Cubs

Cubs lay out next installment of the plan for Ben Zobrist

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USA TODAY

Cubs lay out next installment of the plan for Ben Zobrist

Ben Zobrist will see more action on the minor-league fields this weekend.

The Cubs announced Tuesday evening the veteran switch-hitter will play for Double-A Tennessee Thursday night in Jackson, Tenn. Then, Zobrist would head back to Iowa where he will play with the Cubs' Triple-A team Friday and Saturday (the Iowa Cubs have a day game Thursday). 

By the time Zobrist is done with his game on Saturday, that could be the one-week mark of his return to the big leagues. If he's activated off the restricted list by the end of the day on Saturday, Aug. 31, he would be eligible for the postseason.

In nine games with Iowa, Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach and Class-A South Bend over the last couple weekends, Zobrist is hitting .222/.344/.481, good for an .825 OPS with 2 homers and 4 RBI. 

When Zobrist returns, he figures to slot in part-time at second base, as the Cubs already have a pretty stable outfield trio of Jason Heyward-Nicholas Castellanos-Kyle Schwarber.

It remains to be seen whether Joe Maddon will insert Zobrist into the leadoff spot when the veteran switch-hitter is in the lineup, but either way, he could present a nice boost for the team ahead of the stretch run, both on the field and in the clubhouse.

"I've never played with Ben, but I've heard that he's an incredible guy and an even better teammate," said Castellanos, who gave the Cubs an early lead Tuesday night with another first-inning homer.

Zobrist's timeline could coincide nicely for the Cubs since catcher Willson Contreras is projected back in early September. The bullpen is back at full strength once again with Steve Cishek activated off the IL Tuesday and Brandon Kintzler and Craig Kimbrel returning on the recent road trip.

But a lot can happen in the next two weeks and Zobrist still has a couple boxes to check before the Cubs can count on him for the final month of the season.

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.

Brewers set to add catcher Omar Narváez as replacement for Yasmani Grandal

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USA TODAY

Brewers set to add catcher Omar Narváez as replacement for Yasmani Grandal

The Brewers have found their replacement for catcher Yasmani Grandal, who left Milwaukee in free agency for the White Sox.

Thursday, Milwaukee acquired catcher Omar Narváez from the Mariners in exchange for No. 24 prospect Adam Hill (per MLB Pipeline) and their competitive balance pick. 

Narváez is one of the game’s better offensive catchers and posted a .278/.353/.460 slash line with 22 home runs in 132 games last season. However, he’s widely considered as one of the games worst defensive catchers (-20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019) and pitch framers. Grandal, meanwhile, is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, so the Brewers will see a significant drop off there in 2020.

In addition to Grandal, the Brewers saw third baseman Mike Moustaskas sign a four-year deal with the Reds on Monday. Grandal and Moustakas were two of Milwaukee’s key offensive players in 2019, so they needed to replace that production somehow. Narváez fills a need offensively, and despite his defensive shortcomings, all it took was a low-ranked prospect.

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