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Chicago Cubs: Heyward and Russell’s role in vaunted lineup

jfrancis
Sep 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward (22) celebrates with teammates after he hits a game winning RBI single against the San Francisco Giants in the thirteenth inning of their game at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 4, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward (22) celebrates with teammates after he hits a game winning RBI single against the San Francisco Giants in the thirteenth inning of their game at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /
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The middle of the Chicago Cubs’ lineup will be a challenge for pitchers to get through. If Jason Heyward and Addison Russell hit, the offense could be one of baseball’s best.

If many of you are like me, the fact that the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series still has not sunk in completely. But, as the offseason continues to unfold, speculation regarding the team’s chances of a repeat performance abounds. It is a challenging task, but one the team can handle after their experience last season.

A lot of things went well for the Cubs in 2016. Strong pitching performances by Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester led the rotation into the league’s best. Trades executed by the front office to bring in Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery solidified the bullpen. And the defense was tighter than security at the White House. These aspects proved crucial to the Cubs’ success.

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The area in which the team can improve the most in 2017 is their offense. As a team, the Cubs were 14th in Major League Baseball with a .256 team batting average. Their ability to take walks ranked first in the majors, helping them to a team on-base percentage of .343. With a powerful middle of the lineup, the performance of Jason Heyward and Addison Russell will make or break the offense.

Room for improvement

The struggles of Jason Heyward are well documented. The 2016 season is one he and many fans want to forget. The steep contract and the new team may have been too much pressure for the veteran outfielder; however, you never heard him complaining. And, when the team needed someone to lead the way, Heyward stepped up. But, now it is time for the 27-year old outfielder to produce at the plate.

There are glimmers of promise when looking through Hayward’s stats. The potential is there for him to be a 20 home run and 20 stolen base player. It is something he achieved in 2012. And, even with a career .262 average, his on-base percentage is .346. Get men on base in front of him with less than two outs, Heyward hits over .300.

This offseason, Heyward has moved to Arizona to work on his swing. The extra motion and long movement caused problems in 2016. If he can raise his average and hit line drives, the potency of the Chicago Cubs offense increases.

Putting it all together

In his second year of play, Addison Russell significantly improved. He was third on the team in home runs and runs batted in, and raised his on-base percentage to .321. Still, Russell struck out 135 times and hit into 11 double plays. He, like Heyward, is valuable for his defense. Yet, he needs to put the offensive promise together.

Russell’s offensive numbers can still improve. He performs at his best when runners are on base and there are outs. For example, when there are runners on first and third with one out, he hits for a .417 average. Same situation with two outs? That drops to .364. However, with the same situation and there are no outs, he bats .200.

The young shortstop has shown an ability to come up big when it is needed. Another season around more patient players, such as Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo, may help Russell understand the strike zone better. When the pitcher is ahead of him in the count, Russell hits for a .174/.186/.278 split. With two strikes, his average drops to .160 and strikes out 51% of the time. If he can show more patience and see more pitches, his splits will only get better.

Next: Was Chapman out of line on his comments?

Only if….

The total offensive package that the Chicago Cubs possess is capable of greatness. For the team to win again in 2017, all hitters will need to contribute. If Jason Heyward and Addison Russell show improvement at the plate, the pressure will be off the middle of the lineup to carry the team. That is only an if right now.

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