Cubs

Cubs Mailbag: Lineup construction, trade rumors and other hot topics entering the second half

Cubs Mailbag: Lineup construction, trade rumors and other hot topics entering the second half

It's the slowest time of the year in the sports world — that period immediately following the MLB All-Star Game.

But the Cubs discussion has not died down one bit for a team on the brink as the second half appears on the horizon. 

What is this Cubs team? Are they contenders, pretenders or something else?

Through 90 games, it's hard to answer, but one thing is for certain: The Cubs are VERY happy they don't have to play the Thursday contest after the All-Star Game this year and get a full four days off to clear their heads and rest their bodies for the stretch run.

Let's get into the mailbag:

What is your ideal lineup for the Cubs moving forward? - @Ant_Pasquale3

That's a good question, Anthony. In general, I think too much is made of lineup construction, as it rarely factors into games. But it certainly makes for a fun talking point for fans in person or on social media.

Looking at a lineup from a purely analytical standpoint, it would be easy to say guys with the highest OBPs hit first and second and some of your better slug hitters hit in the middle of the order. But that doesn't take into account each individual roster and it doesn't factor in the human factor.

For example, maybe Kris Bryant really does like hitting third better than second. It's probably not something he would admit to publicly, because that likely would be received as a criticism of his manager. 

But he also should feel comfortable hitting second, as he's spent a vast majority of his career there (345 starts) and is slashing .297/.397/.534 (.930 OPS) in those games. That includes 83 starts in 2016, which make all the arguments about moving him down in the order "like his MVP season" invalid.

To answer the question, though, if I were making out the lineup on an everyday basis, I would go with this:

1. Kris Bryant - LF
2. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Jason Heyward - CF
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Robel Garcia - 2B
8. Pitcher
9. David Bote - 3B

Of course, that is with a video game type of mindset and doesn't account for days off, who the opposing pitcher is, private conversations with each hitter about their spot in the batting order, etc.

The rationale behind it is it gets the Cubs' top three hitters in the top three spots in the lineup, garnering the most at-bats. It also features the top two on-base guys in the top two spots with Baez, Contreras and Heyward to follow with RBI opportunities. 

The Cubs also need to see what they have in Garcia initially coming out of the break and determine if the switch-hitting former Italian baseball star can really be a sparkplug for this offense.

Any possible chance that the Cubs have the stones to make a big move and get Merrifield? Or do they sit and watch and continue this trainwreck? - @corncub8

Theo Epstein's front office certainly has "the stones" to make a move to get a guy like Whit Merrifield and have no desire to sit and watch a "trainwreck." But do they have what it takes in the farm system to acquire Merrifield? That's the more relevant question.

I agree that Merrifield would be a great option for the Cubs, as he could conceivably slot into the leadoff spot in the order (currently has a .355 OBP) and can play all over the field, including second base and center (the Cubs' two biggest areas of need at the moment). 

But he's also locked up on a very affordable deal through at 2022 and the Royals currently hold a $10.5 million team option for 2023, so Kansas City won't be giving him up for nothing. Who could the Cubs offer that would entice the Royals to let go of a guy who has more hits than any other American League player since the start of the 2018 season?

The Cubs farm system isn't bare by any means, but they lack an Eloy Jimenez or Gleyber Torres type of impact prospect. Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya are the Cubs' top two prospects and maybe the front office would part with them this summer, but it would probably take a lot. The same applies to Adbert Alzolay. Trading for a 30-year-old player who has only 2.5 years of MLB production and would come at a high cost isn't as easy of a decision as fans make it out to seem. 

As for the big-league roster, Mike Montgomery seems like a relatively simple option for the Cubs to trade away given his decreased role on the team, but he also hasn't pitched well this year (5.67 ERA, 1.78 WHIP) and just turned 30 on July 1. I'm just not sure how much value he has to a team like the Royals, and the same can be said of Schwarber, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.

Who do you see as potential trade targets? Who do you see the Cubs parting with? - @famouslastwrds1

The second question was already answered in the Merrifield blurb above, as the Cubs don't have a ton of players they'd want to part with that would be enticing to other teams. 

However, there are always lower-profile moves to be had at the trade deadline that can pay big dividends. Think back to Jesse Chavez, whom the Cubs acquired last July for a Class-A pitcher and Chavez went on to become the most valuable piece of the bullpen in the second half.

Those moves are tougher to find and pull off, but the Cubs have some solid depth in the farm system they could use to pull off some trades. Brailyn Marquez, Cole Roederer, Brennen Davis and Aramis Ademan are all years away from helping the big-league team and could be enticing high-upside options for rebuilding teams this summer.

I believe the Cubs need another left-handed reliever (more on that in a bit), but their top need is another veteran bat — ideally a guy who could hit left-handed and play either second base or the outfield (or both). 

This offense needs a boost and a guy like David Peralta or Nicholas Castellanos (though he hits right-handed) would figure to be a good fit. Maybe even somebody like Corey Dickerson becomes available if the Pirates decide to sell and wouldn't mind trading within the division.

(1a) Can the cubs reach and go deep in the playoffs without a prototypical leadoff-hitter and additional LH relief pitcher? 
(1b) is 2B/CF Dee Gordon a possible option to fill that former need? - @Izzycrazy92

Yes, of course the Cubs can reach the postseason and go deep into the playoffs without a prototypical leadoff hitter. It's been done before by this team (2017) and by many teams across baseball as the "prototypical leadoff hitter" has been so hard to come by. Mookie Betts, David Freese and Brian Dozier are not stereotypical leadoff guys, but they filled the role for the Red Sox and Dodgers on their respective World Series runs last fall.

The second thing will be tougher for the Cubs to accomplish. While they have plenty of right-handed relievers who can also get lefties out, they do not want to head into October with Kyle Ryan as the only established reliever, followed by Montgomery (who has struggled as a reliever), Randy Rosario and Tim Collins on the depth chart. They very well may have another lefty if they fold Jose Quintana into the bullpen for October, but it would make a ton of sense for the Cubs to add another southpaw before the trade deadline.

Please get out of here with any Dee Gordon questions. The dude still has roughly $20 million left on his deal and he's a 31-year-old with a career .320 on-base percentage (and that OBP has actually only been .291 since 2017). That would not help the Cubs' leadoff chances in any way. They may as well put Almora (.286 OBP) or Daniel Descalso (.285 OBP) in the leadoff spot, as the on-base skills would be equivalent.

Is there any chance the Cubs move on from Daniel Descalso, and if so who would they replace him with? - @carter_hazlitt

That's certainly a fair question and one that has permeated throughout the fanbase for a little while now. Epstein famously said after last fall's early exit the team would prioritize production over potential in 2019 and since the start of May, Descalso is slashing just .113/.226/.138 (.363 OPS) with only 1 extra-base hit, 4 RBI and is striking out nearly a third of the time.

Then again, he's also hardly played in that span, notching just 94 plate appearances as the Cubs have been able to lean on Garcia, Bote and Russell at second base of late. 

That being said, the Cubs got Descalso for a reason and he has a long track record of being a productive hitter and a valuable clubhouse guy. By all accounts, Descalso has provided leadership and a positive impact inside the clubhouse and he was the team's best clutch hitter through the first month of the season.

Can he get back to the hitter he was in March and April? Absolutely. But when will he? That's another question and one the Cubs will have to weigh moving forward.

As for replacing Descalso, there simply aren't many great options at the moment, with the Cubs wanting Happ to show a high level of success for a couple-week stretch in the minors before they would entertain the thought of a call-up.

Who will be sent down or released when Zobrist returns? Garcia? Russell? Descalso? - @alyse818589

That's a good question, Alyse, but one that won't have an answer for quite some time. It's still not a guarantee Zobrist will return this year, though it is looking likely.

Still, when he is ready to return to the baseball field, Zobrist will undoubtedly need some time to ramp up his skills and work on his timing after missing more than two months. Envisioning a full six-week spring training is too long, but it would probably take at least three weeks of baseball activity in Arizona and the minor leagues before the 38-year-old would be ready to rejoin the big-league team. And it very well may take longer than three weeks to accomplish that, depending on what type of shape and work Zobrist has been doing during his time away.

So even in a best-case scenario, it's hard to envision Zobrist returning to Wrigley Field before mid-August and by then, there may be a clear answer as to whose roster spot he takes. The Cubs may also play things safe and not rush him back until Sept. 1, by which case they'd have extra roster spots to play with at the big-league level.

Will Brandon Morrow throw another pitch for the Cubs? Will Ben Zobrist take another AB? - @ABC7Jeff

No and yes, respectively.

Morrow has suffered too many setbacks along his road to recovery that there is no telling what his future will be, even though recent reports have been positive.

For Zobrist, it's sounding more like a return is in the cards, as we discussed, and the Cubs could really use him. In addition to his quality at-bats and defensive versatility, his presence both in the clubhouse and in the lineup has been sorely missed.

Are they going to keep sleep walking in the second half?! The hitting is so inconsistent and the bottom half of the lineup has been terrible the past 2 months! - @RonnieWooCubs

I do not think the Cubs will continue to sleep walk through the second half of the season.

Yes, the second half of last year is still fresh in everybody's mind and when you mix that with the first half of 2019, it's a full season's worth of disappointment and underwhelming play for the Cubs. 

However, they also have done very well overall in the second half under Maddon (.647 winning percentage last four years) and I think the four days off during the All-Star Break can be just what the doctor ordered for a mental breather as much as anything for this team.

Fans can chalk it up as an excuse all they want, but mental and physical fatigue is a very real thing and the Cubs just got done playing a stretch of 52 games in 54 days. Let's see what a fresh, rejuvenated team looks like coming out of the break. I'm anticipating good things for this team.

Will anyone win the nl central? - @jameshawley1974

Of course somebody will, but I get your point. The division certainly has been very "cannibalistic," as Maddon referred to it last weekend.

I still think the Cubs win the division, based on the current talent, the track record of success and the ability to get better either by improving performance or adding to the roster via trades or returns (i.e. Cole Hamels, Zobrist, Morrow).

Can they fix their bullpen? - @DavidBloomberg

Huh? Since that season-opening road trip, the Cubs have the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.67), behind only the Braves and Indians. And most of that hasn't been with Craig Kimbrel, who is still shaking off the rust through his first 4 appearances.

The Cubs bullpen has not been the issue for months now and while they can certainly add another left-hander, this group of relievers very well could be a strength of the team in the second half.

Who’s going to be the leader of this team going forward and start holding people accountable? - @bdkinning

I get why this question is being asked, but I don't think leadership and holding players accountable is really the issue with this team right now. It's simply a lack of execution. They haven't played well and they haven't gotten the job done in many aspects (baserunning, hitting with runners in scoring position, defensively, holding leads, etc.). 

But as much as anything, I think the old adage of "holding players accountable" can actually be a detriment. When Rizzo makes boneheaded baserunning blunders on back-to-back days, is somebody supposed to put him on blast in the clubhouse and yell and scream about it? He knows he messed up. He doesn't need anybody "holding him accountable." 

Leadership has been a legitimate question since David Ross left and I still feel there is something of a void. But in the few weeks leading up to the break, the Cubs were making uncharacteristic mistakes. That's probably not a result of a lack of leadership and more likely due to mental/physical fatigue and — as Maddon said — trying to do too much and being afraid to make mistakes. 

These guys have been through this all before. I understand the fan freakout and wanting to know where to point the fingers, but I don't believe accountability and leadership within the clubhouse is the problem. 

What has been the missing magic sauce since November 2nd, 2016. Cubs have been a very good team but not a great team since that time. Why? - @kjdevore28

As much as anything, I think this question is actually a testament to how great that 2016 season was for the Cubs. Just about everything went right. It was a magical season and those types of years are hard to come by in any professional sport, let alone baseball.

Yes, the Cubs have many of the same players who won it back then, but it's really tough to reproduce that level of success. The league has adjusted to a lot of these players since then, plus injuries and other issues have come into play. 

But the championship window is still very much open for the Cubs and that's why these next few months will be so crucial for this team as they enter the second half in first place despite playing poorly the last six weeks.

Who's production are the Cubs counting on the most in the 2nd half? - @thipsher85

I'm going to say Schwarber and Yu Darvish. 

Despite Bryant's return to health/stardom, Contreras' and Heyward's resurgence and typically productive seasons from Rizzo and Baez, the Cubs offense is still a problem and if Schwarber is going to continue to lead off, he has to be part of that solution. He got out to a good start leading off, but his overall numbers atop the order have cratered, to the point where he has only a .311 on-base percentage despite a .508 slugging percentage. 

With Darvish, it's more of the same. The Cubs really need him to step up and pitch like the guy he was before the 2017 World Series. The time has come and gone for moral victories and they simply need more out of him than a 5.01 ERA and 4 quality starts.

When do the excuses run dry? - @Big4Fin5

In my opinion, the excuses have already run dry. There are reasons to point to (fatigue, poor execution, etc.) as to why the Cubs struggled to end the first half, but the time for excuses has been over for a while — probably since last October. 

Things have been far from perfect for the Cubs in 2019, but they enter the second half in first place and they control their own destiny. It'll be very interesting to see how the next couple months play out.

Why not Happ vs this guy from Italy? - @BeauKnows75

Garcia earned his spot on the big-league roster with his consistently excellent play in the minor leagues this season and that consistency is something Happ is still searching for. 

Happ went into the Triple-A midseason break on fire — hitting .455 with a 1.495 OPS, more walks (7) than strikeouts (5) and 5 extra-base hits (including 2 homers) in 6 games — but over the previous month-plus, he was hitting just .191 with 47 strikeouts in 36 games.

The Cubs want to see Happ sustain this success for a couple weeks at a time before they're ready to call him back up to the big leagues. Of course, he could be traded before that point...

Why can’t we develop arms in the minor leagues? - @daverin2005

That's a great question, David, but there is no good answer. Even the Cubs can't figure it out.

It would absolutely help the organization to develop pitchers in the minors that can help the team in Chicago, but it looks like we're finally starting to see that with Alzolay's arrival last month. 

Will there be enough off days in the second half this year? - @xMrChristmasx

The Cubs may have had a tough stretch in May and June (52 games in 54 days), but it doesn't appear any such stretch will follow them into the second half. They currently have 72 games scheduled for 80 days from Friday through the end of the season and that includes three more off-days in July. 

They only have two days off from Aug. 27 through Sept. 29 (the end of the season), so that will be something to keep an eye on if any rainouts hit.

Will they run out of the box whenever they hit a deep fly, instead of admiring it thinking it's a homerun? - @Toppazblue

I think we've found The Kapman's burner account!

if ben zobrist retires, does the zobrist meme retire, too? - @markstrot

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Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Alec Mills gave the Cubs what they needed, but they still couldn't find a way to win

Someone capable of mixing pitches and having success without a high-velocity fastball delivered a stellar start for the Cubs on Friday. Sound familiar?

No, it wasn’t Kyle Hendricks’ turn in the rotation – though he did throw an 81-pitch, complete game shutout against St. Louis back in May. Rather, it was Alec Mills who stymied the Cardinals offense this time around.

Mills was thrust into action in place of Cole Hamels, whose turn in the rotation was skipped due to left shoulder fatigue. Despite being pressed into action, the 27-year-old Mills delivered, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six.

“He was outstanding. He gave us everything we needed,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game, a 2-1 Cubs loss and fourth-straight. “[He] pitched really that well, like we’ve been talking about the whole time.

“He really demonstrated what he’s made out of.”

Mills has been emerging as a quite a contributor for the Cubs as of late. He now holds a 0.84 ERA over his last four outings, which also includes two scoreless innings against the Reds on Tuesday.

Friday, he looked Hendricks-esque, making up for a lack of fastball velocity – he averaged 89.9 mph with his four-seamer – with a stellar slow curveball and sweeping slider. His curveball averaged 67.7 mph, even touching 65 mph at times.

Such fastball velocity might seem more hittable than something in the upper 90s. However, as opposing teams have seen time and time again with Hendricks, 89 looks a lot different when blended in with effective breaking pitches.

“I think every at-bat, I’m trying to be something different, cause I don’t have the stuff to just say ‘Here you go, here’s what it is,’” Mills said postgame. “If I can be something that keeps them off balance every at-bat, it’s what I want to do.”

Mills got four called strikes and four swinging strikes, respectively, with his curveball on Friday. None of those were for strike three, but when the Cardinals actually put Mills’ curve in play, they went 0-for-4.

“It’s one of those things where I feel like I can throw it for a strike at any point,” he said postgame about the pitch. “It’s something I can lean on when I need it, so it’s nice.”

Despite his personal success, Mills kept things in perspective after the game. Not only does Friday’s loss drop the Cubs to five games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central, but also 1.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. This is pending the outcome of Friday night’s Brewers-Pirates, though.

“It’s always nice to throw well, but at the end of the day, a win is all that matters at this point,” he said. “Obviously a lot of guys are upset, but it’s one of those things where it’s definitely not over.

“I don’t think there will be an ounce of quit in here. We’re just going to come tomorrow ready to play and go for a win.”

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Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

Cubs playoff race: Where is the offense?

After a 2-1 loss Friday, the Cubs have dropped the first two games of this crucial series while giving up only 7 runs total across the 19 innings.

The Cubs are now 5 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central with only 8 games to play, essentially putting any thoughts of a division title to bed. It also means they will once again wake up Saturday morning out of a playoff spot.

This is the first time the Cubs have lost four straight home games since May 2018.

With the Brewers and Nationals also winning, the Cubs are 2 games out of the final playoff spot.

Quick thoughts

—Where is the offense?

The lineup that averaged 13.75 runs per game and hit .393 as a team in the first four games of this homestand is suddenly nowhere to be found. They're hitting just .180 total over the last four games and that mark dips to .111 with runners in scoring position (they hit .553 with runners in scoring position during the first four games of the homestand).

Outside of the 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, the Cubs have scored just 6 runs in the other 36 offensive innings since Monday.

"I've been saying it all year — the run's gonna be in the offense," Joe Maddon said. "Today, 1 run. Yesterday, we lost by 1 run and the two losses vs. Cincinnati were low-run scoring games for us, also. Whereas Pittsburgh, we pounded in that first game.

"We have to somehow get more consistent offensively. When the opportunities come up, we have to take advantage of them. We've had some good at-bats in those moments without any kind of luck, but we gotta figure it out.

"Obviously we are running out of time. To catch [the Cardinals] is becoming more difficult, but there's still a solid opportunity to be a playoff team. But you gotta keep playing the game as though you're going to catch St. Louis. You gotta go out there with that attitude."

The Cubs walked more than they struck out (4 to 3) Friday and one of those whiffs was by pitcher Alec Mills, so there’s definitely an element of bad luck at play here.

They hit into four double plays, including Kyle Schwarber bouncing into a twin killing with the bases loaded to end the third inning. He also watched his bunt single to lead off the eighth inning get erased by Willson Contreras' double play on the very next pitch.

Even Anthony Rizzo's return atop the order has not been enough to spark this offense and the lineup is continuing its Jekyll and Hyde ways at the absolute worst time.

Why is this offense so inconsistent? It's hard to make heads or tails of it. Even they have no answers for it, especially after out-hitting the Cardinals 9-4 on Friday.

"I mean, it's just one of those things," Nicholas Castellanos said. "I don't think there's really a rhyme or reason for it. I don't even know how many hits we got, but we got a lot more than they did. It's baseball."

"We have to figure it out somehow," Maddon said. "There's no question about it."

—Yadier Molina continues to come up with big hits against the Cubs.

The Cardinals didn't muster up much offense of their own Friday afternoon, going only 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. But that one hit was a big one — a 2-run single from Molina in the sixth inning after a pair of Cubs relievers (David Phelps, Steve Cishek) combined to walk the first three hitters of the inning.

—Alec Mills pitched well once again, this time in spot start duty while Cole Hamels deals with an ailing shoulder.

Mills tossed 4.2 shutout innings and now has a 2.90 ERA this season. He's been extremely effective in limited big-league duty over the last two seasons, posting a 3.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 across 49 innings (15 appearances).

Maddon has compared him to Kyle Hendricks a couple different times and it's easy to see the comparison, especially when Mills is spinning a 66 mph curveball, 79 mph changeup and 91 mph fastball.

Next season is a long way off, but Mills has certainly pitched himself into the conversation for a spot in the 2020 rotation or bullpen.

—The Cubs bullpen walked 7 batters in 4.1 innings of work.

The back-to-back-to-back walks in the sixth inning wound up being the dagger, but overall, this was not the best performance from a unit that entered the day with the best bullpen ERA in the big leagues this month.

What's worse is the Cubs utilized eight different pitchers after Mills left the game, including most of the team's top relievers. That could leave some slim pickings for Saturday's game, especially considering Rowan Wick (32 pitches Friday) may be unavailable.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates 10-1 Friday night and hold a 2-game lead on the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot.

Milwaukee lost Christian Yelich 10 days ago and their offense has been very similar to the Cubs over that entire time, but they're still somehow finding ways to win games:

Nationals update

After an off-day Thursday, the Nationals were back in action Friday and handed the Marlins their 100th loss of the season.

The Nationals currently own a 1-game lead for the top Wild-Card spot, meaning they're 3 games ahead of the Cubs at the moment to host the one-game playoff.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals play another afternoon matinee game Saturday at Wrigley Field with Jose Quintana and Dakota Hudson facing off.

Quintana will be working on an extra day of rest after the Cubs opted to move him back to Saturday and inserting Mills into the rotation for a spot start.

If the Cubs thought the earlier games were "must-win," these next couple become even more important as they have now dug themselves quite the hole.

"That's all you can do," Rizzo said. "It's not gonna be easy, but you can't think about what's gonna happen and different outcomes. You just gotta come in tomorrow and win. That's what we'll be focused on doing."

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