Why Cubs will face Cleveland's non-traditional leadoff man Carlos Santana in Game 2

Why Cubs will face Cleveland's non-traditional leadoff man Carlos Santana in Game 2

CLEVELAND — Carlos Santana is far from a prototypical leadoff hitter, standing a stout 5-foot-11, 210 pounds with only five stolen bases to his name in 2016. But while he doesn’t fit the traditional mold, the Cleveland Indians catcher/first baseman/designated hitter has been an effective weapon hitting first in Terry Francona’s lineup this year. 

Santana started 85 games as a leadoff hitter in 2016 and posted a .385 on-base percentage with 19 home runs and more walks (67) than strikeouts (60) in those games. Specifically when he was the first batter of the game, Santana hit .260/.365/.521 with five home runs and four doubles, consistently setting the table for an Indians lineup that scored the second most runs in the American League in the regular season. 

So it’s no surprise that Santana, a switch hitter, is leading off as the Indians’ designated hitter for Game 2 of the World Series against the Cubs. 

“He doesn’t try to force anything, waits on his pitch and when he gets it he knocks it out of the park,” Indians outfielder Coco Crisp, who himself has led off 853 games in his 15-year career, said. “I think a few teams have gone from the typical leadoff hitter, just straight base-stealer, small-ball guy and have moved their big guys to the front of the lineup. It’s a good move but you also have to have somebody like ‘Los with his ability to not only hit the long ball but be a leadoff hitter. Sometimes it’s hard to find guys who can do both and he does a great job.”

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What Crisp was most impressed with has been Santana not striking out much while retaining the power that led him to slam 34 home runs in the regular season. Only four players with at least 30 home runs had lower strikeout rates than Santana (14.4 percent), and he averaged seeing 4.1 pitches per plate appearance when leading off, so at the least he regularly worked counts and allowed the rest of the Indians’ order to see some pitches in the first inning. 

“For Tito to throw him in the leadoff spot, I’m glad he did that because it makes perfect sense,” Indians outfielder Rajai Davis, who led off Game 1 of the World Series, said. “When he’s getting on base and Kip’s hitting well and Lindor, and what really gets you is when the lineup turns over, now you gotta face Santana, who had what, 34 home runs this year and a number of RBIs. He’s not an easy out and that just makes it that much tougher when the lineup is turned over.”

Santana never hit leadoff before 2016, and Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said the 30-year-old was a bit surprised when Francona told him during spring training he could wind up hitting first during the season. But Santana has embraced the role, which was partly made possible by the presence of having Mike Napoli and his 34 home runs hitting in the middle of the order. 

“I think it was a great idea,” Van Burkleo said. “I told him, you’re leading off, you’re getting more at-bats throughout the season then you normally would, so there’s more opportunities to do some things. He’s had a great year.

So when Jake Arrieta delivers his first pitch of Game 2, he won’t be dealing with a guy who relies mostly on speed to get on base and make things happen. He’ll be dealing with a premier power hitter who’s able to get on base quite a bit — and who’s had plenty of success hitting first in 2016. 

“I think this team is well-balanced, which makes that an option,” Crisp said. “You don’t necessarily have to have him and Nap hitting behind each other all the team with 30 and 30 (home runs, you can kind of spread it out.”

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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