DH in the NL?? How MLB's potential rule changes affect the Cubs in 2019 and beyond

DH in the NL?? How MLB's potential rule changes affect the Cubs in 2019 and beyond

The baseball world as we know it may be about to get an extreme makeover. 

Ken Rosenthal turned heads with his report Tuesday night that Major League Baseball could see drastic changes as soon as this season — from the designated hitter in the National League to limits on changing out relief pitchers to serious penalties for "tanking" teams.

The implications of any of these moves would be far and wide and each decision would affect the Cubs in any number of ways. 

But let's talk about two here that are both realistic and make the most sense for a variety of reasons.

Rosenthal's report that baseball could adopt a three-batter minimum for each pitcher would completely eliminate the "opener" in the sense of the Milwaukee Brewers deploying left-hander Wade Miley for just one batter to begin a postseason game. It would also do away with LOOGYs (Left Handed One Out Guys), or bullpen specialists who are brought in to face only one batter.

If that rule were passed, gone are the days where some other team would bring in a left-hander to face Anthony Rizzo, then a right-hander to face Javy Baez and then another lefty to face Kyle Schwarber in the span of three hitters.

If baseball wants to speed up the game, that would certainly be a way to do so. It also completely eliminates a major part of the strategy behind the game that has become a major staple since the foundation of modern bullpens decades ago.

Having a pitcher face three batters is an arbitrary number and it would present a host of other problems from potential injuries to game-changing moments. Yes, it would likely bring more action into the game and probably reduce strikeouts as pitchers would no longer be able to empty their tank just to get one hitter out in one crucial spot.

But what happens if a guy feels something grab in his elbow or shoulder or hamstring while facing the first hitter out of the bullpen? Is his manager then faced with either leaving an ailing pitcher in for two more batters just to satisfy the rule or can they pull the guy for feeling a minor grab even if it's not a major arm injury? Then, if a pitcher is pulled from the game for injury reasons, would they have to automatically be placed on the disabled list? If not that, would there be some other repercussion to limit teams from taking advantage and simply crying "injury!" every time they want to remove a pitcher prior to the three-batter minimum?

If the three-batter rule were to pass, it would absolutely change how Joe Maddon utilizes the Cubs bullpen. Pitchers like Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. would become more valuable as guys who have success against both left-handed and right-handed hitters. Meanwhile, specialists like Brian Duensing and Steve Cishek would see their value take a hit.

It also would impact the starting rotation, as suddenly Maddon and other managers around the game would not be so eager to get into their bullpen.

As for the designated hitter...this is where things really get interesting.

For years, the DH has been a hot-button topic around the game. If one league has it, why shouldn't the other? The NFL, NBA and NHL don't have different rules for different conferences. If a brand new professional sports league popped up out of nowhere, it would be absolutely nuts to see one conference/league with different rules than the other while still playing on the same level of competition.

And we all know MLB won't ever erase the DH from the American League, so the only option to fixing the problem is adding the DH across the board. After all, who really wants to see pitchers hit?

As Rosenthal noted in his article, pitchers hit .115 with a microscopic .293 OPS last season. If the league wants more action, removing this aspect of the game would certainly help. It would also create another 15 full-time jobs as each NL team would suddenly have an extra 500 or so at-bats they have to dole out to position players.

That would be music to the Cubs' ears for a number of reasons. 

The Cubs have a surplus of position players as is, so adding an extra 500 at-bats would be huge for the overall playing time equation. There may be no other NL roster as ready for the DH as the Cubs are.

Many are quick to assume the Cubs would simply move Schwarber to the DH role given his perceived shortcomings as a defender. However, the final answer likely wouldn't be that cut-and-dry.

When the Cubs have the DH in AL parks during Interleague play, it's not like Schwarber is the only guy filling that role. Maddon and his coaching staff are all about rest and the DH is a great way to get a guy off his feet for most of the game while still keeping his bat in the lineup.

The Cubs' depth would again their best asset as they could utilize the DH in a variety of ways. Want to spell Rizzo a couple of games? Have him DH for a weekend series with Kris Bryant or Ben Zobrist flipping over to first base. Is Jason Heyward's throwing shoulder bugging him? How about a day or two at DH with Zobrist or Ian Happ manning right field? How do the Cubs keep Zobrist fresh in his age-38 season while still giving him near full-time at-bats? You guessed it — the DH comes into play once again.

Maybe the baseline could be Schwarber, since most of his value comes via the bat. Even with his rocket arm and improved defensive numbers last year, Schwarber was still only about league average — or slightly below — as an outfielder. 

Just to envision it, here's one lineup scenario the Cubs could deploy with the DH in tow (against a right-handed pitcher):

1. Ben Zobrist - 2B
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Kyle Schwarber - DH
6. Willson Contreras - C
7. Ian Happ - LF
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Albert Almora Jr. - CF

That would leave Daniel Descalso, David Bote and Victor Caratini on the bench — plenty of depth and versatility for the later innings.

Here's how the Cubs could line up against a right-handed pitcher the very next day with the DH:

1. Ben Zobrist - DH
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Kyle Schwarber - LF
6. Willson Contreras - C
7. Ian Happ - CF
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Daniel Descalso - 2B

That would leave Almora, Bote and Caratini on the bench, give Zobrist a half-day off and get Descalso some at-bats while barely tinkering with the stability of the lineup from day-to-day.

Assuming Addison Russell returns to the active roster after his suspension ends in April, it gives the Cubs even more options to maximize the DH and their versatility on a daily basis.

Either way, the Cubs will start the 2019 regular season with exactly this scenario, as their first three games come with the DH in an American League ballpark in Texas.

It's hard to see any of these rules passing for this year given the short notice as teams/owners would undoubtedly want an entire offseason to form their rosters with a new DH spot or bullpen usage implications.

But this is another sign baseball could see some drastic change in the very near future and whenever it does happen, the Cubs could be in a prime spot to take advantage.

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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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