Cubs

How Cubs plan to maneuver catching situation moving forward

How Cubs plan to maneuver catching situation moving forward

Willson Contreras was just put on the 10-day injured list Monday night, but by Tuesday afternoon, he was already pain-free in his right foot.

The Cubs All-Star catcher is dealing with a strain/bruise in the arch of his right foot, but he saw a specialist Tuesday and plans on taking a couple days off before resuming baseball activities Friday.

The Cubs back-dated the IL stint a couple of days, so Contreras would be eligible to return in the middle of next week if all goes according to plan. 

"If it was me, I'd be playing today or every single day," Contreras said. "But gotta be smart. It's still July and I know the team needs me. I'll be cheering for them right now, but I hope it's less than 10 days."

Contreras said he is getting some orthotic inserts to put into his shoes after initially experiencing the issue while wearing a brand new pair of cleats that hadn't yet been properly broken in. He also said the hard ground played a contributing factor and had a similar injury back in 2015 when he used a new pair of cleats for the Double-A All-Star Game.

When Contreras does return, the Cubs will have an interesting problem to maneuver with their catching situation now that they traded for veteran Martin Maldonado and they still have young backstop Victor Caratini enjoying a breakout campaign.

It's a problem they hope to have.

"It would present differently [having three catchers]," Joe Maddon admitted. "We'd have to parcel out the work in a manner that satisfies all of them, which would not be easy. But it also opens up pinch-hitting opportunities for guys in a good matchup situation, also. We haven't decided exactly [how it's going to work]. 

"But it's hard to not acquire Martin Maldonado if he's available. It's really difficult to walk away from that. So this is one of those things that could be a classic win-win-win, according to Michael Scott. I really believe this will be a great opportunity for Mikey Montgomery in Kansas City and it's a great opportunity for us and Martin here.

"So let's just play it out. I don't want anything negative to happen. I want us to have to figure this out."

Maddon inserted Maldonado into the starting lineup in his first day in Chicago Tuesday and already said Caratini will catch the day game Wednesday with Yu Darvish throwing.

Beyond that, the Cubs don't have a set plan in place for how this is all going to work — in the short-term or when Contreras comes back.

With the Cubs coming off the All-Star Break and getting regular off-days coming up over the next couple of weeks, Maddon doesn't anticipate needing to give first baseman Anthony Rizzo much time off. So, he admitted there's not much of an opportunity for Caratini to play there.

And with Kris Bryant and David Bote already seeing regular time at third base plus the possibility of Robel Garcia and Daniel Descalso able to play the hot corner, Maddon doesn't see much time for Caratini there, either. 

Contreras is coming off a foot injury, so occasionally moving him to the outfield upon his return doesn't necessarily make the most sense at the moment, but maybe that would be an option moving forward. 

Or maybe the Cubs include Caratini in a deal before the trade deadline, though he is a really nice long-term option for the club, especially as a switch-hitter. 

However the Cubs figure it out, the move for Maldonado makes a ton of sense in the big picture view of this 2019 season

Major League Baseball does not have an August waiver trade deadline anymore, so all moves would have to be done before July 31. The Cubs wanted to shore up their overall catching depth and saw an opportunity with Maldonado — a guy they've liked for some time — and jumped at the chance. 

"I've already gotten four texts from people I really respect about [Maldonado] and how much they love him and beyond that, the kind of influence he has in the clubhouse and with his peers," Maddon said. "Conversationally, that came through. I walked into the video room and he's in there talking to [Cubs strategy coach Mike Borzello] and Tommy [Hottovy] and it's like, 'whoa.'

"Handles himself extremely well — looks you right in the eyeballs and he's very confident. So as a catcher, kind of an interesting skillset he's got."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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