Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Great expectations and the 2019 Cubs

Great expectations and the 2019 Cubs

As Jason Heyward stood at his locker Thursday afternoon, answering questions ahead of the biggest series of the season, the clubhouse TVs were tuned to ESPN's "Highly Questionable" where the graphic on the right side displayed the topic: "Cubs collapsing."

Jon Lester walked by, looked up at the TV and silently shook his head before moving on. 

Heyward continued to talk to reporters about how his teams almost always make the playoffs while the soundless TVs displayed lowlights of the Cubs over the previous couple days and discussed the difficult position they're in with only a week-and-a-half left in the season.

That's exactly why Kris Bryant is sick of seeing ESPN and MLB Network on the TVs inside the Cubs clubhouse. He would prefer "Moana" or any other Disney movies (and Nicholas Castellanos would agree, though he drowns out the external chatter by carrying a little Bluetooth speaker with him wherever he goes). 

The Cubs know what's being said about them right now. They've always known. 

The only thing is...ESPN's tagline for the topic turned out to be more true than anybody knew at that time. 

"Collapse" might be a generous word for how the weekend played out, with the Cubs losing all four to the Cardinals by a combined total of 4 runs. 

"Unbelievable" was the word Joe Maddon used. 

Yu Darvish couldn't even find the words and instead just motioned to his mud-stained locker, where he took out his frustrations after Sunday's disastrous ninth inning. 

Whatever words you want to use, the end result is clear — the Cubs are not going to the playoffs in 2019. They're not mathematically eliminated yet, but their postseason odds sit below 3 percent and they are 4 games behind the Brewers and Nationals in the NL Wild-Card race with only six games remaining. 

Soon enough, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will find out what it's like to play in games that don't have any playoff implications for the first time in their careers. 

This isn't how anybody saw the 2019 season playing out. The expectations were World Series or bust, especially after the way 2018 ended and all the talk in the winter and spring about urgency and how every game matters.

They certainly haven't gotten the results anybody within the organization or fanbase was hoping for, but to a man, they said all the right things throughout this recent homestand, preaching the need to stay one day at a time and in the present tense (a popular Maddonism). Entering the four-game series with the Cardinals, the Cubs fielded question after question about how big the whole weekend is and they all answered it the same — "We want to win today. We're not worried about anything beyond today."

"It's like trying to go 4-for-4 in your first at-bat," Bryant said.

It sure doesn't seem like the mindset was the problem. 

But their mindset from Thursday or Friday doesn't really matter right now. Teams are judged on wins and losses and there is no way to spin the fact that the 2019 Cubs fell short of everybody's expectations.

"Certain things don't look as good after you've won more games than anyone else over a four-year period, won a World Series, gotten in [the playoffs] four years in a row — they don't look as good as they would've otherwise," Theo Epstein said last week. "That's how it should be. It's understandable. We have a high bar for our organization. I think we all are invested in it and take it personally when we don't get there. 

"At the same time, you know it's not gonna be perfect. Working through down periods is an important part of the job of getting the ultimate success and sustaining success. Eight years ago, what were we hoping to do? Have sustained success. By definition, you're always looking forward. You want to see how long you can sustain it. It's been pretty good so far, but we have a lot of work ahead."

Those lofty expectations are why this 2019 season has been so maddening for the fanbase and those within the Cubs front office. They have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, an extremely talented team on paper and a core of players who won the World Series in 2016 and made it to three straight National League Championship Series.

Yet these guys are still subject to the pressure and trying to do too much. For whatever reason, they just have not been able to put it all together this season despite the talent and experience.

"I think we're all trying too hard sometimes," Lester admitted early in the homestand. "I'm guilty of it; I think everybody in that clubhouse is guilty of it. You want to win the game before the game is even played. That's part of the grind of playing 162 games. You get into those funks sometimes. 

"Whenever you struggle, you always try to make up for that in that one instance. For [pitchers], it's that one pitch — 'I'm gonna make this perfect pitch, I'm gonna get him out and it's gonna be over with and move on to the next guy.' Well, sometimes that puts you 1-0 [in the count] as opposed to being 0-1 with just a quality pitch.

"Same thing with hitting — 'Oh, I'm gonna try to hit a 4-run homer with nobody on right here.' You get into those funks where you just almost have to play yourself out of it."

It's fascinating that there is so much pressure surrounding this club with all they've accomplished over the last few seasons. 

Since the start of 2015, only the Dodgers and Astros have more regular season wins than the Cubs' 469 (and both teams passed the Cubs just this season).

This is also the group that pulled off the greatest story in American sports history, ending the 108-year championship drought three falls ago. 

So where is this pressure coming from? 

"It's just trying to meet up to expectations," Maddon said. "The expectations have been raised from Day 1. I've always talked that you should run TOWARDS expectations and not away from it. You should run toward the word pressure, not away from it. When you have that, normally there's something good attached to it on the other side. When you don't have those words attached to your daily grind, it's no fun."

Maddon believes pressure comes from how each person processes or analyzes the moment and referenced one of his favorite phrases that is now painted in big white letters on the wall of the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the dugout — "do not permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure."

That's not the easiest thing for young players to do — even young players who have been in the big leagues for a few years. 

But the expectations surrounding this club aren't going to just disappear after a disappointing season. That means the pressure is here to stay, too.

"It's cyclical, I think," Maddon said. "As our group gets through these moments, they're gonna be better for it. And then I'm guessing more than likely, moments like this will not be impactful in a negative way with them in the future. But you gotta go through it. You gotta live it. 

"And you come out the other side and you realize how foolish it was to analyze the moment in a certain way and, 'man, the next time I'm faced with that, I'll never do that to myself again.' And then there's gonna be some that will realize, 'man, I handled that pretty well. and I got through it pretty well because I thought I saw it clearly.' 

"I think that's exactly what goes on right now. My job is to try to illustrate the perspective from my perspective which would be to embrace all that stuff. That's pretty cool, actually. And love the idea that you gotta win today, love the idea that you have to perform today. And that's how you become great. I think that's the method I've tried to imbue within the group since the day I got here."

That perspective will be put to the test now, as the expectations for this team move to the offseason and what should be a very interesting winter.

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

With their postseason hopes fading by the day and the Cubs needing him most, Yu Darvish delivered on Sunday.

And yet, the game ended in a far-too familiar way for the Cubs: with a 3-2 loss, the Cubs’ fifth-straight one-run defeat — and third since Thursday when they were tied or leading in the ninth inning or later.

“If you just play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Also, the games against Cincinnati. For the last six, this is really wash and repeat. Of course it’s frustrating."

Darvish was extremely emotional postgame, as evidenced by a mud stain spread across his locker resulting from an anger-laced throw of his cleat. He pitched well — 8 1/3 innings, three earned runs, 12 strikeouts and no walks — only running into trouble in the ninth.

“I’m so frustrated, you can see it, right?” he said, looking back at his locker. “We have to win, especially today, but we lost.”

The 33-year-old right-hander was rolling heading into the ninth, which started off with pinch-hit triple by Jose Martinez that hit off Albert Almora Jr.’s glove, despite a valiant diving effort.

“It sucks that we couldn’t win that game,” Almora said. “I really wanted to make that play there. Can’t catch them all, but I tried.”

For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel didn’t pitch Sunday because he was unavailable, though Maddon said he would’ve stuck with Darvish even if his closer was available.

"I was happy at that point, but right now everything just….There’s no words right now," Darvish said.

That’s neither here nor there, though. What matters is that the Cubs lost another game that they seemed to have in their grasp, only to see it slip away late. They're now eliminated from NL Central contention, and their elimination number in the Wild Card race is three.

Even Maddon struggled to explain the series, one where the Cubs played quite well but only saw their playoff hopes take a big hit.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “You look at it, how did that all happen? How did we lose all those four games? They were just one runner better than us every night and they were really evenly matched. That’s all I will concede.”

Although Darvish admitted he feels responsible for Sunday’s loss, Maddon spoke highly of the right-hander, even comparing how he's pitched to what Jake Arrieta did during his tenure with the Cubs. 

“I saw Jake pitch really well and win a Cy Young, but this is equivalent of all of that,” he said. “The stuff, command of his stuff. [Darvish] absolutely deserved a better fate.”

Whether you think that Maddon was being too hyperbolic there or not, there’s no doubting that Darvish looked excellent for majority of his outing on Sunday. Baseball is a game of inches, something the Cubs experienced firsthand this weekend.

“They got us. They got us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit for that, but we did not leave anything on the field, man.”

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