By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — The dreaded sophomore jinx is something of a fable in the way baseball people talk about second-year players. It’s thought to relate to the adjustments they must make in the second year of big league play. Or is it ?
Great players and flash-in-the-pan stars have all been subject to the second-year analysis by pundits. After hitting .284 in his first full season in the majors, future Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo hit .227 in his second season.
More to the present, new Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward looked great in his rookie year in Atlanta, hitting .277 with 18 homers and 7 2 RBIs. He then slumped to a .227 batting average with 14 homers and 42 RBIs in his second season.
“I learned more about the business of baseball than anything,” Heyward said. “I was hurt and had to play through it on my own, while people made there own observations. I learned to follow my own thoughts and learned about trust and that this is a business.”
Four second-year Cubs will be under that adjustment microscope for all of the 2016 campaign. Sophomores Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell will face foes who are now armed with far more detailed scouting reports on how to get them out. The adjustments they make with be on an individual basis but also have a collective tone.
“They will have to make adjustments,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That is the nature of the game. Last year will help the scouts break down each of our young guys. They will give their teams ways to attack our hitters a little differently. That is what this game is — a series of adjustments, cat and mouse. The good thing for us is we have a lot of second-year guys. They will have their own little group to talk things over and then to to the rest of us.”
None of the four amigos played an entire big league schedule last season, though Bryant came close. Only Soler was on the 25-man roster on Opening Day. Bryant made his debut last April 17 after spending a couple reasons in the minor leagues for service time reasons. He ended up playing 151 regular-season games.
Russell debuted on April 21. Both he and Soler also spent time on the disabled list. Schwarber wasn’t promoted until mid-June the first time around and then not permanently until mid-July.
Bryant hit .275 with 26 homers and 99 RBIs last year, while Soler batted .262 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs. Schwarber hit .246 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs. Russell batted .242 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs.
There’s work to be done for this group, but the success they had as a unit should be a comforting aspect of their collective development.
“Having had the lights on us as a team last year was really a good experience to help these guys slow down the game going forward,” Rizzo said.
The team’s leader, Rizzo was referencing the Cubs’ surprisingly deep playoff push into late October last season that ended with an NLCS sweep at the hands of the Mets. That type of group success and ultimate failure tends to bring players together as professionals quickly.
This preparation can ease than the individual struggle that each player must endure to stay in the big leagues.
“Everybody is different and each guy will have to let it come to them,” Heyward said. “This is a natural process we all have to go through. I will let them know I am here if they need anything. I will ask the younger guys questions as well. I feel you can never stop learning about this game. They will have to let that process happen and go from there.”
The raw talent of these sophomores may make this transition easier.
“There is a learning level just coming into the second season after your first big league season,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “I think it’s getting used to the process and having downtime, still coming in ready and hungry. It is different when you know you have a spot on the team and now you’re expected to produce at a high level. There is a mental and physical adjustment. The way I saw our guys make their adjustments last year in our run makes me worry less about them in their second season.”
All of the Cubs’ players, however young or old, will be expected fill their role on a team that’s been tabbed as the World Series favorite.
“Heading into this year, there will be a lot more expectations,” the 22-year-old Russell said. “We adapted pretty well last year at an early age and limited experience level. Whatever the adjustments come down to, we will have to handle our business and go about our work the same way. We will prepare the same way and hopefully come out on top.”
Complacent behavior hasn’t been shown by the team so far in spring training. For his part, Russell had a stringent offseason core strengthening program that he followed after tearing his hamstring late last season. Also prone to leg injuries, Soler had a similar directive this offseason from the Cubs’ medical and conditioning staff.
“We appear to have done a great job of preparing in the offseason,” Russell said. “Just looking at the guys coming in from the offseason, they look strong and in great shape. Only time will tell, but I think everyone is ready to go and this will be another great year for the team.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.