Cubs keep searching for an offensive identity

Cubs keep searching for an offensive identity
June 13, 2013, 7:15 pm
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Dale Sveum almost sounded like Lou Piniella, who would get tired of the daily questions about the lineup at Wrigley Field and mention Billy Martin's old trick with the New York Yankees.

"Sometimes you get to the point where you just might want to pick the lineup out of the hat and see what happens," Sveum said Thursday before the Cubs outlasted the Cincinnati Reds 6-5 in 14 innings.

There are no good answers here. Another ex-Cubs manager, Dusty Baker, has heard all the noise before. But his Reds start at the top with Shin-Soo Choo -- who profiles like a player the Cubs will target this winter -- and revolve around MVP Joey Votto.

"I've been through it," Baker said. "Any manager that's been around has been through it. Everybody is like: 'Shake up the lineup.' If you shake it up, you've still got the same stuff.

"It's very frustrating. You're up. You're not sleeping much, trying to figure out something that you've already figured out. But it's hard to accept that maybe you're not good. Sometimes you have some good players but you're not playing good overall."

The Cubs don't have another Anthony Rizzo at Triple-A Iowa, waiting to make a huge impact this summer. The most interesting prospects in the system are at advanced Class-A Daytona (Javier Baez, Jorge Soler) or Class-A Kane County (Albert Almora) or still unsigned (No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant).

The Cubs began the day ranked 12th in the National League in on-base percentage (.298), 14th in walks (154) and tied for last in hitting with runners in scoring position (.228), leading indicators as they search for an offensive identity.

"That's one of the things we always talk about: Is patience and working a good at-bat something that's taught?" general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Is that something that's innate? To a certain extent, that's something we're going to look for extensively in the draft and internationally, guys that can manage an at-bat.

"But those guys aren't going to help us right now, so we need to figure out the solution on the field. We're teaching the right things. We're telling them the right things. I know guys are working hard at it. But we need to see improvement there. That's an area of the season that hasn't gone the way we wanted to, and we're going to need to solve that."

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The Reds aren't expected to be able to afford Choo, a Scott Boras client positioned to become a free agent at season's end, when he will be 31 years old. The left-handed outfielder with an .853 career OPS is having a big platform year, getting on base 43 percent of the time. The leadoff man showed why he's a catalyst on Thursday, going 1-for-5 with two walks, two runs scored and an RBI.

Boras is advising Bryant, the University of San Diego third baseman who led the country in homers (31), runs scored (80), walks (66) and slugging percentage (.820). Historically, Boras waits until the deadline (July 12) to get his player the best possible deal, but how quickly Bryant signs will influence his professional path this season.

Scouting/player development VP Jason McLeod admitted that Bryant's walk numbers are "inflated" because he had such a dominant season and wound up batting leadoff. Still, Bryant is an advanced, polished hitter with an understanding of the strike zone and tremendous power, someone who should be on a fast track.

But overall there aren't many quick or obvious fixes through the draft.

"It's no secret we really try to champion the plate discipline and on-base percentage and all those things," McLeod said. "We spend a lot of time talking about it in the draft room, finding hitters who fit that mold. But a lot of times (those) guys don't offer a lot of other things, so you've got to balance (everything out).

"Let's say a college player who's been an on-base machine -- a lot of times he doesn't run, he doesn't play defense, he doesn't have power.

"It is something that organization-wide -- even from the major leagues on down -- we're preaching. And we're trying (to) find those types of hitters. (But) it's hard to go see a kid in Michigan that's 17 and predict that he's going to be a plate-discipline guy."

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So expect more questions about Starlin Castro's approach, even though he already has almost 600 career hits at the age of 23. Rizzo will feel the heat if he doesn't produce. And Cubs fans and the Chicago media will keep dreaming about prospects.

As Sveum said: "There's nobody right now that's stepping up and doing anything in any position of the lineup."