Carlos Gonzalez

Cubs place Cole Hamels on injured list, designate Carlos González for assignment

Cubs place Cole Hamels on injured list, designate Carlos González for assignment

The Cubs will be without their most consistent starting pitchers for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, the Cubs placed left-hander Cole Hamels on the 10-day injured list with a left oblique strain. The team also designated outfielder Carlos González for assignment, promoting relievers Dillon Maples and Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa in corresponding moves.

Hamels exited Friday's game against the Reds ahead of the second inning after experiencing discomfort in his side throwing warmup pitches. Manager Joe Maddon said Hamels would be placed on the injured list with an oblique strain, making Saturday's announcement a mere formality.

This marks the second time in three seasons that Hamels has suffered an oblique injury. He missed nearly two months in 2017 with a right oblique strain, though he told Mark Gonzales from the Chicago Tribune that he doesn't think the injury will be as bad this time around.

Be that as it may, Hamels will likely be out for an extended period of time, which leaves the Cubs without 40 percent of their Opening Day starting rotation. Kyle Hendricks is currently on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, and while he could return before the All-Star break, his return date not set in stone.

Without Hamels and Hendricks, Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood will be fixtures in the starting rotation for the foreseeable future. The Cubs already announced that Alzolay will start Monday against the Pirates and that Chatwood will return to the bullpen. Now, Chatwood will likely return to starting, at least until Hendricks returns.

González is somewhat of a roster casualty. Since Hamels only pitched an inning last night, the Cubs were forced to stretch their bullpen out, using Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, Kyle Ryan and Steve Cishek. Chatwood, Strop and possibly Kimbrel were unavailable on Friday, hence the need for Maples and Wick to come up from Triple-A.

At the same time, González has struggled in big league action with the Indians and Cubs this season. The 33-year-old holds a .200/.289/.283 slashline in 145 at-bats, including a .175/.306/.300 line in 40 at-bats with the Cubs.

Maples hasn't allowed a run in 5 2/3 MLB innings this season, striking out 10 batters compared to nine walks. He has struggled with command in his young MLB career, walking 20 batters in 16 1/3 career innings. However, he's walked just two batters in his last 5 2/3 innings at Iowa, striking out 12 batters over that span. 

This marks Wick's third stint with the Cubs this season. The hard-throwing right-hander has allowed just one earned runs in 3 2/3 innings with the Cubs this season, striking out six batters. He holds a 2.22 ERA in 28 1/3 innings with Iowa this season, striking out 34 batters compared to eight walks.

The Cubs now have just three bench players available Saturday against the Reds — David Bote, Victor Caratini and Daniel Descalso. 

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While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

A little bit of Backup Quarterback Syndrome surrounds the Cubs right now.

Just like with the Bears when the starting quarterback isn't playing well, the backup QB often becomes the most popular guy in town.

So with Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Carlos Gonzalez struggling of late, many fans are wondering where Ian Happ is and why the Cubs haven't called him back up from Triple-A Iowa.

That quartet of players is slashing a combined .180/.269/.245 (.514 OPS) in June with a 28 percent strikeout rate and only 2 homers and 12 RBI over 160 plate appearances. 

But the Cubs didn't send Happ down to the minors because of Almora, Descalso or even Russell. The organization felt he needed to make some adjustments with his swing and offensive approach — namely from the left side of the plate. 

In a perfect scenario, Happ would cut down on strikeouts without losing any of the power that has led him to hit 39 homers in 751 at-bats during his first two big-league seasons. 

However, it hasn't quite worked out that way, as the 24-year-old switch-hitter is hitting just .225 with a .347 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage in 72 games for Iowa. He does have 45 walks, but also 85 strikeouts and only 23 extra-base hits (11 homers). 

Even more concerning is much of that damage has come from the right side of the plate (.803 OPS, 4 homers) while he's struggled as a left-handed batter (.207 AVG, .721 OPS, only 7 HRs in 169 at-bats).

Happ's progress also hasn't exactly been linear. His OPS by month:

April: .741
May: .806
June: .667

"I think from a development stage, it's good," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "He's been swinging the bat well from the right side. Still working on things from the left side that he's been working on since spring training. But the attitude is fantastic. He's working hard. 

"It just feels like a matter of time until he goes on a run and gets back to where he was before. We're kinda waiting on that a little bit — he's waiting on that. But given the work he's done and where he is mentally, I think that's just a matter of time."

Iowa manager Marty Pevey raved about Happ's work ethic and attitude, but also acknowledged that it hasn't yet clicked for the young switch-hitter and that can be frustrating and difficult to maintain the right mental approach.

Happ admitted that frustration — especially early on — in a conversation with The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma last week

But those around Happ in the Cubs organization haven't lost any faith in him.

"He's 24 years old," Pevey said. "He would almost be the youngest guy on the big-league team still. ... He's got so much talent. When the light comes back on for him and stays on, he's gonna be able to help the big club for a long, long time."

In spring training, the plan was for Happ to play both second base and outfield. But that was before he was demoted, of course.

As he works on his swing, Happ hasn't played second base with Iowa since June 1 and has only started 8 games on the infield this season, spending almost all his time in center field. 

"I think the biggest thing there is we just want him to get his at-bats and not worry about the defensive side of things," Joe Maddon said. "I think that's pretty much it. He can still come in and play second base, but moving it forward, if you could really nail down that swing from the left side and be pertinent in the outfield, that would be the first priority."

Regardless of how those on big-league club is playing or what the roster situation might be, the Cubs are committed to Happ's development and don't want to rush him. 

"The situation with Ian, you really want to make sure that you feel good about that," Maddon said earlier this month. "You don't want to just [call him up] because you think you have to do something like that. You got a young player, still learning his craft and getting better at what he's doing. 

"So you don't want to pull the plug. It's not an experiment, it's a developmental situation — so make sure that that is in place before you actually do bring him back. That's why you sent him there in the first place."

Carlos Gonzalez's impact on Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup

Carlos Gonzalez's impact on Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup

Carlos Gonzalez has been the story of the week so far at Wrigley Field.

A bigger story than the gems by Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. A bigger story than The Return of El Mago. A bigger story than the offense finally getting its groove back. A bigger story than the back-to-back victories (which the Cubs hadn't accomplished since May 21-22).

Because Gonzalez has had a direct hand in the success of all those storylines.

He's only been in a Cubs uniform for two days, but it's hard to make a more impactful first impression than he has over those 48 hours.

It's not just the diving catch he made in right-center to rob the Angels of a handful of runs Monday afternoon. Or the pair of runs he batted in Tuesday night.

"He's already had a huge impact. Huge lift for us," Hendricks said. "It's been awesome to watch him out there. Hell of a player. I told him I'm just glad I don't have to face him anymore because it's a scary at-bat, for sure. I like having him on our side. 

"You can tell he's just a pro. He knows what he's doing out there. I can't wait to see what he does the rest of the year."

Gonzalez has started both games so far, as Joe Maddon has penciled the veteran outfielder into the fifth spot in the Cubs lineup — right behind Javy Baez.

Is it coincidence that — after a tough two weeks at the plate — Baez has suddenly turned things around again with Gonzalez hitting behind him?

With Willson Contreras and other members of the Cubs lineup scuffling, Maddon has struggled to find adequate protection for Baez in recent games. 

With Gonzalez now behind him, Baez is 5-for-8 with 2 homers, 5 RBI and 4 runs scored in the two games.

"To what extent is he helping Javy — hitting behind him right now, too?" Maddon pondered. "He is a professional. ... It's gonna be fun watching him blossom as a Cub."

Suddenly, a Cubs lineup that was in a funk and couldn't buy a hit with a runner in scoring position once again looks deep and fearsome.

"Everybody knows what he's done in the past and what he can do," Baez said. "They have to pitch to someone, from the leadoff guy — Schwarber, KB, Rizz, me, him, Willy when he's playing. They gotta come to us. 

"If we take AB by AB and they don't give in, you pass it to the next guy. They have to pitch to someone."

Gonzalez proved that protection in the second inning Tuesday, connecting on a hard liner to center field to drive home Baez for the Cubs' first run of the game. 

In the bottom of the eighth — after Baez had hustled out an infield hit with a headfirst dive into first base — Gonzalez drove home a key insurance run with a sacrifice fly to left field. 

With Ben Zobrist still on the restricted list indefinitely and Daniel Descalso coming off a May in which he hit .094 for the month, Gonzalez has also provided the Cubs with another veteran left-handed bat. 

That ensures they can go back to picking their spots with Albert Almora Jr. against right-handed pitchers. The last two games, the Cubs have trotted out three left-handed hitters in the outfield — Jason Heyward in center, Gonzalez in right and Schwarber in left — with Almora on the bench.

It may not make a large portion of the fanbase happy, but this allows the Cubs to keep Almora from being overexposed, though he is performing better against right-handed pitchers this season — .277/.328/.479 (.807 OPS). He typically hits well against lefties, but has actually struggled in that regard (.200/.231/.340 — .571 OPS) in 52 plate appearances against southpaws this season, albeit a small sample size.

"Albert's done a lot better against righties; he's really refined his approach there," Maddon said. "I think he's become a lot more patient. He's chased less — he's hit some homers right on right, also. He's done a nice job of reinventing himself on the right side, no question. 

"But regardless of what that says, I still know that he hits lefties really well. I still believe that. So now that Carlos is here, we'll balance it out. There's still gonna be some righties that I like Albert against, too.

"That's where we're at. There's no warm-fuzzy. There's no nothing — we're just trying to win some games and I'm trying to balance it out as well as we possibly can. I will defend that Albert has had a much better approach against right-handed pitching."

Then there's the outfield defense aspect, as it gives the Cubs another dimension when he can move over and play left field in place of Schwarber as Maddon gets his best run prevention lineup out there late in close games. 

Gonzalez may be 33, but he has three Gold Gloves to his name and with him in left, Almora in center and Heyward in right field, the Cubs now have more options than they did just a few days ago.

Almora came into Tuesday night's game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning and then stayed in to play center field to set up that "victory formation" in the outfield.

Gonzalez is also a renowned leader and glue guy in the clubhouse and he can have an impact on this Cubs team off the field, too, though it takes much longer than two days to feel the impact with those intangibles.

"He's been around for a bit," Maddon said. "He's done really, really well: All-Star, Silver Slugger, all that kind of good stuff. But he's a good guy. I talked to [Rockies manager] Buddy Black about him and how good he is in the clubhouse and he reaffirmed that. 

"I love the idea that he's a grown-up — we got a grown-up walking into the room. All he wants to do is win. ... I do believe he's gonna get really hot and he's gonna benefit us for a period of time here."

Black concurred, having managed Gonzalez for the last couple seasons of the veteran's 10-year career in Colorado.

"He's a pro," Black said. "He was instrumental last year in a lot of ways — both performance and as a teammate and as far as a leadership role. You talk to Nolan [Arenado] and Trevor [Story] and Charlie [Blackmon] — they'll tell you what they think of Carlos Gonzalez."