What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

What to make of Jeimer Candelario, the breakout star of Cubs camp so far

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have won the World Series. 

They have an everyday lineup packed with young position players that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Sprinkle in a few veterans and the Cubs' big-league roster is already overflowing with talent, to the point where everybody's favorite barroom game right now is trying to figure out how everybody plays.

So why don't we throw another name in there? 

Jeimer Candelario is enjoying a breakout spring for the Cubs, leading the team in hits, (8), runs (5), games played (9) and at-bats (24) through the first week-and-a-half of game action.

The 23-year-old infielder has five hits in six at-bats in the Cubs' last two games before leaving Sunday's game after getting hit on the ankle with a pitch against the Texas Rangers. He was a homer shy of the cycle on Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He's just different this year," Joe Maddon said. "He's more comfortable. ... He watches, he listens, he's quiet, but he's engaged. He's engaged really well. He's gonna be a nice player."

This is actually Candelario's second big-league camp with the Cubs and he made his major-league debut — and appeared in five games — as an injury call-up during the first week of July last year.

Maddon sees a guy that's more comfortable in his "major-league skin," an assessment Candelario agreed with. He said he feels more comfortable in the clubhouse, surrounded by players and coaches he already knows in a situation he's already been through.

"The way they take care of you — the teammates, how they treat you, how they respect you and how they go about your business," Candelario said, "it really gives you confidence and good rhythm here in big-league camp.

"When you don't know everybody well, you are kinda quiet and in your own spot. But right now, I know everybody here and I feel confidence and I feel blessed to be here with these great teammates and great people and great talent."

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Candelario exploded in spring training last year, too, hitting .350 with a 1.056 OPS and seven extra-base hits (four doubles, three homers).

But then he was sent back down to the minors — Double-A Tennessee, to be exact — where he struggled to the tune of a .219 average and .690 OPS in 56 games. He finished the year on a tear after being called up to Triple-A Iowa in June, hitting .333 with a .959 OPS in 76 games.

"Love the guy," Maddon said. "He showed it to us last spring. I think he went out at the beginning of last season and might've applied a little bit too much pressure to himself. Finally, the numbers righted themselves by the end of the year.

"... I think part of it was, he did so well here and then goes back. These are kids. The expectations they fill themselves with, sometimes, are unrealistic, like 'Oh, I did well in spring training, it should be easy.' Then all of a sudden, it's not and then you start to panic.

"I have a lot of faith in this kid. ... For me, the maturation for him is he feels good in his own skin. When that happens, heads up. It's like finding your voice; he's not quite there yet, but he's approaching that Stage 3: I belong here, I can do this.

"He's getting real close to that, from what I can gather. And once he really arrives there, heads up, 'cause he's got some big-boy tools."

Candelario's Triple-A explosion last season netted him spots on Baseball America's Top 10 Cubs prospects (7th) and Baseball Prospectus (5th). He did not appear on BP's 2016 list and came in at 10th on BA's rankings.

Candelario has been almost exclusively a third baseman as he climbed the ranks in the Cubs system, but he played 12 games at first base last year and started there in the place of Anthony Rizzo (tight back) Saturday and Sunday in Cactus League play.

Which brings us to where he fits in the big picture with the Cubs.

When you start rattling off the names of guys who can play third base (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Tommy La Stella, even Ben Zobrist and Munenori Kawasaki), it seems like a really tough spot for Candelario to crack, even if Maddon loves his defense at the hot corner.

But if Rizzo went down for an extended period of time, Candelario figures to be toward the top of the list as a first base replacement if the Cubs deem his bat ready.

Maddon already confirmed Bryant and Baez are the backup first basemen at the big-league level right now, but if Candelario keeps hitting the way he has, he may force his way into the lineup if a need arises.

Even in the outfield, though he's never played there in the six seasons he's been in the Cubs system.

"He's the kinda guy you could put in the outfield if you wanted to, but he's so good on the dirt, you'd probably like to leave him there," Maddon said. "However, if the bat comes and these spots are taken, then you do something else."

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs


The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Cubs add two more managerial interviews this week

Though not every managerial candidate wants the Cubs job, Theo Epstein's front office will add two more interviews to their docket this week.

Carlos Beltran reportedly does not want to take the Cubs gig and is holding out only for the Mets opening. However, the Cubs are moving on and will interview Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler this week. 

Espada has been a rumored target of the Cubs, but he has been understandably tied up with Houston's playoff run. The Astros have a day off Monday before continuing their ALCS battle with the Yankees, and Espada is reportedly at Wrigley to meet with Epstein and Jed Hoyer:

Espada, 44, is one of the hottest names on the managerial market this fall and has served as A.J. Hinch's bench coach in Houston for the last two seasons. He has also worked as a minor-league coach and third-base coach for the Marlins, spent a year as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman and another three seasons as the Yankees infield/third-base coach.

Kapler, 44, was just fired from his post as Phillies manager last week after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. In his first gig as manager, the former MLB player went 161-163, including just 81-81 this season with a roster that added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura before the year. 

The Cubs have already interviewed four candidates, with current bench coach Mark Loretta going first in early October. Last week, David Ross, Joe Girardi and Will Venable also met with Epstein and Hoyer. 

In his end-of-season presser, Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" with their search for a new field general. Among other qualities, the Cubs front office is looking for a manager who can cultivate a winning culture and find a way to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts — an issue that plagued the team the last couple seasons (though that's not necessarily Joe Maddon's fault).

"The next manager will be a success if he can find a way to get the most out of each player," Epstein said. "That’s an obvious goal, but we want to make sure that the players we have, we’re reaching them, we’re developing them, we’re providing an environment where they can continue to grow and thrive. If we have players that are gonna be successful major-league players, we have to find a way to make it here. 

"I think that’s really important. That’s an organization-wide challenge, not just on the manager. The next manager, that’s going to be an important part of his responsibility."