CHICAGO -- Questions regarding the next manager, the offense and more are answered in the latest Inbox.
Given the club's current roster, what qualities do you think the team's next manager needs the most in order to get them back on track to win the division again?
-- From @moviejer on Twitter
First, let's return to a portion of the comments made after the season ended by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Specifically, this is what comes to mind:
It's going to be important for the next manager of this particular group at this time to find a way to foster a team identity. I think this group, our routines tended to be more individualized. There wasn't a lot of work as a team. And I think it's going to be important for this group, that we find time to work as a team, that we find time to assemble as a team. That we find ways to deliver messages to the team, so there can be a greater sense of team identity and purpose for this group."
Epstein was quick to note -- as he did throughout his comments after the season -- that manager Joe Maddon was good at forging a team identity, especially when he came aboard back in 2015. On the season's last road trip, though, even Maddon said the players tended to do things on their own rather than as a group. Maddon offered that as one possible contributor to the team's poor road record.
As much as I love leaning on numbers, there are some things that can't be quantified. Perhaps, this was one of those things that was an underlying issue, adding just enough of a layer of disjointedness that, in turn, impacted performance on the field. It's really hard to say that definitively, but Maddon mentioned it late in the year and then Epstein brought it up again in his season-end sit-down with reporters.
So, beyond addressing the lineup, or adding depth to the rotation and bullpen this offseason, the front office will want to find a manager who can help shore up this behind-the-scenes aspect. That might make someone who was recently a Major League player -- internal candidates David Ross and Will Venable , for example -- a real possibility for the job.
The other big one is making sure the veterans in the room are keeping the team accountable for mistakes. The Cubs led the Majors in outs on the bases (64), had the fourth-most errors (117) and ranked 21st in Defensive Runs Saved (minus 13). I liked when Epstein said the entire organization needs an improved "sense that sloppy mistakes, mental mistakes aren't tolerated."
A lot has been made about the Cubs swing-and-miss style and low contact rates on pitches in the zone. Yet, we also hear that other teams are beating the shift better than the Cubs, because they launch angle it to their power side, which seemingly would come with a lot of swing and miss. Maddon had good luck getting the Cubs to go oppo, yet the above problems persisted. How do they sort all that out?
-- Michael K., Bellingham, Wash.
First of all, the highest launch angles to the pull side do not always equal more swings and misses overall. Per Statcast, here's a look at the top five launch angles on pulled balls during the 2019 season:
8.9 degrees (Twins)
8.6 degrees (Nationals)
8.0 degrees (A's)
7.9 degrees (Mariners)
7.9 degrees (Cardinals)
In terms of overall swing-and-miss rate, all five of those teams ranked within the top dozen teams. So, they pulled the ball in the air and had good contact rates. Meanwhile, to your point, the Cubs saw their opposite-field rate climb to 25.7 percent (the highest for the team since 2012), led the Majors in oppo slugging (.671), but still had the National League's highest swing-and-miss rate (12.3 percent) and lowest contact rate (73.8 percent).
So, the challenge for the Cubs this winter is to try to find a way to reorganize the overall makeup of the offense. The front office will need to dig into the numbers to balance what Chicago did well, while also seeing if there's a way to improve the team-wide contact rate.
Do you really think Theo is going to make the tough decision to turn over four to six players on the roster? Will they actually pull the trigger on trading one of their few prized, drafted-or-homegrown core guys? Who would be most likely? Call me skeptical.
-- From @rholzber1 on Twitter
First, it depends on what you count within that "four to six" figure. There is a pile of exiting free agents, for example. If you are strictly referring to trading four to six players in the name of retooling the roster, well, maybe that estimate is high. I do think that there is a real chance that at least one of the core group is dealt.
We might've seen Báez's ceiling, but it's an MVP-caliber ceiling at a premier position. Bryant has been really productive, but has had a list of injuries in recent years. Schwarber has his warts, but he took some important steps forward as a hitter in 2019. Contreras can hit and control the running game, but framing remains an issue.
It's also important to keep in mind that when Epstein says "real change" could be coming this winter, he's not just referring to the roster. He is including changes to the front office, player development and scouting structures, as well as changes at manager, within the coaching staff and on the field.
Are the Cubs going to look for a second baseman via free agency or are they reliant on what they have internally?
-- From @RizzoDarkThirty on Twitter
Right now, I'd peg rookie Nico Hoerner as the favorite to win the second base job out of Spring Training. His bat-to-ball skillset could also incrementally help some of the contact issues described above. Hoerner might also get a look for center field, if only to give something for the Cubs to have in their back pocket.
If David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Ian Happ and Tony Kemp are all back in 2020, that will give Chicago some more options to consider, especially for the bench. I'm sure the Cubs would love nothing more than to see Bote or Happ seize a starting role and not look back. Addison Russell is also under team control for '20, but he looks like a non-tender candidate after a rough season both offensively and defensively.
Any chance the Cubs can snag Jason Kipnis? The Indians announced that they are not picking up his option. Veteran leader. Good bat. Hometown boy.
-- From @alboyfsu on Twitter
Selfishly, having worked with Kipnis for so many seasons during my years in Cleveland, I'd love having the Cubs bring him into the fold. But, I just don't see it. Descalso, who is signed for $2.5 million next year, fills that veteran role off the bench. And I don't see where Kipnis (93 OPS+ over the past four years combined) would fit in the roster puzzle.
What are the realistic 2020 expectations for Brandon Morrow?
-- From @luckyandbest on Twitter
First off, expect the Cubs to pay the $3 million buyout rather than picking up Morrow's $12 million team option, following a season lost to injury. It's really hard to know what to expect for the former closer, given that he's logged just 30 2/3 innings in two years (with all those frames coming in an injury-marred 2018). Some team will probably take a flier on a low-risk deal, but I'd set the expectations at zero until Morrow proves otherwise.