The Cubs are off to a bad start. You, obviously, already know this.
But you also know that they have played four games of 162, and many teams have gotten off to worse starts and won pennants and World Series. Though Jed Hoyer was quoted as saying that it was very important for the Cubs to get off to a good start, the “start” to the season isn’t necessarily over. To cite one team associated with Joe Maddon, the 2002 Angels (for whom Maddon was bench coach) were 6-14 (and 10½ games out of first place!), yet won 99 games and the World Series. At one point during that stretch they lost six in a row and were outscored 38-13. Now that’s a bad start. For the Cubs this year, it’s... four games, during which the Cubs have averaged seven runs per game despite being shut out once.
Nevertheless, there are a few things that can be done right now — without any of them really being a “panic” move — to change the fortunes of this team. Here are my suggestions.
Install Kyle Schwarber as the permanent left fielder
This is so obvious at this point that I simply do not understand why the Cubs won’t do it. The Cubs have faced two lefthanded starters out of the four games in 2019 and Schwarber has started against neither of them. While he still has some trouble hitting lefties, it’s clear that platooning him with Mark Zagunis is not working. (And why would you do that?)
Just let Kyle play. The Cubs will face another lefty on Thursday, Atlanta’s Max Fried.
Send Mark Zagunis back to Triple-A
Zagunis had a good spring training (.370/.444/.761, four HR in 46 at-bats), but we all know how spring training numbers can be deceptive. (Jason Heyward, for example, already has as many hits in four regular-season games as he had all spring in more than twice as many at-bats).
Zagunis does one thing well — draw walks. I suppose the Cubs could keep him around as a pinch-hitter, but then they don’t have a defensive replacement for Schwarber, which they could use on occasion in the late innings.
There have already been some suggestions that Ian Happ return, even before he’s played one game at Iowa. This isn’t likely to happen. Happ needs to work on some aspects of his game, and I suspect he’ll be in Triple-A for at least a month, maybe more.
There are a couple of outfielders on the Iowa roster who could be recalled and be decent bench players, though both have limitations. Johnny Field can play all three outfield positions well. His issue is strikeouts — he struck out 25 times in 59 spring at-bats, an even worse ratio than his 72 K’s in 221 at-bats last year with the Rays and Twins. He does have power, which could be helpful.
Jacob Hannemann, the Cubs’ third-round pick in 2013, can also play all three outfield positions. He got brief MLB time in 2017 when the Mariners claimed him, and then the Cubs got him back on waivers after that season ended. He has decent baserunning speed, with 142 stolen bases (30 CS) in six minor-league seasons.
Field and Hannemann are not on the 40-man roster and would have to be added. There would seem to be a spot or two that the Cubs could free up on the 40-man; I’m not quite sure why Jen-Ho Tseng is still on it, and the Cubs could probably get Taylor Davis through waivers.
Let’s end the Brandon Kintzler experiment
The Cubs didn’t hesitate to send Brian Duensing through waivers and get him to Iowa. The same should be done with Kintzler, even though he’s thrown decently in his two outings so far this year. (Also, getting him through waivers and to Iowa would open a 40-man spot.) As has been pointed out by many, the Cubs don’t have what a lot of bullpens do, and that’s guys who throw 95+ on a consistent basis. And that leads me to my next point...
Put Dillon Maples or James Norwood in the bullpen
I am aware that both these righthanders still have some trouble with command. But Maples struck out 16 in 8⅓ spring innings, and Norwood can throw 97-98 on a consistent basis. While other teams seem to have a near-endless supply of guys like this who can throw hard, the Cubs’ only relievers who can hit 95 are Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. In modern baseball, teams need more guys like this, unlike Kintzler types who are ground-ball specialists.
Cubs starters need to go back to attacking the zone
Cubs starters have made quite a few messes so far this year and this is one of the reasons they are tied for third-most walks in the major leagues with 27 (and the other three teams with 27 or more, the Orioles, Diamondbacks and Rangers) have all played more games than the Cubs.
But Cubs starters are averaging only 4.5 innings per start, and that ranks 26th among all MLB teams. One of the reasons for that, obviously, is the walks; they are averaging 92 pitches per start, tied for fourth-most.
Are Cubs starters being told to nibble? Are they afraid of challenging hitters? Veteran starters like the Cubs have shouldn’t be. One of the best outings by any Cubs starter this year was Jose Quintana’s four-inning relief stint on Saturday. That’s backwards. Q likely gets his first start on Friday in Milwaukee.
Lastly, I want you to remember again that this is just four games. If the Cubs had a four-game stretch like this in, say, the middle of June, you’d be concerned but not panicking. The fact that it began on Opening Day magnifies things.
Consider another MLB team, that’s off to a 1-5 start with a -18 run differential and has been shut out twice in a row.
That’s the defending World Series champion Red Sox, and I assure you no one’s asking for Alex Cora to be fired. The Red Sox will be just fine. And so will the Cubs. A few tweaks, though, might help them fix things a bit faster.