Cubs

A breakdown of the new-look Cubs following the trade deadline

A breakdown of the new-look Cubs following the trade deadline

For weeks, the speculation surrounding the Cubs was focused on what moves the Cubs would make. 

Now that the deadline has passed and players like Nicholas Castellanos and Tony Kemp are in the mix, we'll get a chance to see how Joe Maddon and Co. will fit all the pieces together.

The first glimpse at the new-look Cubs came Wednesday afternoon with the lineup for the finale in St. Louis coming out:

1. Jason Heyward - CF
2. Nicholas Castellanos - RF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Javy Baez - SS
6. Willson Contreras - C
7. Kyle Schwarber - LF
8. Tony Kemp - 2B
9. Jon Lester - P

So that answers a host of questions — how the Cubs will work in Kemp, where Castellanos will play and hit in the order, how things will line up against a right-handed pitcher and how it impacts the rest of the roster.

Let's tackle the first part first. Kemp can play both outfield and second base, but he's made more starts on the infield (20) this year than in the outfield (16) after notching only 1 start at second base with the Astros a season ago. The Cubs already had a glut of outfielders before they acquired Castellanos and have a clear need for production at the second base position, so expect more of Kemp on the infield.

Castellanos is a former third baseman, but hasn't played there at all since 2017, so it's no surprise he would be looked at as strictly an outfielder on the Cubs. 

As far as batting order position, Castellanos spent the majority of 2019 with the Tigers hitting second and has seen a ton of time there over his career. If the Cubs insist on keeping the 3-4-5 as Bryant-Rizzo-Baez and not moving them back up to the original 2-3-4 spots they occupied earlier in the season, the 2-hole seems like a good fit for Castellanos.

He doesn't walk a ton, but he provides some pop and extra-base hit power (he leads baseball with 37 doubles), so he could conceivably be in scoring position quickly ahead of the heart of the order. 

On top of that, this also fits the mold Maddon and the Cubs have established where they get a bat-first player higher in the order, hope to get a lead and then swap him out for defense later in the game to ideally hold that lead (in this case, Albert Almora Jr. would likely slot into center field and move Heyward over to right). We've seen the same thing before with the likes of Chris Coghlan and even Schwarber (though the Cubs often switch him out defensively late in games regardless of where he hits in the order).

Beyond the lack of patience, the other drawback to hitting Castellanos second is the fact that he's just a mediocre hitter vs. right-handed pitchers this year (.257/.308/.429 slash line, .737 OPS). That's not a one-year fluke, either, as he's slashing just .266/.314/.443 (.757 OPS) against righties over 2,611 career plate appearances.

However, maybe a change of scenery will help those numbers. Castellanos has been victimized by spacious Comerica Park a ton this season and a move to playing at Wrigley Field half the time can certainly help improve his stats, as evidenced here:

It's also unclear if the Cubs are going to roll with Castellanos nearly every day even against right-handed pitchers. He's a must-start against lefties for sure, but if he starts every game against righties, then one of Heyward, Schwarber or Ian Happ are on the bench and all three guys do most of their damage against righties (plus Heyward and Happ are significantly better defenders).

Happ has only 2 hits since being recalled to the big-leagues, but he's drawn 6 walks while starting every game up until Thursday. Over his career, he has posted an .839 OPS against right-handers.

Now, everything will completely change against left-handed pitchers. The lefty-hitting Kemp likely would not start often against southpaws when David Bote is available on the bench to play second base, but Castellanos definitely would be in the lineup.

Here's a possible Cubs lineup against lefties, which we might see as early as Saturday if Gio Gonzalez is able to make his start for the Brewers (he's coming off shoulder tightness he experienced his last time out):

1. Willson Contreras - C
2. Nicholas Castellanos - RF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Javy Baez - SS
6. Ian Happ - LF
7. David Bote - 2B
8. Albert Almora Jr. - CF

There's no guarantee, of course, that Almora will even play against lefties. He has historically lit up southpaws, but carries just a .205 average and .523 OPS against them this season.

The Cubs could conceivably start Schwarber or Heyward against a lefty and move Happ to center field (and Castellanos to left when Heyward plays), but it's probably more likely they'll continue to give Almora his shot to regain his form against southpaws.

Either way, the Cubs clearly have a lot more options and moving parts than they had before and that's a good thing. A position-player group that has been touted as so deep the last few years has felt anything but for most of 2019.

This will all change, too, depending on when veterans Daniel Descalso (injured list) and Ben Zobrist (restricted list) return, but that might not happen until Sept. 1 anyways. Same with Robel Garcia (optioned to the minors to make room for Castellanos on the 25-man roster) and Addison Russell, when — or if — they make their return to the big leagues. 

Then there's the bullpen, that has added righty David Phelps and lefty Derek Holland to the mix over the last week. 

Holland is dynamic against lefties but has struggled mightily vs. righties this year and Phelps is only a year-and-a-half removed from Tommy John surgery. Neither guy figures to slot in as consistent setup guys in front of closer Craig Kimbrel at the moment, but as veterans with tracks records of success and solid splits, they also provide Maddon and the Cubs with more options. 

Who knows how all the pieces will fit together once Pedro Strop returns from his neck injury, but that's a problem for the Future Cubs, not the Present Cubs.

However, they will have an interesting dilemma when they have to activate Cole Hamels from the injured list over the weekend. Unless somebody else hits the shelf — like Brad Brach (he's pitched just 3.2 innings since the All-Star Break) — the Cubs have only so many players with minor-league options remaining. 

The only two pitchers with options are Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan...and Ryan isn't going anywhere. Wick doesn't appear to be, either, as he's quickly ascended as a reliable high-leverage guy out of the bullpen.

It's possible the Cubs could send a defender like Bote down and roll with a 14-man pitching staff, but that leaves only a three-man bench (including a catcher), which is sub-optimal.

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto