Chicago Cubs: Offseason priority, getting faster on basepaths

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Javier Baez led the Chicago Cubs with just 11 stolen bases in 2019 and one way for the team to get better is to steal more bases next season.

In a boom or bust offense the past couple of years, the Chicago Cubs have struggled to consistently score runs. in 2018, they finished tied for dead last with the Baltimore Orioles in games scoring 1 or fewer runs. The team finished with the fourth-highest OBP (0.333) but couldn’t get the runs in, outside of hope and a prayer for a long ball.

Flash forward to 2019 and it looked eerily similar, which makes sense given that the only notable roster change was the addition of Daniel Descalso. The Cubs, as a team, posted the eighth-highest OBP (0.331) but finished with just 45 stolen bases, which was second-worst in baseball ahead of the American League leaders in home runs in the Minnesota Twins.

And while I look back to the 2016 season in which the team finished with just 66 stolen bases, the same number as 2018, a good argument can be made that the World Series roster had a more dynamic offense. That team was capable of manufacturing runs in nearly every way other than just the home run. Also looking back to the 2016 season, the St. Louis Cardinals finished with the second-fewest stolen bases (35) and finished with an 86-76 record, just two games better than the 2019 Cubs. Interesting.

In an offseason that should finally see some changes, one area that the Cubs should look to improve next season is swiping more bases. Javier Baez led the way with 11 stolen bases, followed by Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo with 8 and 5, respectively. That’s pretty bad and while the offensive woes go way beyond just stolen bases, getting runners closer to scoring position would take less pressure off each hitter.

The problem is the current roster doesn’t have the makeup for a team that will be successful in stealing 70+ bases in 2020. There’s no rhyme or reason why 70 was chosen, it’s just a number I would like for them to target. If Nico Hoerner becomes the everyday second baseman, he certainly has some speed on the base paths, as he stole 8 of them in 75 games with Double-A Tennessee, which projects to approximately 17 over 162 games. But Theo Epstein is going to have to take a long look at this roster and likely have to sacrifice some home run power for contact hitters.

It’s the same logic as when they acquired Nick Castellanos, who is not known for his defense but the Cubs were willing to sacrifice some defense because his bat more than made up for it. And to be honest, he was one of the few bats that was consistently hitting down the stretch.

So how do they improve this?

Epstein will have to target one or two players in free agency and/or trades that can be useful in improving the dynamic of the lineup. One player that I would personally like to see them go after is Starling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is under contract, albeit two club options, through the 2021 season and is owed $24 million over the next two seasons. Add to that he would be traded within the division, so Theo would have to get creative to acquire him.

However, the Pirates are, seemingly, now in a full rebuild and under a new manager next season so they could potentially make some veteran players available. Marte finished with a strong 0.295/0.342/0.503 line with 31 doubles, 6 triples, 23 home runs, 82 RBI, and 25 stolen bases. The Cubs have a huge need in centerfield right now with the underperforming Albert Almora and questionable future of Ian Happ.

Happ looked like a somewhat improved player once he returned from Iowa last season as he had a 25 percent strikeout rate in 58 games with the team, which was down from his 36.1 percent in 2018. He doesn’t offer a lot in the stolen base department as he had just 8 over the course of a full season in 2018 and could be moved as part of a trade package.

Another player that makes a lot of sense and would kill two birds with one stone is Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield, who led the American League in hits as the Royals leadoff hitter. He also stole 20 bases and played in all 162 games which would be a remarkable improvement. He’s extremely versatile as well and could potentially play right field permanently for the Cubs if Castellanos is not retained. Merrifield logged over 630 innings in the outfield this season, so it wouldn’t be a reach either. He’s under contract through the 2023 season at an extremely team-friendly deal of just $4.1 million AAV.

Offseason priority of finding a leadoff hitter. dark. Next

As I said, Epstein will have to get creative this offseason to fix the offensive woes. The issues with the starting pitching are known and acknowledged but a slight tweak to the offense could get them back on track.