Cubs

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

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USA TODAY

Cubs sign oft-injured reliever Brandon Morrow to minor-league deal

Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 2018, but he’ll get a shot at making a comeback next season.

Morrow is set to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. It’s worth $1 million if he makes the Cubs' roster and could reach $2.25 million if Morrow makes 65 big-league appearances. 

Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 15, 2018, missing the second half of that season with right biceps inflammation. He underwent a debridement procedure on his right elbow last offseason, which was supposed to keep him out for the first month of the 2019 season. But Morrow suffered several setbacks and never pitched in 2019. 

Morrow’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the right-hander feels a sense of loyalty to the Cubs after they stuck by him through thick and thin. He said Morrow was open to a minor league deal.

When he last pitched, Morrow was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He posted a 1.47 ERA in 35 games in 2018, converting 22 of 24 save tries. He provided the Cubs with a power arm in the back of the bullpen, striking out 31 batters in 30 2/3 innings compared to nine walks.

For the Cubs, Morrow is a low-risk addition with high-reward potential. He told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that his arm feels great. If he’s healthy, he could be a major contributor to the Cubs' bullpen.

This time, the Cubs won’t place such high expectations on the 35-year-old. They expect closer Craig Kimbrel to bounce back in 2020 with a normal offseason ahead of him. Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs last June and struggled mightily, posting a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.

If healthy, Morrow could prove to be a lethal weapon in front of Kimbrel. If he can’t stay healthy, it’s not like the Cubs are investing a lot of money in him, as they did two offseasons ago when Morrow signed a two-year, $21 million deal.

Simply put: if Morrow pans out, great. If he can’t stay healthy, the Cubs can move on without losing a large investment.

If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

If Rangers sign Nicholas Castellanos, it could lead them to Kris Bryant deal

After losing out on free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Texas Rangers have spoken to agent Scott Boras about Cubs free agent outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

Castellanos played third with the Detroit Tigers from 2014-17, but considering he posted a -64 Defensive Runs Saved mark in four seasons, he won’t be moving back there. Interestingly, however, Castellanos is willing to consider playing first base, according to Grant.

The Cubs — who are reportedly still pursuing Castellanos — obviously would be affected if the 27-year-old signs with Texas, as they'll lose one of their most productive players from 2019. But besides that, Castellanos landing with the Rangers would impact the Kris Bryant trade market.

The Rangers are looking for a consolation plan at third base after missing out on Rendon. They have a three-year offer on the table for Donaldson, according to Grant, and signing him would cost them only money. The same cannot be said about acquiring a third baseman via trade, like Kris Bryant, who would cost several assets.

But if Donaldson doesn’t sign with the Rangers, they might be more inclined to pursue Bryant. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said at the Winter Meetings they’ll address third base this offseason, and the Cubs' third baseman would be the best option left. That is, unless Texas calls the Rockies about Nolan Arenado.

Daniels also indicated that the Rangers are unlikely to trade for a player with only a few years of team control left (like Bryant) without making other major additions.

“There are some trade options [that] would have quite frankly made more sense in our mind if we had landed the free agents at the top of our list,” Daniels said. “I don’t love the idea of half measures. I don’t love the idea of taking a chunk out of the system if it doesn’t really make sense. Trading for somebody with a year or two of control makes more sense if the club is a little more filled out.”

So if the Rangers land Castellanos, a pursuit of Bryant could follow. But the same might also be true if they sign Donaldson, thanks to Bryant’s positional versatility.

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