State of the Cubs: First base

State of the Cubs: First base

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the fourth installment on the first basemen.

What is the current state of the Cubs at first base? Simple — Anthony Rizzo.

No other explanation needed.

End of article.

-30- (for your old school journalists out there)

But seriously: Theo Epstein said at the GM meetings last month the only position group the Cubs feel comfortable with at the moment was starting pitching. He was addressing the offense as one big group, but looking more minutely, first base obviously is not an area of need for this franchise.

In fact, it's probably the most secure position for the Cubs through at least 2021 — the last team option on Rizzo's current deal. However, it's not quite as stable as it once was (more on that in a bit).

Depth chart

1. Anthony Rizzo
2. Let's be honest, this isn't needed

Even if Rizzo goes down to injury — like last April with his back issue — the Cubs have plenty of players to slide over and fill in the gap. Kris Bryant could obviously do it, opening up third base for Javy Baez or David Bote. Ben Zobrist could also shift over to first base.

Then there's Baez (who has some experience over there), Victor Caratini (if he's still on the big-league roster), Ian Happ (who started two games at first in 2018) and even Taylor Davis (who figures to spend the year in the minors, but is on the 40-man roster). Willson Contreras could slide over if the Cubs had a reliable option to put at catcher and in a pinch, I'm sure Kyle Schwarber or Bote could cover for Rizzo.

Of course, none of these options are Gold Glove-caliber defenders like Rizzo, but if the Cubs lose their emotional leader and face of the franchise for any extended period of time, they'll be a lot more worried about missing his bat than his glove.

After homering in the first game of 2018, Rizzo got off to a horrible start — hitting .143 with a .250 on-base percentage and zero extra-base hits from March 30 through April 30. But once he put that back injury and slump in the rearview mirror, Rizzo emerged as the best hitter in the Cubs lineup (yes, even better than Baez) — slashing .303/.393/.512 (.905 OPS) from May 1 on, walking more than he struck out 66 vs. 65) and smashing 24 homers with 92 RBI. 

That helped his overall numbers look pretty close to his career line, but it was the first time since 2013 that he failed to hit at least 31 homers.

Like many of the other hitters in the Cubs lineup, Rizzo will look to hit for more power in 2018, but he still has the best approach and consistency among any of the position players on the roster.

What's next?

The only "next" moves the Cubs need to make at first base would be if they want to find a legitimate backup with plenty of experience at the position defensively. Rizzo led baseball in hit-by-pitches in both 2015 and 2017 and hsa been plunked at least 15 times for five straight seasons, 105 in all. Any one of those in a bad spot on his hand or elbow or foot and he could hit the DL for a potentially lengthy period of time.

Then there's the back issue, as Rizzo has experienced back pain that has kept him out of the lineup for at least a couple games a year. He said the April 2018 injury was a bit different than normal, but still, he's 29 years old and the back issues figure to increase over time as he ages.

Beyond that, the only "next" moves the Cubs need to make to address first base is simply picking up the $16.5 million options for 2020 and 2021, though those should be the easiest calls Epstein's front office makes in each respective offseason.

The bottom line

Rizzo is the most reliable hitter in the Cubs lineup and if he can pick his power back up and avoid another month-long slump, he has a very good chance to improve upon his 2019 numbers. 

At a time when the Cubs really want all their talented young hitters to take that next step and put it all together offensively, Rizzo serves as the perfect example with one of the best two-strike approaches in the league.

Depending on what else the Cubs are able to do this winter and how they augment the lineup, Joe Maddon and Co. may consider moving Rizzo up to the leadoff spot on a more regular basis. He's obviously comfortable hitting there (.317/.409/.587 career slash line in 45 starts leading off), it would give the best hitter in the lineup the most at-bats and it would set the table for Bryant and Baez with the team's top OBP guy hitting in front of them.

State of the Cubs: SP
State of the Cubs: RP
State of the Cubs: C
State of the Cubs: 1B

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In biggest series of season, Cubs see Craig Kimbrel return only to lose Cole Hamels

In biggest series of season, Cubs see Craig Kimbrel return only to lose Cole Hamels

During his pregame press conference Thursday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon shared a laugh about his club’s NFL-esque injury report with one reporter.

“Questionable, probable,” Maddon said with a smile about his team’s long list of injury updates.

As funny as the moment was, there was some truth to it. Ahead of Thursday’s series opener against the Cardinals, the Cubs announced that:

-They activated Craig Kimbrel (elbow) off the 10-day injured list and Addison Russell off the concussion IL
-Cole Hamels will miss his start on Saturday due to left shoulder fatigue

To add it on the fun, the Cubs announced 20 minutes before Thursday’s game that Anthony Rizzo was returning to the starting lineup just four days after badly spraining his right ankle.

Got all that?

While the Rizzo announcement was shocking, the Hamels news came as a surprise. The 35-year-old has struggled since returning from an oblique strain on Aug. 3, holding a 6.39 ERA in his last nine starts. He’s failed to pitch five innings in five of those games, including the last three.

Maddon didn’t express terrible concern over Hamels missing this weekend’s start, though he pointed out how the team has to be careful with injuries this time of year, as an extended absence could be the end of one’s season.

“Eh, I shouldn’t say heavily concerned, but anytime a guy like that says it’s bothering him a bit, you have to absolutely believe it,” Maddon said. “Especially at this time of the year, how much he loves to compete and play right now.

“There’s always some concern with that. We’ll just take his word and what the doctors have to say and then try and get him back as quickly as possible.

“If Cole says he’s hurting, he’s hurting, man.”

The Cubs expect Hamels to start next week, but whether that comes against the Pirates or the Cardinals is to be determined. Point being, the Cubs want to make sure Hamels is good to go before throwing him into the fold.

“I don’t know yet. I had a great conversation with him,” Maddon said. “This guy is so straight forward, pragmatic and honest. Let’s just continue to work with it daily and then see where it takes us.”

Maddon also mentioned how Hamels not starting this weekend has some positive repercussions. Not only does it give him extra rest, but the same can be said about Jose Quintana, who originally was slated to pitch Friday but will now start Saturday. Alec Mills – who has quietly been pitching well – will now start on Friday. Starting Mills also means Tyler Chatwood can stay in the hybrid relief role he's succeed in lately.

“Combined with the fact that Cole’s not doing that well, Alec has been pitching well and it gives Q one extra day," Maddon said. "All those things are in a way positive that we can fit it in this way. Having Alec throwing as well as he has to fit in there and not have to take Chatwood out of the role that we’ve got him in right now is also very helpful.

"You saw what Tyler did last night. Part of that little quick dab in and out last night is so that we can possibly use him more often. In a weird way, having this great depth that’s able to cover these particular maladies, I think we’re covered."

Kimbrel didn’t go on a rehab assignment, as the seasons of the Cubs minor league affiliates all have concluded. However, like Hamels, Kimbrel knows his body best and therefore, Maddon trusted that his closer was ready to return.

“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat.

“He feels really good about himself, and he knows better than anybody how good he feels. I’m eager about it.”

Kimbrel returns to a Cubs bullpen that stepped up big time in his absence. Entering Thursday, the Cubs ranked No. 1 in MLB with a 2.35 ERA by relievers in September. Kimbrel’s numbers this season aren’t eye-popping – 21 games, 5.68 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 13-of-15 in save opportunities – but his impact on the Cubs bullpen goes beyond numbers.

Rather than go with a committee approach, Kimbrel gives the Cubs a bonafide closing option. In turn, the likes of Steve Cishek, Rowan Wick, Chatwood and Brandon Kintzler – who is nearing a return and will throw a bullpen session Thursday or Friday – can pitch earlier in games, lengthening the Cubs bullpen.

“When that happens, that permits us to move it back…Chatwood becomes available earlier, Rowan becomes available earlier. They all become available earlier, which lengthens the whole thing out.

“But when you have that one guy at the end that you know is at the end, all of a sudden, these first eight innings [are[ wide open, man. Just go for it.

With the season winding down, it’s all hands on deck for the Cubs. With a playoff spot still in reach, go for it they shall.

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Javy Baez nearing return to Cubs

Javy Baez nearing return to Cubs

Javy Baez could follow in the footstep of his teammates in the very near future.

It would not be a surprise to see Baez take a page out of Anthony Rizzo's book (and Kyle Schwarber before him, in 2016) and make a quick return to the field in the Cubs' time of need.

Baez broke his left thumb Sept. 1 on an awkward play at second base and has been sidelined since.

However, he has been cleared to pinch-run and for light baseball activities, including hitting off a tee. 

Joe Maddon said he was "close" to utilizing "El Mago" as a runner in Wednesday night's game. Maddon instead utilized Daniel Descalso to pinch-run for Victor Caratini in the bottom of the 10th inning, but the Cubs manager said he will be ready to call Baez's name Thursday night or this weekend if a situation arises.

Baez would need to wear a big mitt on his left hand to help protect that thumb when he is running the bases and Maddon said neither he nor the coaching staff will try to convince Baez to slide feet-first now instead of headfirst. 

"He's doing really well," Maddon said. "Those big ole oven mitts — that's all he's gonna need, I think. And then it also provides the potential for being safer, getting in there a little bit sooner. It is what it is. He's progressing well."

At this point, Baez is having more of an issue defensively (using that thumb to close his glove) than he has hitting.

The Cubs still don't know when their All-Star shortstop will be able to return to game action. But if the Rizzo situation has shown us anything, it's to expect the unexpected -- especially right now, with the season on the line and the Cubs battling for the division against the first-place Cardinals all weekend (and then again for three games next weekend in St. Louis).

Maddon said Baez has been getting "antsy" in the dugout lately, hoping to get an opportunity to get into a game in some capacity.

Beyond pinch-running, the 2019 NL MVP runner-up may be available for pinch-hitting duties, possibly even as soon as this weekend.

"It's good for all of us. Rizz wants in there, [Baez] wants in there," Maddon said Thursday afternoon, roughly 90 minutes before Rizzo made his stunning return. "They all want to be out there. It's hard to imagine what they're gonna be able to do after injury. But we're gonna find out. 

"Weirdly, there's a little rest involved, too, that can actually make them feel even stronger and better at this particular moment. As they say they're ready to play, we'll play 'em."

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