Chris Coghlan had, by WAR, the best year of his career in 2015. By the same measure, 2016 has been among his worst seasons since he broke into the majors and won the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year.
But the 31-year-old still has an important role as part of a deep, flexible Cubs bench that should be an asset as Joe Maddon looks to keep his team fresh for the final weeks of a season that should result in a second consecutive playoff appearance.
Coghlan started and batted sixth for the Cubs in Sunday night’s series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals, three nights after he pulled off a season highlight: With the Cubs down 2-0 in the sixth inning Thursday, Coghlan tried calling for time and stepped out of the box — but his request wasn’t granted, and Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez quick pitched him. Coghlan quickly got both feet into the batter’s box and roped a game-tying two-run single to right.
“Fortunately it worked,” Coghlan said. “… Hopefully I don’t have to do that again.”
The Cubs re-acquired Coghlan June 9 from the Oakland Athletics, and he’s been more productive since returning to Clark and Addison. Coghlan entered Sunday hitting .208/.387/.292 in 25 games with the Cubs — as opposed to his .146/.215/.272 line with the A’s — and has more walks (12) than hits (10). Those consistently-competitive at-bats have been helpful in pinch-hitting spots and when manager Joe Maddon calls on Coghlan for a spot start.
What’s impressed Maddon is how Coghlan hasn’t tried to do too much in those intermittent at-bats, which could be the case for a guy who’s pressing to earn a starting role back, either this year or next. Coghlan played in 148 games for the Cubs last year but is on pace to barely play over half a season in 2016.
“His attitude’s been fabulous, he’s been a great team guy when he’s not playing, he’s ready to pinch hit when it’s possible,” Maddon said. “He’s undergone a lot of changes over the last couple years but I know how much he likes being here. We love having him here.”
Still, Coghlan isn’t the first, second or even third choice to come off the Cubs’ bench in a neutral setting. Matt Szczur has been one of baseball’s most prolific pinch-hitters this season and homered twice in his start Friday, and all that positional flexibility means some combination of Coghlan, Szczur, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero and David Ross will be available off the Cubs’ bench on a given day (all but Coghlan and Montero are right-handed hitters.
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Maddon prefers to rely on matchup planning to determine when to deploy those guys. Coghlan got the start Sunday due to his success against Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake (10/16 with two home runs and no strikeouts in his career), and who starts or gets used in high-leverage pinch-hitting spots will be partly dependent on that matchup factor.
That means Coghlan’s playing time will remain sporadic as the Cubs churn toward clinching the National League Central. But Coghlan, at least for this season, is accepting of that role.
“It’s easier to do, to put your ego aside, when you’re chasing history,” Coghlan said. “And as close as we are, and we feel like we’re pulling for each other, and as good as we are — you’re chasing to win a World Series. So it’s easier to put your ego aside and do whatever you can and think of it as this year, this is your role, and the role’s not going to define me for my career but this is what I need to do for this year to be the best for this team.”