How Cubs will manage the second base picture moving forward

How Cubs will manage the second base picture moving forward

Who should be the Cubs' everyday second baseman? 

It's a topic we've seen pop up every now and then throughout the first couple months of the 2019 season and it's a fair question/debate, but it misses the big picture — the 2019 Cubs probably won't ever have an everyday second baseman. Not with a roster packed with position player depth — even with Ben Zobrist still on personal leave and Ian Happ still working to make consistent offensive adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Early on, it looked like Daniel Descalso was emerging as the closest thing the Cubs would get to an everyday second baseman, as the veteran started 21 of the team's first 30 games at the No. 4 spot in the defensive alignment. But then Addison Russell returned from his suspension during the first week of May and Descalso started slumping right around the same time. 

Over the Cubs' last 34 games, Descalso has only drawn 13 starts at second base, with Russell and David Bote essentially splitting time at the position in that span.

Lately, it's been Bote, as Russell has been dealing with a right hand injury he suffered on a slide last Tuesday. When Russell was scratched with the hand issue Wednesday night, Bote was put into the starting lineup on short notice and delivered the historic night where he became the first Cubs second baseman to drive in 7 runs in a game since Ryne Sandberg in 1984.

Russell pinch-hit in the Cubs' win over the Cardinals Saturday and stayed in defensively for the last couple innings. But it was Bote again in the starting lineup for Sunday's homestand finale and delivered the game-winning hit in the fifth inning to break a 1-1 tie.

"Right now, you've seen primarily David and Addison," Joe Maddon said. "I just had a great conversation with Daniel. Daniel's stll working on some things offensively, too. And as he really gets back to where he had been, I'm really eager to get him out there 'cause this guy's a very good offensive player. 

"When Addison's well, I really like that a lot — him and Javy [Baez] up the middle is very intriguing [defensively]. So as he's ready to roll, you'll probably see more of that and then Bote at third and pop [Kris Bryant] back in the outfield. Although KB's playing a really good third base this year — as good as I've seen him."

Maddon acknowledged all the options and depth at his disposal, even without Zobrist and Happ — who were probably the Cubs' two most versatile players on the roster the last couple seasons. 

The trick is just finding somewhat consistent time for each guy to get out there and see regular at-bats. 

That's been even more challenging for Maddon lately, as Descalso's slump continues. He was one of the Cubs' best clutch hitters to begin the year, but since the calendar flipped to May, the 32-year-old veteran is slashing just .103/.209/.138 (.347 OPS) with only 1 extra-base hit and 3 RBI in 29 games. He also has struck out nearly a third of the time (20 whiffs in 68 plate appearances). 

Descalso confirmed he is working on some specific mechanical changes right now, but said it's "nothing crazy."

"I don't want to overhaul [my swing] during the season, but just make some adjustments," he said. "Teams are pitching me a little differently. It's a game of adjustments — they're gonna adjust to you and my job is to adjust back. It hasn't been as smooth as I would like, but just staying the course — out there, trying to have good at-bats, swing at good pitches and hopefully get back on the right track."

He doesn't rate highly in defensive metrics, so if Descalso isn't hitting, it's tough to make the case that he should be playing more over Bote and Russell — who are both better defensively and have been solid offensively. 

The Cubs also haven't utilized Descalso as a utility player this season. He played four positions with the Diamondbacks last year and has seen substantial time at third base, shortstop, first base and left field throughout his big-league career. However, he's almost exclusively been a second baseman with the Cubs, seeing only 1 game at any other spot (2.1 innings at third base).

"I know I haven't been swinging the bat well," Descalso said. "You want to get a hit every time, but sometimes you gotta go with baby steps. Just trying to not make it bigger than it is and keep it simple."

In general, the Cubs need more offensive production out of that position, as the second basemen have combined to hit just .205/.284/.328 (.612 OPS) this season — which ranks last on the team in every category by a wide margin. The Cubs also rank 26th in baseball in second basemen OPS.

Bote's big night Wednesday helped boost those numbers up, but even with that game, he is still hitting only .241 with a .721 OPS while playing second base. 

He's done most of his damage this season as a third baseman (.278 AVG, .863 OPS) and entered play Sunday with almost twice the total offensive value (1.1 WAR) he had all of last season (0.6 WAR).

"He started out well, then he hit a little bit of a skid, which was good because he had some problems at the major-league level early in the season and he's overcome that already," Maddon said. "So you need to go through that adversity, too. My goodness, David's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a team-oriented player. 

"He's like any other young player — he's still working to really understand what's going on every day and understanding himself. But he does it in a very mature way. He's gonna keep getting better. He is. Because he listens well and I think he's getting to the point where he understands his strengths, which is really important. Just watch him — he's gonna continue to get better."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


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