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In a different season, maybe Cubs manager David Ross continues to let Seiya Suzuki work through his struggles in game situations.
Suzuki is the player the Cubs invested nearly $100 million in — $85 million contract plus a $14.625 million posting fee — to bring him over from from Japan, after all. They envision him being a big contributor to the “Next Great Cubs Team.” If this were either of the past two seasons, when the Cubs waived the proverbial white flag at the trade deadline, Suzuki likely still gets everyday at-bats in the name of his own development.
Of course, that isn’t the situation anymore. The Cubs bought at the deadline and are making a playoff push. The crowds at Wrigley Field this homestand have been outstanding, giving the four-game series against the Reds and the first two games of the weekend against the Braves a playoff-like atmosphere.
After beating the Braves 8-6 on Saturday afternoon, the Cubs are now 57-54. They head into Sunday’s series finale 2 1/2 games back in the National League Central and just one back of an NL Wild Card spot. They have the No. 1 team in the NL in town; a series win would be a massive outcome for arguably their biggest test of the season.
With the position the Cubs are in, all that matters at the end of the day is winning baseball games. Development has seemingly been pushed down on the list of importance — as it should when a team is chasing a playoff spot.
“Right now, you’ve got to put your ego aside,” Cubs manager David Ross said earlier in the week. “We’re not trying to fit in everybody’s at-bats and getting everybody at-bats. We’re trying to win every single game at all costs.”
With the Cubs still trying to climb to the top of the standings, Ross is trying to push all the right buttons in the name of winning. That includes those he pushed to help the team knot up the weekend series with Atlanta:
- Ross started Jeimer Candelario at first base and Nick Madrigal at third base rather than use some of the other combinations at his disposal; the duo went 4-for-8 with 2 RBIs (Candelario hit a double and his first home run since returning to the Cubs)
- Needing a spot starter for Marcus Stroman, Ross gave the ball to Javier Assad, who’d recorded a 0.40 ERA in his last nine outings but almost exclusively in long relief; Assad rewarded him with a solid 3 2/3 innings to keep the Braves at bay
- Ross picked the right spots to deploy his higher-leverage relievers, getting solid performances from Michael Fulmer (his 21st scoreless outing in his last 26 appearances) Mark Leiter Jr. (allowed only two runners to score after entering a bases-loaded, one-out situation), Julian Merryweather (only his fifth relief appearance of 2-plus innings this season) and Adbert Alzolay (another lockdown ninth inning for the emerging closer).
However, perhaps the move Ross made Saturday that most shows how important winning games is at the moment is the decision to sit Suzuki again Saturday. Rather than have Suzuki start against right-hander Bryce Elder on the mound for the Braves, Ross put Mike Tauchman in right field, respectively. The Cubs’ high-priced right fielder didn’t enter the game at any point.
“You can just tell he’s off with some of the swings you’re seeing,” Ross said. “He’s just not recognizing even when to get ready to hit and what pitch is even coming and what that plan is. Just in between. It feels like if he’s looking heater, they throw him the slider, and if he’s looking slider, throw him the heater. It’s like, got to stop guessing in those things and just get a plan in place. Simplify your thoughts in these moments when things are spinning out of control and in a downward spiral. You’ve got to kind of regroup and start at square one and just get a plan when you get in the box.”
There’s a trend that emerged this homestand. With lefties on the mound Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Suzuki was in the lineup (though he was moved down in the lineup his last two starts). The other three days, with righties taking the bump for the opponents, Suzuki was absent. But even in those games against the lefties, for the most part, it was obvious he was struggling. Now, it seems like Ross is making an even bolder decision.
“His heart is in the right place,” Ross said. “We’ve got to get his head in the right place, we’ve got to get his mechanics in the right place and just give him some things just to get him back going. He knows that. He knows he needs to work on some things. It’s hard to do that in game. We’ll give him some time, and he’ll be back in there when we feel like he can help us win games.”
Ross didn’t specifically say Suzuki was “benched,” but he appears to be planning to keep Suzuki out of the lineup for the time being. Maybe even a few days off will give him some time for a mental reset and to work on some things without worrying about performing in the games themselves (similar to Christopher Morel’s break during the road series in Anaheim earlier this year).
That, then, begs the question — how long will this last?
“I don’t know about that,” Ross said. “I mean, that could turn in a day, and we’ll see. We’ll talk to the hitting guys and talk to him and continue to watch the batting practice and different things that we’ll have coming up. I don’t think it’s anything long term, but we’re in a position where some other guys are swinging the bat well, and we’re really fortunate right now to have guys that are playing well.”
Obviously, Tauchman’s great play also factors into the equation. Tauchman has earned the playing time with his 121 wRC+ this season. Suzuki, meanwhile, owns a 62 wRC+ since the start of June and 67 wRC+ since the All-Star break.
When a team is playing meaningful games in August and trying to make the postseason, that isn’t good enough. Contracts, egos and feelings aside, the Cubs need to run their best lineups out there. At the moment, it seems the best lineup isn’t one with Suzuki in it.
And while they of course are going to do what it takes to get Suzuki back on track, Ross has made it clear winning is at the top of the list.
“I’m in the mindset of trying to win games in every possible way,” he said Thursday. “It definitely feels like a shift from developing guys and getting at-bats [for some hitters] and different things you kind of try to work in. Winning is always first and the top priority. When the game starts, winning is the priority.
“I think the mindset has changed a little bit to every advantage we can take advantage of, we’re going to try it. Whether that’s information or playing time or day-after-night rest, maximizing the guys that are swinging the bat well. It’s just juggling that as best as I possibly can.”
Suzuki can be a very good player for this ballclub. Him playing like his best self at the plate would go a long way toward giving a lineup already performing well an added boost. The Cubs look forward to getting him in there when they feel like he can help them win.
But until he finds that, it appears he’ll have to put in the work behind the scenes.
“Seiya has been a big part of our success to get to this point,” Ross said, “and we need him to be good for us to continue to go where we want to go.”
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