Addison Russell

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

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USA TODAY

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

The Cubs had many stellar individual offensive seasons in 2019. There is no questioning that.

Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras enjoyed resurgent campaigns; Javier Baez was one of the NL’s best hitters before suffering a thumb injury; Jason Heyward had his best offensive season on the North Side, while Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, arguably, had career years at the plate.

And yet, among those performances were two constants: the suboptimal production from Cubs center fielders and second basemen.

The Cubs used five different center fielders in 2019, with Albert Almora Jr. (80) and Jason Heyward (74) receiving the bulk of the starts. This pales in comparison to the team’s second base rotation, however, where six players started at least 10 games.

“Center field and second base were the two positions where we had the least production this year, we had the most trouble finding consistent performance,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at Monday’s end-of-season press conference.  

Cubs second basemen posted a combined .220/.301/.383 (.684 OPS) slash line, all team lows (sans pitchers and designated hitters). League-wide, they ranked 28th in average and 21st in OPS, though Ben Zobrist's four-month leave of absence certainly played a role here.

Cubs center fielders weren’t much better, ranking second-worst among the team’s positional groups with a .232/.305/.388 (.693 OPS) slash line. League-wide, they checked in at 20th in both average and OPS.

Almora finished the season with career lows in average and on-base percentage. This led the Cubs to: a) play Heyward in center field more, b) acquire Nick Castellanos and c) make Almora a defensive replacement.

Heyward’s final numbers were negatively affected by his August stint leading off — where he is less comfortable hitting than other spots. But with no better options, he essentially took one for the team, though former manager Joe Maddon probably could’ve pulled the plug on the experiment sooner.

Coincidentally, Heyward moved to the leadoff spot around the same time he became the Cubs' full-time center fielder. So, while he had a solid season overall, his toughest stretch came as a center fielder, which "helped" drag down the team's overall numbers for the position.

Some form of change is coming to the Cubs roster this offseason. And while Epstein admitted center field/leadoff is a position they’d look to upgrade, it’s not like it’ll be an easy task.

“We do have in-house options, but being transparent, of course it’s an area where you look to upgrade and see if you can get the total package, with the prototypical center fielder who can also leadoff,” Epstein said. “If you look at the landscape of center fielders in the game, it’s not exactly a position with great surplus or an overabundance of options out there."

So, what do the Cubs do if there’s no clear option for them to acquire?

“You just have to be realistic,” Epstein said. “If you spend all your time waiting for that next guy who solves all your problems to be there, you might pass on some good options, where you can put things together with a platoon or use a player that you currently have and compliment him with a more attainable player from outside the organization.”

The Cubs have an intriguing second base option in Nico Hoerner, who can also play center field, if needed. The 22-year-old joined the Cubs in September, filling in at shortstop for the injured Baez and Addison Russell. Barring a trade, Baez will be the Cubs starting shortstop next season, but Hoerner's contact-oriented approach makes him a good fit for the Cubs lineup, possibly as a leadoff hitter.

Epstein was complimentary of how Hoerner responded to his September promotion, though he added that the Cubs haven’t determined where the 22-year-old will start the 2020 season.

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A,” he said. “It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something, under the extraordinary circumstances, that he could handle.”

If Hoerner starts the 2020 season in the minor leagues, other Cubs second basemen under contract include Russell, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia, David Bote and Ian Happ.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A twice this season, though he hit just .237/.308/.391 in 82 big-league games. He also missed the first month of the season while serving a domestic violence suspension.

Descalso was hampered by an ankle injury for much of the season, which affected his performance at the plate. Kemp brought the Cubs a contact-oriented approach, but he hit just .183 after they acquired him at the trade deadline.

Garcia showed promise, though he struggled to hit breaking pitches. Bote and Happ did contribute on consistent basis offensively, but they saw more time at third base and in the outfield, respectively.

Point being, there’s no option that jumps off the page right now. Whether it’s center field, second base or elsewhere, Epstein and Co. won’t hesitate to make an upgrade, should they see fit.

“We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts,” he said. “I think we had a lot of good individual performances, we had a lot of talent and ability.

“I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs.”

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An early look at the Cubs' 2020 roster

An early look at the Cubs' 2020 roster

We still have a month before the MLB offseason truly begins and Theo Epstein's front office gets started on making over the roster for the 2020 season.

In the meantime, Epstein and Co. are focusing on their "full speed ahead" search for a new manager, determining the future of the rest of the coaching staff and hiring the organization's hitting and pitching directors (new positions they're looking to add this winter). 

But this Cubs roster will be the area of the franchise under the microscope next season. It's a loaded group of talent but for whatever reason, that has not translated to "make the whole greater than the sum of the parts," as Epstein has continually — and correctly — pointed out.

"I think we had to make more adjustments as a team, not really the manager," Javy Baez said in St. Louis shortly after Joe Maddon's departure was announced. "I think the game is changing a lot, just coaches and people seeing the game from the outside. I think as a team, we had to make that adjustment. 

"You see a lot of teams playing different and getting better every day in so many small things that we haven't and that's a conversation that we've been having with the players and we're obviously trying to see what those changes are and try to make those adjustments for next year."

The Cubs will have a new manager, but it's going to be all about the players in 2020. Let's take a look at where the roster stands at the moment and who they'll be missing (salary figures all from RosterResource.com):

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS

Nicholas Castellanos
Cole Hamels
Ben Zobrist
Steve Cishek
Pedro Strop
Brandon Kintzler
Jonathan Lucroy
Brian Duensing
Xavier Cedeno

*Brandon Morrow
*Derek Holland
*Tony Barnette

The Cubs hold an option on the latter three players, though Morrow's $12 million is a vesting option that will not hit given he hasn't pitched since July 2018. The Cubs do owe $3 million to Morrow as a buy-out.

Holland has a $6.5 million club option that will almost assuredly not be picked up. The veteran lefty was a welcome midseason addition inside the clubhouse to help keep things loose with his sense of humor, but that's a lot of money to pay a guy who is about to turn 33 and just posted a 6.08 ERA in 2019 (including a 6.89 mark with the Cubs).

The Cubs have a $3 million option on Barnette, but will definitely not pick that up after he went on the restricted list to evaluate his career after being sent down to the minors following two big-league games in late-June.

So total, that's about $60 million of player salary off the books for the Cubs this winter. The salary relief is nice for a team that was hamstrung by budget issues last winter, but this list of players also leaves quite a few potential holes on the roster.

Here's how the rest of the group looks:

CATCHERS

Willson Contreras
Victor Caratini

Salary owed: Contreras will be in his first year of arbitration, so will get a raise over his $684,000 salary from 2019. Caratini is still in pre-arbitration.

Analysis

There may be no team in baseball that has a 2020 catching depth chart capable of rivaling the Cubs'. Caratini enjoyed a breakout season and could easily be a starter on many teams around the league. Contreras has started each of the last two All-Star games for the NL. 

Both players could find themselves on the trade market this winter for various reasons as the Cubs look to shake up their roster. 

Contreras is an offensive force, has a cannon for an arm and plays with a ton of energy. But he also struggles with pitch-framing and would figure to net quite the return if the Cubs opted to trade him. 

Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Caratini is a switch-hitter who flashed power and professional at-bats this season while also emerging as a quality defensive catcher with a nice rapport with the pitching staff. All of that also adds up to an enticing trade piece should the Cubs decide to shop him.

Or the Cubs could keep both players and continue to boast superior depth while also utilizing Caratini as a backup corner infielder and Contreras as a potential backup corner outfielder.

INFIELDERS

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Tony Kemp
Nico Hoerner
David Bote
Daniel Descalso

Salary owed: Rizzo has a $14.5 million team option the Cubs will absolutely pick up, Descalso is owed $2.5 million in the second year of his deal and Bote is owed $960,000 in the second year of his extension. Hoerner and Kemp are both pre-arbitration players. Bryant is entering his third year of arbitration and will receive a solid bump on his $12.9 million salary while Baez enters Year 2 of arb and will see a significant raise on his $5.2 million salary.

Analysis

This group is a bit crowded and could also reasonably include Addison Russell and Robel Garcia (more on them later). The battle for the 2020 second baseman should be interesting, with Kemp, Hoerner, Descalso, Bote, Russell, Garcia and Ian Happ all in the mix as of this moment. The Cubs may opt to send Hoerner down to Triple-A Iowa for the first part of the season to continue his development (remember, he's only played 89 minor-league games in his career), but he more than held his own in the big leagues in September and his skillset and personality is perfect for this team (plus he can lend depth at shortstop behind Baez).

The Cubs like Kemp's energy, versatility and contact ability — all of which will be important for this club moving forward. Epstein made it a point to emphasize the need for more contact from this lineup overall and Kemp can also play all three outfield positions in addition to second base.

Bote is a solid role player offensively and has flashed the ability to be a plus defender, but he was too mistake-prone in the field in part-time duty this season. Still, he represents depth across the infield at a very reasonable price. 

Descalso had a rough season on the field and even when he was healthy and the Cubs were out of the race, he still couldn't crack the starting lineup in any of the final four games of the season. But Epstein mentioned him specifically in the end-of-season presser for his clubhouse leadership and Descalso was an impactful bat in April before he suffered an ankle injury that affected his performance. Expect him to return in some capacity next season.

Rizzo, Bryant and Baez are the studs and barring a trade of one of them this winter (it's almost impossible to see Rizzo or Baez dealt), they will be the "Big 3" again next season. The offense and defense will once again run through this trio.

OUTFIELDERS

Kyle Schwarber
Jason Heyward
Albert Almora Jr.
Ian Happ

Salary owed: Heyward will make $23.5 million in his fifth year of an eight-year deal. He can opt out this fall, but that won't happen. Schwarber will be in his second year of arb and will get a raise on his $3.39 million salary. Almora will be in his first year of arb and Happ is still a pre-arb player.

Analysis

Almora is a potential candidate to be non-tendered or traded this winter given that he's due for a solid raise on his pre-arb contract and was a negative-value player in 2019 by FanGraphs' metric (-0.7 WAR). It's the second straight disappointing season for the first draft pick of the Epstein administration and the typically-reliable defender also took a step back in that area this year. What the Cubs do with Almora will be one of the most intriguing storylines this offseason.

Happ is also a prime trade candidate, especially with the way he finished while notching NL Player of the Week honors for the final week of the regular season. He made some clear strides as a hitter, reducing strikeouts while retaining power and was worth 1.5 WAR in only 156 big-league plate appearances. He could be a great utility piece for this team in 2020 or one of its top trade assets.

Schwarber enjoyed a breakout season, finally putting it all together and becoming a feared all-around hitter and not just a slugger. Sure, his trade value has gone way up because of that, but it's also tougher to see the Cubs trading him now after realizing his potential and continuing to serve as one of the most popular and respected players in the clubhouse.

Heyward had his best offensive season in a Cubs uniform and stepped up when they needed him to play center field and lead off in the last couple months of the year. He'll be back and will look to build off a solid 2019 while also continuing his quiet leadership.

STARTING ROTATION

Yu Darvish
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana
Tyler Chatwood

Salary owed: Darvish can opt out of his contract, but probably won't after finally finding comfort in Chicago; he will make $22 million in 2020. Lester is set to be paid $20 million, Hendricks is owed $12 million and the Cubs have an $11.5 million club option on Quintana (which they almost assuredly will pick up). Chatwood will make $13 million in the final year of his deal.

Analysis

I'm including Chatwood in this aspect because as of right now, he's the most likely option to be the Cubs' fifth starter. Obviously this entire exercise does not include any acquisitions to this club via free agency or trade simply because we don't know what they are yet. The Cubs will likely add another starting option to the mix this winter, but Chatwood has earned a chance to join the rotation again after a resurgent 2019 where he served as a valuable swingman for the club. 

Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay and Kendall Graveman also present depth options for the rotation. Mills has exceeded expectations and silenced doubters with his work in a swingman capacity at the big-league level the last couple seasons, including two solid starts against the Cardinals in the final week of 2019. Alzolay is the organization's top pitching prospect and should have the reins taken off him a bit in 2020 after dealing with injuries the last couple years. Graveman spent all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He'll be 29 in December and would be owed $3 million if the Cubs pick up his option. He has a 4.38 career ERA in 83 MLB appearances (78 starts) with the Blue Jays and A's from 2014-18.

Darvish (assuming he does not opt out) and Hendricks return as the top two starters in the rotation, though both will be searching for more consistency from start to finish. Questions will continue to surround Lester as he turns 36 and is coming off arguably the worst season of his career where he gave up a league-leading 205 hits in 171.2 innings. Yes, he'll be one year older, but bet against the veteran southpaw at your own risk.

Quintana is an interesting case, as he finished the season in miserable fashion (11.09 ERA, 2.25 WHIP in September) but was behind only Hendricks in terms of WAR on the Cubs pitching staff. The veteran lefty was the only member of the rotation to not be hampered by injury in 2019 and was the rock for the first five months of the season while Hendricks, Darvish, Hamels and Lester dealt with either injury or inconsistency. An $11.5 million price tag for a guy who always makes 30+ starts with average-to-above-average results is very affordable, especially given the price of pitching in the market today. Expect the Cubs to pick up Q's option.

BULLPEN

Craig Kimbrel
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck

Salary owed: Kimbrel is set to make $16 million in his first full year with the club while Ryan will be in his first year of arbitration. Wick and Wieck are still pre-arb, so they will be very affordable.

Analysis

The Cubs can do nothing but hope a normal spring training and offseason routine will lead to better results for Kimbrel, who finished 2019 as the least valuable pitcher on the roster (-1.0 WAR) with a 6.53 ERA, 8.00 FIP and 9 homers allowed in just 20.2 innings. It's reasonable to anticipate a bounceback, as Kimbrel dealt with elbow and knee injuries in 2019 and prior to this season, had never posted an ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his entire career. He was on a Hall of Fame trajectory in his career before coming to Chicago and won't be 32 until late-May, though a $16 million price tag presents an enormous risk.

Wick, Ryan and Wieck have all emerged as viable options for the bullpen moving forward with the way they pitched for the Cubs in 2019. Ryan impressed so much with Triple-A Iowa last season that the Cubs offered him a big-league deal and then after he somehow didn't make the club coming out of spring training, he was called up in the first week of the season and became the lone reliable lefty until Wieck came along. The Wi(e)cks were roommates in San Diego and are both a product of the Cubs' "Pitch Lab" (along with Ryan). Wick was acquired last winter and the Cubs got Wieck in return for Carl Edwards Jr. at the trade deadline this summer.

Beyond that quartet, the Cubs bullpen is up for grabs. David Phelps is a potential option as a veteran who can also start and will be two years removed from Tommy John surgery. But his team option also jumped up to $5 million when he topped 40 appearances in 2019, and that is a pretty hefty price tag for a guy with some question marks.

Alzolay, Mills, Graveman or Chatwood could all move to the bullpen if they don't crack the rotation. James Norwood and Dillon Maples could also be in the mix, though they have minor-league options remaining and figure to ride the Iowa-to-Chicago shuttle again next season. Danny Hultzen and Duane Underwood Jr. are other potential bullpen pieces, though they are both out of minor-league options. 

Expect the Cubs to address the bullpen with several additions this winter, including likely at least one veteran high-leverage guy. Wick is a solid option to close should Kimbrel struggle or get injured again.

OTHER PLAYERS

Garcia should stay in the organization and has multiple minor-league options remaining, but he has clear holes in his swing/offensive game and despite his versatility and power, figures to begin 2020 in Triple-A.

Russell made nearly $3 million in 2019 despite missing the first month to suspension and spending several other weeks in the minors. He will be entering his third year of arbitration and even a modest raise ($4 million) would be a lot of money to pay a player who has simply not performed well on the field over the last few seasons, including inexcusable mental mistakes. He appears to be making all the right strides and taking all the right steps to better his life after violating the league's domestic violence policy. 

Put that all together, and it seems clear Russell has no future with the Cubs anymore. They can either trade him or simply non-tender him, but either way, the organization can move on knowing Hoerner provides quality depth at shortstop and there are plenty of other options for second base. Russell could probably use a change of scenery and fresh start himself, so expect that to come with another team at some point this winter.

FINANCIAL STATUS

The Cubs have $135.96 million committed to 10 players (Rizzo, Heyward, Lester, Darvish, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood, Kimbrel, Descalso, Bote), assuming they pick up the options on Rizzo and Quintana. Pencil in another $4 million or so for the pre-arb players that should stick around in some capacity (Kemp, Wick, Wieck, Mills, Hoerner, Caratini, Happ) and then at least $30 million for the arbitration-eligible players (Bryant, Baez, Schwarber, Contreras, Almora, Ryan) and the Cubs are already approaching $170 million in Opening Day payroll for next season.

That's obviously just an estimate and any trades will change that equation, plus whatever they decide for options on players like Phelps and Graveman as well as Russell's future. 

The Cubs typically set aside $10 million or so for in-season acquisitions and Roster Resource projects $2.25 million for 40-man players in the minor leagues and another $15 million for player benefits to be paid out. 

There's clearly room in the payroll to add to this roster, but any major acquisitions will push the Cubs close to — or over — the luxury tax threshold once again in 2020.

NEEDS

This roster is clearly not perfect, but it should at least be a comfort that there is a lot of quality depth across the board. Even without any additions, this roster — on paper — should be good enough to contend within the division again next season.

However, they can certainly fill some holes and address needs by adding another rotation arm (potentially a frontline or mid-rotation starter), another high-leverage reliever or two and another impactful bat. Unless the plan is to put Rizzo atop the order full-time in 2020, the Cubs need to add a leadoff hitter this winter and they could use an upgrade in center field unless they aim to move Heyward there every day again or roll out Happ consistently.

Some of these needs can be filled by re-signing their own free agents, including Castellanos, Zobrist, Strop, Cishek or Kintzler. The Cubs value Hamels as a clubhouse leader and winning player, but he's going to be 36 and has dealt with inconsistency every season for a few years running due in large part to a pair of oblique injuries.

Other holes on this roster may open up depending on winter trades, as well. 

Either way, buckle up. This should be a very interesting offseason...

Cubs injury updates: Rizzo, Russell, Kimbrel, Baez

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USA TODAY

Cubs injury updates: Rizzo, Russell, Kimbrel, Baez

If the Cubs are going to catch the Cardinals in the NL Central, overtake the Nationals in the Wild-Card race or hold off the Brewers, they're going to have to do so without the help of some key players down the stretch.

The Cubs were already feeling the effects of those injuries even before Anthony Rizzo went down with a nasty-looking ankle injury Sunday afternoon.

The good news is Rizzo appears to have avoided a fracture, as initial X-rays were negative. However, he will have an MRI Monday to determine the severity of his sprained ankle and will likely be sidelined for at least a few days, if not longer.

Rizzo's absence is huge, both offensively and defensively, as he remains the cornerstone of their infield with his Gold Glove work at first base. He also recently stepped into the leadoff role and completely changed the complexion of a Cubs lineup that has been waiting for consistent production out of the top spot all season.

Beyond Rizzo, the Cubs are also still unsure when they're going to see Javy Baez (fractured left thumb), Craig Kimbrel (right elbow inflammation) or Addison Russell (concussion) back on the field.

Baez suffered his thumb injury while sliding headfirst into second base on Sept. 1. An MRI on Sept. 9 showed the hairline fracture and he is expected to miss the rest of the regular season.

The Cubs don't yet have a timeline for Baez's return, but are holding out hope he can help the team in some way if they make it to October. He has been at home recovering in recent days, but will rejoin his teammates in Chicago at some point this week.

The Cubs have also been without Kimbrel since Sept. 1, but he threw a 20-pitch bullpen Sunday morning and came away from it feeling good. If he responds/recovers well Monday, he will face hitters in some capacity mid-week, likely in a simulated game.

Russell was placed on the 7-day IL Sunday due to a concussion he suffered last weekend in Milwaukee when he was hit in the face with a 94 mph fastball. The IL move is retroactive to Sept. 12, meaning he cannot play until at least Thursday, Sept. 19 (though even that is in doubt since head injuries do not carry clear timelines for recovery).

Rookie Nico Hoerner will remain as the Cubs shortstop in the interim.

Kris Bryant has also been dealing with right knee inflammation that has forced him out of action at various points over the last couple months, including Sept. 8 and 9. But Bryant received a cortisone shot in his knee early last week and has been on a tear since, with 5 home runs in 6 games since returning to the lineup. Bryant went 3-for-5 with 2 home runs and 4 RBI in Sunday's game.

"It's just a more assertive approach," Joe Maddon said. "There's no tentativeness attached to it. That's what I'm seeing. There's no guardedness. Whether it's that, 'my knee's gonna hurt' or 'I'm just trying to put the ball in play' - those two thoughts are out."

After wrapping up a three-game sweep of the Pirates at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will host the Cincinnati Reds from Monday through Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Nationals and Cardinals will square off in St. Louis while the Brewers get set to host the Padres at Miller Park.

 

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