Daniel Descalso

Robel Garcia's 'intriguing' potential and where he fits on the Cubs in the second half

Robel Garcia's 'intriguing' potential and where he fits on the Cubs in the second half

By now, you've heard Robel Garcia's story.

It's more akin to a Hollywood script than a real-life situation, as Garcia spent six years playing baseball in Italy before returning to the U.S. That's where the Cubs found him last fall in Arizona.

With each passing day, it's looking more and more like they've discovered a diamond in the rough.

"He was playing on the backfields last fall and one of our amateur scouts happened to be scouting the Instructional League and saw this guy as a free agent," Cubs VP Jason McLeod said on the CubsTalk Podcast this week. "He started doing the legwork on him, getting the background and just said, 'Hey, this guy's really interesting — the ball's getting off his barrel really well, he looks like a good athlete.'

"That got the ball rolling. We saw him again a week or so later and we ended up signing him with an invite to spring training really with no guarantees. I mean, he had to come in and at the least, show that he could go to Double-A because he hadn't been around for six years.

"From Day 1, he just lit us up with his play on the field and how well he swung the bat in spring training. Things started from there and he hasn't stopped."

So now that Garcia is on the big-league team, what is his level of staying power and where does he fit as the second half of the 2019 season approaches?

The 26-year-old switch-hitter never even played above A-ball in America before this spring, but he's hit everywhere he's gone this year. That hasn't stopped in the big leagues, as he's clubbed 3 extra-base hits (including 2 homers) in his first 11 at-bats since last week's promotion.

"He's intriguing — there's no question," manager Joe Maddon said. "He could provide a lot for us. Don't forget — right now, he's just here for the first time. He's making his first impression; he's getting used to the situation."

Garcia started each of the Cubs' last three games before the All-Star Break and even with a roster filled with proven players, it's easy to see an avenue to consistent playing time if he continues to hit. That's mostly because some of those proven players are struggling to produce this season.

Garcia's glove may still be lagging behind his bat — he's already made a pair of errors in the big leagues — but with the Cubs struggling to get any consistent offensive production from the second base rotation of Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell and David Bote, maybe the journeyman from the Dominican Republic and Italy can be the answer.

In Sunday's 3-1 loss to the White Sox to wrap up the first half, Garcia provided the team's only offense with a seventh-inning solo shot off left-hander Aaron Bummer.

It's Garcia's left-handed swing that figures to be his best asset to the Cubs, but the fact that he can bring it right-handed is certainly a bonus. It also helps that he can play a variety of positions beyond just second base.

"Overall, he's made a great first impression," Maddon said. "From that right-handed side, I saw it in BP [Saturday] and I thought it was a really short [swing]. He hit that [homer] really well on a high-velocity fastball. I think he's really represented himself well coming from the background he has, showing up all of the sudden with a team that's a good team, but that's not playing as well as they can. And he's been able to step in there and be very helpful."

That home run Sunday was Garcia's 23rd of the season across three levels, including 6 in Double-A Tennessee to start the year before he mashed 15 bombs in 50 Triple-A games after that. 

Even when the Cubs were dreaming on what Garcia could be if everything played out right in 2019, they didn't envision this type of pop.

"No I didn't see that," McLeod said. "He was swinging the bat well in spring training and definitely showed early on that he could get to a fastball — that was the thing that stuck out right away in those spring training games. Yeah, there was some swing-and-miss as we've seen going into the season and now on offspeed [pitches].

"A lot of us watching him then, we were like, with how long he's been gone, with the quality of pitching he'll see, even if he makes the Double-A team, how's the swing gonna hold up? He's gone out and the ball's just carrying in general this year — as we've seen with both the home runs hit in the major leagues and in Triple-A. But that's not to take anything away from the great story this guy's been for the last three months now."

Everything about Garcia's season has been storybook, so why not add another chapter that features him as a valuable role player and potential spark for the Cubs in a hotly contested playoff race? 

What might've seemed impossible just a few months ago just may become a reality on Chicago's North Side this summer.

 

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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."

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote feels like he's in a neverending game of chess.

He's been so ingrained in the Cubs conversation the last two years that it's easy to forget this is his first full big-league season and he's still learning the ropes.

Bote is now nationally known thanks to the ultimate grand slam he hit last August, but he's not hanging his hat on that one accomplishment and has found a way to conjure up some staying power in the majors. He's a former 18th-round draft pick who never found his name on top prospect lists, yet signed a five-year, $15 million extension before even playing his first home game in 2019.

But Bote won't rest on his laurels with that contract extension, either. He knows he's in store for a constant battle.

"It's never ending," Bote said. "[The league] points out something that you do and you make an adjustment off it and then they make another adjustment off of you. It's just trying to stay with what you want to do and also try to stay in front of what they're trying to do at the same time."

Much like he did last year, Bote got out to a hot start this season but then eventually hit a rough pitch. 

After he had a tough series in Cincinnati in mid-May (he went 0-for-8 with 6 strikeouts), he found himself on the bench for back-to-back games while his season average dipped to .239 and OPS fell to .713.

But then he got the start at third base in Washington on May 18, hit a homer and hasn't looked back since.

From that game on, Bote has a 1.027 OPS while slashing .324/.378/.649 with 6 homers and 18 RBI in 19 starts.

The 26-year-old infielder has earned more playing time with his production, taking advantage of the respective offensive slumps from Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso. As the Cubs faced a tough righty in Lucas Giolito Wednesday night, it was Bote who found his name at second base and he responded with a homer off the American league ERA leader.

"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," Joe Maddon said earlier this month. "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 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."

Bote doesn't feel like the neverending game of chess gets any easier, but at least now, he has a checklist he can go through to evaluate his mechanics or mental approach or whatever else may be slightly off. 

At the end of the day, it's all about confidence for Bote — as it is for every player in the big leagues.

"Whether you feel good or feel bad that day, it's trying to be as confident as you can and just letting your ability and your work before that take over," Bote said. "I'm not in the box thinking about my mechanics, but trying to trust that my BP and cage work and all that that takes over and you just go to battle.

"And if [you're still not feeling great], then you say, 'Screw it, I'll just go out there and battle today and get 'em tomorrow.' It's all fluid. It's all ever-changing."