit the basket, the bricks, or the ivy in Wrigley's unusually deep corner. He was ready to take third if the slightest hiccup occurred down there. This Cubs team's identity is right there: Hoerner, in an ultimately doomed effort, running hard and taking absolutely nothing for granted. He's the tone-setter the team needs at the top of the lineup the rest of the way.
Batting Bellinger second is what every other team in baseball would have done by now. The best aggregate slash line for MLB teams this season by batting order position doesn't belong to the third hitter or the cleanup man. It's the second place, where the league is hitting .264/.338/.449. The Cubs are 26th in the league slugging average from the two hole, at .388. In what little time is left to them, they need to get their best hitters the most plate appearances, and right now, Hoerner and Bellinger are two of their best three hitters.
The other one is Suzuki, who should bat third instead of second only because of some handedness considerations we'll discuss shortly. For now, suffice it to say that he's batting .336/.390/.639 since being restored to the lineup after a brief sojourn on the bench, on Aug. 2. Even on an 0-5 Thursday night, he had batted balls at 92, 93, 101, and 101 miles per hour, and struck out looking on a tough call in the ninth inning. He should be guaranteed a first-inning plate appearance every day the rest of the way.
Giving Morel the responsibility of hitting cleanup is a leap of faith. So be it. In anyone's list of the five biggest home runs of this season for the Cubs, Morel has two. He's cranked 35 total homers in 537 plate appearances this year, between Triple A and MLB. He's hit 40 of them, and 80 total extra-base hits, in 828 career plate appearances in MLB. His .308 OBP would look out of place in the heart of most batting orders, and there might be times when what the team really needs is the cleanup hitter to get on base to start an inning. In that case, they could easily pinch-hit Mike Tauchman for Morel. It's Morel for whom the odds favor some power production, though, and it's the right time to take that gamble.
Batting the right-handed Suzuki and Morel back-to-back is important, too, because that's how the Cubs can cushion Ian Happ and protect him from left-handed relievers a bit. Happ needs that. Too many teams have brought on lefties this year specifically to get at Bellinger and Happ in a three-batter sequence, or Tauchman, Bellinger, and Happ in a four-batter one. By separating Happ from other lefty batters with two lefty-mashing righties on each side, Ross could foreclose that option for opposing skippers.
At this stage of the season, you could make a case for batting Gomes ahead of Swanson, but we'll save that for an even wilder dream post. For now, it's enough to suggest that the team needs to slide Swanson further down, as he continues to skid toward the finish of his first season on the North Side. He continues to try to pull the ball too much, especially in key situations, and he's not adjusting the way he needs to adjust in order to escape the slump. Gomes will need some rest, of course, but Miguel Amaya can bat in the same place in the lineup with no huge change in expected production. It's just the shape of that production that would shift somewhat.
At the bottom of the batting order, the emphasis should be on defense. Look at the best teams in baseball. The Braves put Michael Harris II and Orlando Arcia at the bottom of the order every day. Those guys can still hit, but they're the center fielder and shortstop, respectively. They play not because of their offensive prowess, but because they're excellent fielders. The Cubs' lineup isn't as strong at the top as Atlanta's, but this reconfiguration would nudge them back in that direction, and as such, they can still afford--indeed, they need--players who get to play because they help the team get outs in the field. Mastrobuoni's mistake in the ninth inning Thursday night was inexcusable, but overall, he's the best defender they have for that spot on the active roster. Ditto for Crow-Armstrong in center field.
Whenever a lefty enters for the other team, or whenever the Cubs need a big hit from the eight hole, pinch-hitting Patrick Wisdom for Mastrobuoni would be a no-brainer. Ditto for Tauchman at the expense of Crow-Armstrong. To begin each game, though, those guys should be out there providing the best possible support to a weary pitching staff.
This isn't a panacea. This is a small change when big ones would be preferable. There remain bigger conversations to be had, before the end of the season. If the Cubs remain as committed to salvaging this as Ross claimed they would be Thursday night, though, this lineup change would be a great place to begin demonstrating it.
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