Cubs

Javy of all trades: Baez's offensive versatility gives Cubs a new dimension

Javy of all trades: Baez's offensive versatility gives Cubs a new dimension

Javy Baez can hit anywhere in the Cubs lineup.

Literally.

In Saturday's game against the White Sox, Baez found himself leading off against James Shields, giving him an at-bat in every slot in the batting order 1-through-9. (He hasn't drawn a start in the 5-hole or No. 9 spot, but has entered there as a pinch-hitter or part of a double switch.)

Baez immediately provided that "energy" Joe Maddon loves to see from him atop the order, lining the second pitch of the game into the right field corner and hustling in for a leadoff triple, never hestitating despite a clean pickup from White Sox right fielder Trayce Thompson.

Seven pitches later, Baez scored the game's first run on Anthony Rizzo's dinger as the Cubs unloaded on a White Sox starter in the first inning for the second straight day.

Baez led off the second inning, too, this time hitting a tapper to the right side of the infield and beating Shields to the bag with a headfirst dive.

"El Mago" later swiped second base on a delayed steal and swim move...

...and scored on Willson Contreras' groundball single, sliding past Sox catcher Welington Castillo with another acrobatic maneuver.

Just another way Baez can help the Cubs pickup wins on top of his gamechanging defense, mind-bending tags and ability to hit any pitch — even those outside of the strike zone — into the bleachers at any time.

"Eventually, he can almost hit anywhere," Maddon said. "I've had to use him at the bottom [of the lineup] because he swings and misses a lot, but he's cut down on that. A swing-and-miss guy like that with power, you don't want him in front of your better guys because he can clean stuff up.

"A lot of his RBIs, to me, are the residue of that. Although he's done some really good work in the 2-hole, also. But yeah, we're still figuring the whole thing out."

The reason Maddon opted to go with Baez as the leadoff hitter Saturday was he believed it was a good matchup against Shields, who actually is tougher on left-handed hitters than righties so far in 2018.

Baez has also, surprisingly, fared much better against righties this year, coming into the game with a .305 average and 1.011 OPS vs. RHP compared to a .211 AVG and .742 OPS vs. southpaws. 

From 2015-17, Baez sported a .257 AVG and .712 OPS vs. righties compared to a .321 AVG and .906 OPS vs. lefties.

That step forward in his development has been a big reason why Baez woke up Saturday morning leading the National League in RBI.

In Friday's series opener with the Sox, Baez had one of his patented wild, out-of-control swings where he actually dropped to one knee. But he came right back on the next pitch, shortened his stroke, stayed under control and lined a two-strike offering into center for a sacrifice fly to bring home a run. Before 2018, that at-bat almost assuredly would've ended in another strikeout for Baez's total and instead turned into an RBI.

Baez still doesn't walk much — his season 4.2 walk percentage is below his career mark (5 percent) and it's buoyed by 4 intentional walks — but his strikeouts are down to a career-low 20.4 percent.

It's been a calendar month since Baez last walked (April 11) and he has only drawn two unintentional free passes all year.

"It's just a matter of the on-base thing. Just accepting your walks," Maddon said. "That's the one item I'd like to see him get better at. He's never going to be the poster child for that. He's not going to be that, so I'm not anticipating that.

"But just continue to work the good at-bat, move the ball, stay in your strike zone. Because when he does make contact, something good normally happens.

"He's still ascending. He's still got things to learn. The power is there, you can see that. He's been really good with runners in scoring position, you can see that. ... The sky is the limit."

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 trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

It’s not a blockbuster move, but the Cubs have reportedly made a trade with more than two weeks until the trade deadline.

Theo Epstein confirmed previous reports after the game that the Cubs traded left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado. Epstein added that Willson Contreras is heading to the 10-day IL with a strain in the arch of his foot, but he didn’t expect Contreras to be out much longer than those 10 days.

Montgomery, 30, joined the Cubs in the middle of the 2016 season, but struggled this season. He had a 5.67 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings this season.

Maldonado, 32, was hitting .224/.288/.359 with the Royals. Maldonado can fill in at catcher with Victor Caratini while Contreras is out. Maldonado is known for his defensive ability behind the plate.

Meanwhile, Montgomery's exit means the pitcher who recorded the last out of the 2016 World Series is no longer in the organization. Epstein addressed that to reporters after the game.

"Obviously you can't talk about his contributions without talking about getting the last out of the World Series that changed everybody's life," Epstein said.

Montgomery talked to reporters from his locker after it was announced that he was traded.

"I look back at that and it's an emotional experience," Montgomery said. "At the time, I didn't realize how much impact it was. Especially now, as I leave this team and the city, it's going to be something I can look back on and really be proud of. I was able to accomplish a lot here and now it's time to move on and see what else I can accomplish somewhere else."

Montgomery may have an opportunity to join the Royals rotation. The Royals traded starting pitcher Homer Bailey to the A's on Sunday. Montgomery didn't make any starts in 2019, but had 38 in his previous two and a half years with the Cubs.

"It's definitely an emotional thing to think of the last three and a half, four years here and obviously the World Series," Montgomery said. "I grew up a lot here. I'm definitely going to miss playing here in the city and with a lot of these guys. It's going to take a little while to settle in."

 

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