Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras runs to third base after hitting a home run against the Washington Nationals on August 6, 2017, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/TNS
Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/TNS

This could be Contreras' season to clean up as Cubs' No. 4 hitter

"It's not important who is going to be the leadoff guy," Happ said. "It's just the guys we have in the lineup. How deep we are is impressive. There's no bad spot to hit in the lineup."

The Cubs invested nearly all of their available money for this season in pitching, partly because they produced 822 runs — second most in the National League — despite a lack of consistent production at the top of the order and a strikeout total that climbed from 1,339 to 1,401 in 2017.

The expectation is the growing pains of their young hitters will subside and the offense will improve on its .239 batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs.

"We did have some big numbers and then some small numbers," said Maddon, who noted the Cubs followed a double-digit output by scoring one run or fewer in the next game on five occasions. "That was a bit deceptive in regard to runs scored. We need to be more consistent putting a number up on a nightly basis and against better guys. We really have to ascend against the better-stuff guys (such as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw).

"You can talk about data and this and that, but you know what you're thinking in the box or not thinking in the box, if it makes sense. Have an approach. How am I going to attack this guy? Then the thoughts aren't on you, but (rather on) what am I seeing, and how am I going to beat this guy just like you did in Little League?"

The biggest measuring stick for Cubs improvement may be the efficiency in front and behind Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras in the heart of the batting order.

For his part, Contreras seems suited best at cleanup, though he didn't bat there until June 5. After then, he took off with a .307 batting average, 13 home runs, 39 RBIs and 25 walks in 44 games from the spot.

"It's almost those three guys in the middle who set the tone, and then the younger guys are figuring it out," said Maddon, referring to the need for Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Happ to gain better strike zone discipline as Albert Almora Jr. has displayed.

"It's more about strike zone control, knowing what to swing at and what to lay off. That's where their real success is going to occur. If you thinking about Rizzo and (Bryant), they're good at that. So is Willson."

Part of Maddon's belief the club's hitting will improve stems partly from the hiring of hitting coach Chili Davis and Davis' reputation for helping batters prepare for various situations.

"The hitters will feel he's with them every pitch once they step in the batter's box," Athletics manager Bob Melvin told the Tribune in January.

Maddon stressed the "ability to teach in the moment, that's the tough part to teach."

The message of adjusting to each situation has resonated with Contreras.

"Baseball is a little complicated to say I'm going to drive in 100 runs," Contreras said. "I don't think about hitting 30 homers or driving in 100 runs. I'm thinking about good at-bats every single at-bat and not giving up any at-bats and do the best for my team.

"I don't know if I'm hitting fourth or fifth, but I'll do whatever's best to help the team win. With runners in scoring position, I'll try to put the ball in play and see what happens."

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