Cubs mailbag: The leadoff spot, Castellanos' future and the team's biggest weakness

Cubs mailbag: The leadoff spot, Castellanos' future and the team's biggest weakness

As the Cubs enjoy their second-to-last off-day of the 2019 regular season, let's tackle some of the burning questions on the minds of fans. 

Topics include the future of Nicholas Castellanos, the leadoff spot, the team's biggest weakness, Kyle Schwarber's status as an everyday player and an intriguing bullpen option emerging.

Let's get started with an easy one:

What is wrong with a bunt hit to ignite the team?  It has to be utilized more often, especially by a slumping player just to get on base? Agree? #Cubs — Teri Shannon (@77rocket)

Well, Teri, it appears Yu Darvish isn't the only Cubs player scouring Twitter on game days.

Ben Zobrist did exactly what you suggested in the fifth inning Tuesday night, tapping a bunt down the third-base line on the first pitch of his third at-bat. It led to 3-run rally for the Cubs on Nicholas Castellanos' blast and also was one heck of a "Throwback Tuesday" to the bunt hit that got the offense going in Los Angeles in the 2016 NLCS.

So to answer your question — yes, absolutely agree. But not every player is confident — or capable — of bunting for a hit. We saw recently what happens when that play backfires (Kris Bryant popping out on the first pitch of an at-bat on the last homestand). 

Will the Cubs extend Rizzo? Will the Cubs sign Castellanos for next year? Julia Kitzing (@19JesusFreak99)

At this point, it's hard to see Anthony Rizzo ever suiting up for another franchise, even in the world we live in where seemingly every professional player changes teams at one point in their career. 

I don't know about Castellanos, but he's certainly given them every reason to go into the offseason with re-signing him as a top priority. He's been flat-out awesome in his five weeks with the team and even though nobody's expecting him to .350 forever, his approach at the plate, power and energy has been a welcome addition to this lineup and clubhouse. Plus, the knock on his game was his outfield defense prior to the trade and he's looked a lot better than his reputation in that area, especially navigating the sun and wind at Wrigley Field.

No doubt the rest of the league has been paying close attention to what Castellanos has done in a Cubs uniform and he will be one of the top hitters on the market this winter.

Who will bat lead for the Chicago cubs for the rest of the season? — Rowan Campbell (@RustaRow)

Assuming you meant "leadoff" here and the answer is no one person will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter. They simply do not have a 2019 version of Dexter Fowler anywhere on this current 35-man roster. 

Zobrist will certainly fill the role when he's playing and he proved exactly why he's such a huge part of this lineup Tuesday night in that spot. But the 38-year-old wasn't an everyday player even before he took a four-month leave of absence to tend to his family situation.

Figure Zobrist gets most of the leadoff opportunities against right-handed pitching and when he's not playing, we'll see a mix of guys. Jason Heyward could retain his role there a bit, as the Cubs have won a lot of games with him leading off despite his subpar numbers in the role.

Willson Contreras and Javy Baez may be options against left-handed pitching, but Contreras is just coming back from missing a month with a hamstring injury and Baez was forced out of the games Monday and Tuesday with a jammed thumb.

Why does Maddon continue to tell fans he has no better choice to leadoff games with other than Heyward when he has Rizzo, who’s been really good in that spot. He also has Castellenos and Kris Bryant. Heyward is 4 for his last 42! Give it a rest already! — Eric Alexander (@Ericslosingit)

Heyward is actually hitless in his last 28 at-bats dating back to Aug. 25 against the Nationals. Maddon has a better leadoff option now in Zobrist, as we've already discussed. 

But as for why Rizzo doesn't hit there all the time — the Cubs need him in RBI situations in the middle of the order. He's consistently among Cubs RBI leaders year-in and year-out because he blends power with arguably the best two-strike approach on the team. He is constantly shortening his swing and just trying to put the ball in play when he gets to two strikes, and that leads to some key runs — like the seventh inning Monday when he dropped a base hit into center field to end the Cubs' 24-inning scoreless streak.

Rizzo is also valuable in the middle of the Cubs order to mix up the righties. If he hit leadoff, Maddon would most likely follow with Castellanos, Bryant and Baez — all three righties. That would make the Cubs as a whole easier to pitch to, especially playing the matchups with bullpens in the latter part of games.

I am with you on Bryant — I've been saying all season I think the Cubs should give it a try with him leading off. But it's also about where these guys are comfortable and it's highly unlikely hitters like Bryant and Castellanos would be comfortable up there considering they've spent their entire lives as middle-of-the-order hitters.

What is the team’s biggest deficiency? How can they address it heading into the post season? — Peter John (@Cubs567)

That's an easy one — offensive inconsistency. Maddon has been harping on it all year and he's right. This team continues to go from hammering former Cy Young winners to making struggling pitchers look like Cy Young winners on back-to-back days. 

The aforementioned 24-inning scoreless streak over the holiday weekend was another perfect example of that. 

Getting Zobrist and Contreras back is huge — both contributed in a big way Tuesday night — but this team also needs to get Bryant and Baez healthy and back to their MVP forms.

It's also about approach and not chasing pitches out of the zone, as Maddon explained Tuesday evening:

"I cannot be more specific — it's just the organization of strike zone. We've pitched well enough, we've caught the ball well enough. Regardless of people being hurt or not, that doesn't really matter. We have good players. We just have to make it more difficult to get us out in the strike zone. That's it. I mean, that showed up the two games against Milwaukee. We got through it [Monday] after beating three wonderful pitchers in New York. If you look at those games in New York, our approach was good regarding staying in our zone.

"That's it. I don't think it's any more complicated than that. If we can adhere to that, we'd be just fine the rest of the month. We need a monthlong [stretch]. These are mental at-bats. These are not physical at-bats. Players too often today resort to looking for the physical panacea. Why am I not hitting? Well because you're not swinging at the right pitches or you're fouling your pitch off.

"If you're missing pitches in the zone, that's where I'd be more concerned about mechanics. But if you're missing pitches outside of the zone, my thought for years is nobody hits that pitch. You're trying to hit a pitch that nobody hits and if you do, it's not going to be driven wherever you want it to be driven to. So the secret to our success now and in the playoffs is gonna lie within that box. Stay in your lane, bro."

Who isn’t on this abominable roster from the “core” next year? What’s KKKKB’s slash line since the All-Star break? Steve Sarich (@elderschmoe)

"Abominable" is a really strong word, but that's a good question. It seems clear the Cubs will have to do some sort of shakeup with this lineup that is once again searching for consistency. But we thought last winter they'd make major changes and never did, with the budget a huge factor in that.

Who would you get rid of? Rizzo's certainly not the problem. Baez is part of the problem with the lineup's roller coaster nature, but that's just the style of player he is and he's also a major part of the solution. Schwarber has clearly taken steps forward this season, especially in the last couple months.

If you had to pick one of the "core" guys to trade, Bryant seems the most likely for all the same reasons you've heard before — they'd get a huge haul, he's unlikely to sign an extension anyway, etc. But he's also a former MVP and a superstar who plays multiple defensive positions and it's hard to envision any scenario in which the Cubs roster would be better without him next season.

As for Bryant's slash line, he's hitting .250/.332/.442 (.773 OPS) since the All-Star Break while dealing with a right knee injury that forced him out of the lineup Tuesday.

Why isn’t Schwarber an everyday player? Drives me insane  — Dylan Payne

He isn't the same hitter against lefties  — .227/.320/.455 slash line (.775 OPS)  — as he is against righties (.860 OPS), but the gap has absolutely lessened this season. He's also getting more opportunities against left-handed starting pitchers (including Monday's win against Seattle's Justus Sheffield) and looks to be on the path towards an "everyday" role.

"Watch Schwarber," Maddon said after the slugger's big game Tuesday night. "That's really fun to watch. And another assist throwing a ball to second base accurately. He's doing a really nice job overall."

Thoughts on Brad Wieck? Guy has good stuff and he's a southpaw from the pen? Do you think he'll make the postseason roster if we get in? — #EverybodyIn (@ChrisSpears84)

The 27-year-old left-hander is looking like a classic change-of-scenery guy. When the Cubs acquired Wieck, they got him right in the pitch lab and started working on turning his curveball into a spike-curve — the same pitch Craig Kimbrel, Yu Darvish and Rowan Wick throw (fun fact: Wieck and Wick were roommates while in the Padres organization).

The Cubs also thought enough of Wieck's potential to bring him from the minor leagues to Chicago shortly after the trade, where he threw off the Wrigley bullpen mound and worked with the big-league coaching staff to try to harness his off-speed pitch. It's only been a couple outings, but the results are certainly there, as Kyle Seager can attest to:

So yes, there's a lot here to like now and down the road. He's a nice addition for the Cubs in September to match up against lefties, but it's still hard to see him work his way into a role on an October roster. Crazier things have happened, but Kyle Ryan is locked in and Derek Holland is back off the IL now and a veteran with plenty of experience, so Wieck looks to be third on the depth chart at the moment.

Plus, when you're talking about October, the Cubs may have another lefty (or multiple southpaws) moving from the rotation to the bullpen. If it's just a one-game wild-card series, the Cubs can either add a guy like Wieck or maybe go with a veteran starter like Lester, Hamels or Quintana if they're not starting the game. In a longer, 5- or 7-game series, one of those left-handed starters could also move into the bullpen. 

Of course, the Cubs just gotta get to October first, as you mentioned.

Who will the Chicago Cubs in Rbi's at the end of 2019? - Rowan Campbell (@RustaRow)

RustaRow's got two questions on this week's mailbag. I'll go with Baez, who currently leads the team with 85 RBI and he's been really scuffling at the plate the last 3-4 weeks. Unless this thumb issue becomes a bigger deal, I think he'll maintain his lead in this category once he heats up.

When players get a $100 gift certificate (or whatever) for appearing in post-game interviews, do they typically keep it or find a lucky fan or charity to re-gift? — Lisa A. Schmidt (@mrslisaschmidt)

Good question — it depends on the player and where the gift card is to. A lot of players like certain restaurants, so they're able to use them quickly. I'm sure some are sent to charity, some may go unused and some may go to friends/family, but I doubt they pick a lucky fan to give it to. Not a bad idea, though...

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Jon Lester's soccer career and other things to know about Cubs left-hander

Jon Lester's soccer career and other things to know about Cubs left-hander

Jon Lester is the best free agent addition in Cubs history, the guy who joined a last place club and helped push them to perennial contender status. He played a big part in the Cubs snapping their World Series drought, and even at 36 remains a durable, competitive starter.

Here’s a few things you may not know about the Cubs’ left-hander.

1. While playing in a soccer tournament in Italy at the age of 13, an Italian club approached Lester about playing professionally. He turned it down and the Red Sox drafted him five years later.

2. In August 2006, two months after making his MLB debut, Lester was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy in the 2006-07 offseason and returned to the Red Sox in July 2007.

3. Lester’s charity, NVRQT, works to raise awareness and funds to fight pediatric cancer. Lester was the Cubs’ 2019 Robert Clemente Award nominee for his charitable efforts.

4. In 2011, Lester was featured on a wine label produced by Longball Cellars. Proceeds from “CabernAce” benefited the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

5. Lester, an avid golfer, once shot an 81 at Augusta National, according to Golf Digest.

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Anthony Rizzo has no regrets over signing bargain extension in 2013

Anthony Rizzo has no regrets over signing bargain extension in 2013

Back in 2013, the Cubs locked up a 23-year-old Anthony Rizzo on a seven-year, $41 million extension — with two options that could make it nine years for $74 million.

Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and gaining financial stability was a big thing for him. Seven years later, the deal is one of the best in baseball from a team perspective, but incredibly below market value overall.

However, the big first baseman, who’s emerged as a cornerstone for the Cubs, has no regrets over his decision.

“I’ve had the freedom from 22, 23 years old to financially do whatever I want and play freely,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. “And I’m going to be able to do financially whatever I want for the rest of my life as long as I don’t make poor choices.

“At the end of this contract, it’ll make a lot of money, and I’m playing the game I love.”

The Cubs shut down extension talks with Rizzo over the winter, and he said it never got to the point of discussing any numbers. He has “no idea” what the Cubs’ thinking was on shutting down those talks, too.

The two sides will likely talk extension again in the future, but until then, the Cubs have Rizzo on an absolute bargain of a deal.

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