Shepkowski: 1990s Indians Inform Us Of How Young Cubs Sluggers Could Progress

By Nick Shepkowski–

(CBS) On the Spiegel and Goff Show on Monday, Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio discussed how the second full season at the big league level is the most important and often the most difficult of a player’s career.

I realize Bosio works with pitchers and was speaking about specifically about second-year right-hander Kyle Hendricks when making the comment, but it got me thinking about the 2016 Cubs and how many of their key players are going into such second seasons. It also got me thinking about another core of young position players that went on to lead their franchise to deep playoff runs with regularity despite never winning a World Series together.

This young Cubs core reminds me of the Cleveland Indians’ core in the early 1990s. There was Kenny Lofton at the top of the order, Carlos Baerga playing second and Albert Belle turning into one of the game’s finest sluggers for a few years, while Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez would bring even more power a couple of years later.

It’s not a perfect comparison because outside of Thome and Ramirez in 1994, none of the other three Indians came up and played as primary starters together like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell did as Cubs rookies in 2015. Still, it’s a fair comparison nonetheless, so I was curious how the Tribe’s young core fared in their second seasons with significant playing time in the majors.

Carlos Baerga played in 108 games his rookie year, way back in 1990 as a 21-year-old. He hit .260/.300/.394, with seven home runs and 47 RBIs. That’s a similar to Russell, who in his age-21 season last year had a slash line of .242/.307/.389. The good news if you think Russell is on a similar track? Baerga rose to a .288/.346/.398 line the next season. If Russell sees a similar result, it’d be much more in line with the OPS numbers he’s had while coming up through the minors.

Belle was a highly touted prospect, but a hot temper and drinking problem kept him from from a full-time job in the majors until he was 24. In that 1991 season, Belle played 123 games for the Indians and hit .282 with a .323 on-base percentage and .863 OPS. The following season saw Belle regress to a .260 batting average, .320 on-base percentage and .797 OPS. Belle would go onto play eight more seasons after that, hitting 381 career home runs while seemingly not being liked anywhere along the way.

Lofton was a mix of both Baerga and Belle over those couple years. How exactly? Well, he didn’t play a full season in the majors until he was 25, a year later than Belle. But Lofton saw his numbers climb significantly in his second year, as his batting average went up from .285 to .325, his on-base rose from .362 to .408 and his OPS rose all the way from .726 to .815 — despite hitting four fewer home runs in the latter year. Lofton would go on to be one of the league’s best leadoff men for another decade, something the Cubs don’t currently seem to have in the system.

A couple years after these debuts, a couple of the game’s greatest sluggers of the generation began getting regular playing time with the Indians. Both Thome and Ramirez began playing regularly in 1994, and both made a pretty instant splash.

Thome hit .268/.359/.523 with an OPS of .882 while cranking out 20 home runs in 1994 — and the future Hall of Famer did that in just 98 games in the strike-shortened year. He’d go on to hit .314/.438/.558 with an OPS of .996 in his second year, while slugging another 25 home runs.

Meanwhile, Ramirez had a strong rookie year in 1994, hitting .269 with a .357 on-base mark and .521 slugging percentage. His .878 OPS and 17 home runs in 91 games were great for a debut before he got even even better in year two with a .308/.402/.558 line and 31 home runs.

For comparison’s sake, the two big-time Cubs sluggers to make their debuts last year in Bryant and Schwarber were fairly comparable to Thome and Ramirez, which is quite the feat considering both finished their careers with Hall of Fame numbers.

Bryant hit .275/.369/.488 with an .858 OPS while slugging 26 home runs last year, while Schwarber hit .246/.355/.487 with an .842 OPS and 16 home runs in just 69 games. In short, their on-base percentages were extremely close to what Ramirez and Thome put up in year one. The power numbers or Bryant and Schwarber weren’t as special, but they were still really good.

So what does it all mean?

I understand why some are quick to think some of the Cubs’ building blocks are set to take a step back this year. Face it, 97 wins is a hard mark to achieve. A team comprised of so many rookies and young players doing it a year ago was unforeseen by even the most optimistic Cubs fan. The Cubs’ sophomores have acknowledged there will be adjustments to make and another learning curve, but the thought that there will be a drastic struggles is far-fetched.

Like those Indians had, these Cubs have bright futures ahead, and the eye test and history tell us they could be special.

Nick Shepkowski is a weekend host at 670 The Score and produces The Spiegel and Goff Show each weekday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.  You can find all of his work here and follow him on Twitter @Shep670.

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