Daniel Descalso

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is utility man Daniel Descalso.

2019 recap

Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Descalso last season. In 82 games, he hit .173/.271/.250 with a 29.4% strikeout rate and 42 wRC+ — all career worsts for the 33-year-old.

Descalso was hitting .310/.394/.448 with a 124 wRC+ through April 24. A 3-for-25 stretch over his next eight games followed, the last of which (May 4) he suffered a left ankle injury. From that point on, he hit .094/.204/.118, generating a woeful -7 wRC+.

Expectations for this season’s role

Descalso played second base in all but four of his appearances last season. He’s bracing for more of a utility role in 2020, which isn't a major change considering he’s played all but center field and catcher during his 10-year career.

Descalso career innings by position

-Second base (2,275 2/3)
-Third base (1,405 2/3)
-Shortstop (1,255 2/3)
-First base (318 1/3)
-Left field (316)
-Right field (1/3)

2020 outlook

Fans called for the Cubs to move on from Descalso this winter, but that was never going to happen. They value his veteran presence in the clubhouse and, importantly, are up against the luxury tax. They plan to get under the threshold by season’s end and would be on the hook for Descalso's $2.5 million salary if they cut him.

That’s a small sum for a big market team, but the Cubs didn't operate as such this winter, and struggled to make any moves to get under the tax threshold.

Although Descalso doesn't blame last season’s woes on the ankle injury, he admitted that he tried to play through it when he should have rested. If his issues at the plate linger, perhaps the Cubs cut bait and eat his salary.

But this season offers him a fresh start, and he’s only a season removed from an impressive 15.1 percent walk rate, .353 OBP and 113 wRC+ with the Diamondbacks.

He can only go up from last season, right?

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression
11. New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role

RELATED: Cubs and Baez talking extension, but Opening Day deadline exists

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How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

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USA TODAY

How Cubs are approaching the new 26-man roster rule

The designated hitter isn't coming to the National League yet and Major League Baseball is not about to enact an electronic strike zone for the 2020 season.

But there are some smaller changes in place that will have far-reaching implications on the game this upcoming season. 

One such shift is the move from a 25-man roster to a 26-man roster on a daily basis — a decision that will shape how the Cubs and their competition attempt to maximize the players in their organization.

With the addition of an extra roster spot, however, comes the caveat that teams cannot carry more than 13 pitchers. The Cubs have consistently worked with an eight-man bullpen in recent seasons, so there shouldn't be much change there. 

It will mean that the Cubs will have an extra position player on the bench, giving first-year manager David Ross another weapon to deploy late in games. With a 13-man pitching staff in the past, the Cubs have often been forced to roll with a three-man bench (plus the backup catcher), which isn't always conducive to playing the best matchups or covering for an injury to a position player.

The new rule also means the Cubs won't have the luxury of calling up an extra arm on a given day and playing with an even shorter bench during extreme circumstances.

"We actually lose a bit of flexibility because there were times where we'd get really strapped in an extra-inning game or something where for a day, we'd go to a nine-man pen," Theo Epstein said. "We won't be able to do that anymore. So it's really an extra position player, which is nice. 

"It gives us an opportunity for any dynamic pinch-hit options, conceivably a nice pinch-running option, defensive replacements — it makes platooners a little bit more manageable on your roster having that extra position player. We've been giving it some thought."

With that in mind, here's a few options as to how the Cubs can make the most of the new rule:

1. An extra catcher

Another position player spot could mean room for another catcher, at least temporarily. 

In recent seasons, the Cubs have utilized three backstops on their roster for a time, including last season with Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini and Martin Maldonado for a couple weeks. They also did so throughout the 2016 playoff run with Contreras, Ross and Miguel Montero forming a three-headed monster.

Given Contreras' and Caratini's positional versatility, the Cubs had alternatives in the past to rotate through three catchers without sacrificing much on the bench. It also helps that Caratini is a switch-hitter.

But in an ideal world, the Cubs would still have three or four other position players who are not primary catchers. The 26th roster spot would give the Cubs the flexibility to have at least three position players on the bench plus the option of two catchers. That would be perfect if a situation arises where Contreras, Caratini or one of the other backstops is banged up and going to miss a day or two.

2. A speed demon

Terrance Gore would be the ideal 26th man along these lines as a speedster on the basepaths who can help steal you a base in a crucial spot or simply serve as a rangy defensive replacement in the outfield or an upgrade on the basepaths late in games. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs have typically found a guy like that for September when rosters expand. Gore was here in 2018 and — as Cubs fans remember — scored the team's only run of the NL Wild-Card Game when he entered as a pinch-runner for Anthony Rizzo. 

If the Cubs were going into 2020 as surefire World Series contenders and a roster packed with quality options, a guy under this speed category might be the perfect fit for the final spot to help provide a different dynamic. But this roster has question marks all over the place and they have more needs than simply adding speed.

3. A merry-go-round of options

The Cubs — like many MLB teams — have often utilized the eighth bullpen spot as a revolving door of arms on the shuttle from Triple-A to the big leagues. That's an effective strategy while waiting to see if fringe guys can put it all together and take the next step (like Rowan Wick did in 2019). 

It also works to always ensure a fresh arm during long stretches in the schedule or an overworked bullpen. 

That strategy can also be easily applied to this final position player spot. The Cubs don't currently have to commit to only one player to fill the role and, as such, can use it as rotation depending on needs at a given time.

The Cubs added to that group of potential options Monday when they reached a minor-league deal with infielder Carlos Asuaje. They also have veteran utility player Hernan Perez (a December signing) who can fill the same role, in addition to outfielders Noel Cuevas and Ian Miller — another pair of minor-league free agent signings.

This is probably the most likely course of action for the Cubs with regards to the final roster spot — at the moment, at least. As has been well-documented, the Cubs have not yet made any sort of shake-up to their roster with a trade, so they are currently still in limbo with the rest of the roster. It's hard to nail down what they want to do with the 26th man when they're still trying to figure out the best way to piece together the top of the roster.

4. Sorting out the second base position

If the season started tomorrow, the Cubs would have a plethora of options at second base:

Nico Hoerner
David Bote
Ian Happ
Daniel Descalso
Tony Kemp
Robel Garcia
Hernan Perez
Carlos Asuaje

The Cubs might want to give Hoerner more seasoning in the minor leagues (he completely skipped Triple-A) to start the year, but even if they choose to go that route, there are still a lot of other names in the mix. 

"Second base is an area where we definitely are out there looking, but we have a number of good players on our roster who can play second base," Epstein said. "We've said we're not closing any doors on Nico; we're open-minded and will use spring training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him, best for the team. 

"But you could see a combination of players fill that role for us, including the possibility of someone who's not currently on the roster."

Descalso and Kemp are valued in the clubhouse and can also play other positions (though the Cubs essentially only deployed Descalso as a second baseman). It's a bit redundant to have a pair of left-handed-hitting veteran second basemen on the roster — even as insurance for Hoerner — but Descalso is owed $2.5 million with very little trade value and Kemp provides some much-needed contact ability and energy for this team.

Bote can also play elsewhere and figures to be on the roster in some capacity. Happ has mostly been considered an outfielder throughout his Cubs tenure, but he has been vocal about his desire to play second base.

Garcia, Perez and Asuaje could all begin the year in the minor leagues and provide depth at Triple-A, but there is still no easy answer to the second-base question if Hoerner is not on the Opening Day roster (or fallback options behind him on the depth chart). 

The 26th spot could provide an avenue for the Cubs to sort that all out while still ensuring they have enough depth elsewhere on the roster. 

5. Platooning

As Epstein said, the expanded roster could create more platoon advantages all season. That won't be the case for pitching staffs, obviously, but it would allow teams to carry an extra bat who mashes against lefties or something of that ilk. 

The Cubs could've really used that last year, as they struggled throughout the season against southpaws.

6. Maximum fun

Do the Cubs have a Michael Lorenzen waiting to be unearthed? 

The extra roster spot could lead to a bit of fun if the Cubs wanted to search for a potential two-way player. 

I don't quite know how MLB will enforce the 13-pitchers rule — is Lorenzen going to count as a pitcher, or can the Reds put him down as an outfielder who can also pitch? — but the extra roster spot could conceivably emerge as a position to experiment with throughout the season. 

Don't expect that to happen, but it sure would be fun if more MLB teams gave two-way players a chance and a 26th roster spot year-round could help make that a reality. 

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Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

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USA TODAY

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

The Cubs had many stellar individual offensive seasons in 2019. There is no questioning that.

Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras enjoyed resurgent campaigns; Javier Baez was one of the NL’s best hitters before suffering a thumb injury; Jason Heyward had his best offensive season on the North Side, while Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, arguably, had career years at the plate.

And yet, among those performances were two constants: the suboptimal production from Cubs center fielders and second basemen.

The Cubs used five different center fielders in 2019, with Albert Almora Jr. (80) and Jason Heyward (74) receiving the bulk of the starts. This pales in comparison to the team’s second base rotation, however, where six players started at least 10 games.

“Center field and second base were the two positions where we had the least production this year, we had the most trouble finding consistent performance,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at Monday’s end-of-season press conference.  

Cubs second basemen posted a combined .220/.301/.383 (.684 OPS) slash line, all team lows (sans pitchers and designated hitters). League-wide, they ranked 28th in average and 21st in OPS, though Ben Zobrist's four-month leave of absence certainly played a role here.

Cubs center fielders weren’t much better, ranking second-worst among the team’s positional groups with a .232/.305/.388 (.693 OPS) slash line. League-wide, they checked in at 20th in both average and OPS.

Almora finished the season with career lows in average and on-base percentage. This led the Cubs to: a) play Heyward in center field more, b) acquire Nick Castellanos and c) make Almora a defensive replacement.

Heyward’s final numbers were negatively affected by his August stint leading off — where he is less comfortable hitting than other spots. But with no better options, he essentially took one for the team, though former manager Joe Maddon probably could’ve pulled the plug on the experiment sooner.

Coincidentally, Heyward moved to the leadoff spot around the same time he became the Cubs' full-time center fielder. So, while he had a solid season overall, his toughest stretch came as a center fielder, which "helped" drag down the team's overall numbers for the position.

Some form of change is coming to the Cubs roster this offseason. And while Epstein admitted center field/leadoff is a position they’d look to upgrade, it’s not like it’ll be an easy task.

“We do have in-house options, but being transparent, of course it’s an area where you look to upgrade and see if you can get the total package, with the prototypical center fielder who can also leadoff,” Epstein said. “If you look at the landscape of center fielders in the game, it’s not exactly a position with great surplus or an overabundance of options out there."

So, what do the Cubs do if there’s no clear option for them to acquire?

“You just have to be realistic,” Epstein said. “If you spend all your time waiting for that next guy who solves all your problems to be there, you might pass on some good options, where you can put things together with a platoon or use a player that you currently have and compliment him with a more attainable player from outside the organization.”

The Cubs have an intriguing second base option in Nico Hoerner, who can also play center field, if needed. The 22-year-old joined the Cubs in September, filling in at shortstop for the injured Baez and Addison Russell. Barring a trade, Baez will be the Cubs starting shortstop next season, but Hoerner's contact-oriented approach makes him a good fit for the Cubs lineup, possibly as a leadoff hitter.

Epstein was complimentary of how Hoerner responded to his September promotion, though he added that the Cubs haven’t determined where the 22-year-old will start the 2020 season.

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A,” he said. “It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something, under the extraordinary circumstances, that he could handle.”

If Hoerner starts the 2020 season in the minor leagues, other Cubs second basemen under contract include Russell, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia, David Bote and Ian Happ.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A twice this season, though he hit just .237/.308/.391 in 82 big-league games. He also missed the first month of the season while serving a domestic violence suspension.

Descalso was hampered by an ankle injury for much of the season, which affected his performance at the plate. Kemp brought the Cubs a contact-oriented approach, but he hit just .183 after they acquired him at the trade deadline.

Garcia showed promise, though he struggled to hit breaking pitches. Bote and Happ did contribute on consistent basis offensively, but they saw more time at third base and in the outfield, respectively.

Point being, there’s no option that jumps off the page right now. Whether it’s center field, second base or elsewhere, Epstein and Co. won’t hesitate to make an upgrade, should they see fit.

“We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts,” he said. “I think we had a lot of good individual performances, we had a lot of talent and ability.

“I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs.”

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