19 for '19: How can Cubs avoid another late-season fade?


We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: How can the Cubs avoid another late-season fade?

Let's get one thing out of the way: The Cubs didn't choke in 2018.

Sure, they ultimately finished in second place in the National League Central, but that was as much due to a red-hot Brewers team catching them from behind as anything else. The Cubs went 16-12 in September, which is hardly a collapse.

But the end result is what truly matters, not the 95 wins that came prior. The Cubs had homefield advantage for Game 163 against the Brewers and the NL Wild-Card Game against the Rockies on back-to-back days and lost both games, managing just 2 runs scored in 24 combined innings.

We all know the Cubs offense "broke" in the second half. 

Prior to the All-Star Game, the Cubs had the best offense in baseball — even better than the Yankees and Red Sox. After the break, they ranked 15th in baseball in offensive WAR (FanGraphs), which includes a No. 27 ranking in slugging percentage — ahead of only the Tigers, Marlins and Giants.

The Cubs bullpen didn't fall apart late, but that was only because it was held together by veterans picked up off the scrap heap (Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa, Jaime Garcia). 

Meanwhile, the top relief arms all hit a wall (if they were even healthy enough to take the mound).

Brandon Morrow didn't throw a pitch in the second half. Pedro Strop strained his hamstring on Sept. 13 and only threw one inning the rest of the way (in the Wild-Card Game). Steve Cishek woke up on the morning of Aug. 27 with a 1.68 ERA and then gave up 6 runs and 16 baserunners over his final 11.1 innings of the season. Carl Edwards Jr. posted a 5.14 ERA in September with more walks (12) than strikeouts (9).

Each one of these situations taken on its own could lead you to believe it was all just coincidence. But it's the second straight year the Cubs bullpen faded down the stretch, during the most important time of the season. 

In the second half of 2017, the Cubs bullpen posted a 4.48 ERA as a group, good for 21st in baseball. That number includes a 4.36 ERA in September and October, which ranked 17th in MLB. The difference that year was the offense picked up the slack. The Cubs ranked 5th in baseball in offensive WAR in the second half of 2017, including 7th in slugging.

Last year, much of the bullpen fade could be attributed to fatigue, as they had to cover a so many innings earlier in the season with all the issues in the starting rotation.

The Cubs also had a brutal schedule down the stretch (which you've undoubtedly heard about already), showing up to the ballpark 42 of the final 43 days of the year.

But the Cubs better hope they've learned how to handle that tough stretch, because they're in store for another one this year. From Aug. 27 through the end of the year (a stretch of 34 days), the Cubs have only two off-days scheduled. One rainout could put the team in a very similar spot this fall, right as the pennant race heats up.

So how can the Cubs ensure they're firing on all cylinders entering October as they chase another World Series ring?

For starters, it will be about keeping everybody fresh. Joe Maddon's coaching staff has always prioritized rest for the players throughout the season while Theo Epstein's front office has insisted on packing their roster full of depth. 

Injuries will happen, though nobody really knows when. The Cubs are already doing all they can to try to keep all their players on the field as much as possible, but they're probably due for a bit better luck in that regard after a tough 2018.

But part of the "freshness" is on Maddon and how often he utilizes the pitchers. The Cubs figure to be in a better spot with their rotation this year to go deeper into games and thus save bullets for the bullpen later in the year. 

The Cubs would also do well with more offensive consistency. Of course that's easy to sit here and say, but obviously they have a better chance of being in an enviable position in September and October if their young hitters are able to take the expected steps forward in their development. A healthy Kris Bryant should do quite a bit to ease the burden on the rest of the lineup.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs can't control their schedule and they can't stop injuries or predict when they'll happen. But they can control their own development and production and that will ultimately be what decides where the Cubs sit when playoff baseball appears on the horizon.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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