David Bote

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

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AP

Left-handed pitching has been the Cubs' Kryptonite this year

The Cubs have a left-handed problem.

No, not in the bullpen (though they could use another lefty there even with Kyle Ryan's emergence).

The Cubs' issue is that their Kryptonite this year has been left-handed pitching. Considering they were one of the better teams against southpaws a year ago, this has been an unsettling development for their hopes of getting the offense on track consistently.

That changed for one day, at least, with one big swing of the bat from Anthony Rizzo Friday — a two-out grand slam in the third inning off San Diego southpaw Eric Lauer in a sloppy game the Cubs won 6-5.

But in general, facing lefties has been a major issue for this lineup.

"We've been terrible. we have to be better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have guys that are really good against lefties that haven't shown that yet. of course, Albert [Almora Jr.] and [Addison Russell] and [David] Bote — those are the three guys, if they get back to their normal methods against lefties, that's really gonna help us a lot.

"That's the one element — talking about the offensive side of things — I really think for us, we have to get better vs. the lefty."

Entering play Friday, the Cubs ranked 28th in Major League Baseball in runs scored off left-handed pitchers and 29th in batting average (.234). They rank 15th in OPS vs. southpaws this season, but that mark — .752 — is actually better than they posted last year (.730) when they hit .260 against lefties.

On the one hand, the Cubs have not faced left-handed pitchers much — only one other team (Detroit Tigers) has faced southpaws less often than the Cubs this season.

On the other hand, the Cubs are trending in the wrong way against lefties. 

Since June 1 (entering play Friday), here are the OPS of Cubs players with at least 10 plate appearances against southpaws:

Willson Contreras — 1.379
Kris Bryant — 1.376
Addison Russell — .821
Anthony Rizzo — .639
Javy Baez — .579
Albert Almora Jr. — .558
David Bote — .455
Kyle Schwarber — .389
Jason Heyward — .221

Yikes.

That's three guys who are above average offensively, and one of those guys — Contreras — is currently on the injured list. 

It's encouraging for the Cubs that Russell has started to show more signs of life against lefties given his slow start in that regard and his typical solid production against them. But the other two Cubs lefty mashers — Almora and Bote — are way down at the bottom of that list. 

All three players were in the lineup Friday — Almora leading off, Russell hitting fifth and Bote hitting seventh — and Almora kicked off the Cubs' scoring by reached on an infield hit with two outs a few batters before Rizzo's blast. But outside of that, the three Cubs combined to go 0-for-6 with 5 strikeouts against the left-handed Lauer.

Even with a positive result in Friday's game, the Cubs still need to figure it out more consistently against southpaws. If they have hopes of going deep into the playoffs, they're going to have to contend with a bunch of lefties along the way, especially with the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Julio Urias etc.).

Whether that means the Cubs need to add another hitter to combat LHP or not remains to be seen, but with the trade deadline less that two weeks away, we'll have our answer soon enough.

Cubs Mailbag: Lineup construction, trade rumors and other hot topics entering the second half

Cubs Mailbag: Lineup construction, trade rumors and other hot topics entering the second half

It's the slowest time of the year in the sports world — that period immediately following the MLB All-Star Game.

But the Cubs discussion has not died down one bit for a team on the brink as the second half appears on the horizon. 

What is this Cubs team? Are they contenders, pretenders or something else?

Through 90 games, it's hard to answer, but one thing is for certain: The Cubs are VERY happy they don't have to play the Thursday contest after the All-Star Game this year and get a full four days off to clear their heads and rest their bodies for the stretch run.

Let's get into the mailbag:

What is your ideal lineup for the Cubs moving forward? - @Ant_Pasquale3

That's a good question, Anthony. In general, I think too much is made of lineup construction, as it rarely factors into games. But it certainly makes for a fun talking point for fans in person or on social media.

Looking at a lineup from a purely analytical standpoint, it would be easy to say guys with the highest OBPs hit first and second and some of your better slug hitters hit in the middle of the order. But that doesn't take into account each individual roster and it doesn't factor in the human factor.

For example, maybe Kris Bryant really does like hitting third better than second. It's probably not something he would admit to publicly, because that likely would be received as a criticism of his manager. 

But he also should feel comfortable hitting second, as he's spent a vast majority of his career there (345 starts) and is slashing .297/.397/.534 (.930 OPS) in those games. That includes 83 starts in 2016, which make all the arguments about moving him down in the order "like his MVP season" invalid.

To answer the question, though, if I were making out the lineup on an everyday basis, I would go with this:

1. Kris Bryant - LF
2. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Jason Heyward - CF
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Robel Garcia - 2B
8. Pitcher
9. David Bote - 3B

Of course, that is with a video game type of mindset and doesn't account for days off, who the opposing pitcher is, private conversations with each hitter about their spot in the batting order, etc.

The rationale behind it is it gets the Cubs' top three hitters in the top three spots in the lineup, garnering the most at-bats. It also features the top two on-base guys in the top two spots with Baez, Contreras and Heyward to follow with RBI opportunities. 

The Cubs also need to see what they have in Garcia initially coming out of the break and determine if the switch-hitting former Italian baseball star can really be a sparkplug for this offense.

Any possible chance that the Cubs have the stones to make a big move and get Merrifield? Or do they sit and watch and continue this trainwreck? - @corncub8

Theo Epstein's front office certainly has "the stones" to make a move to get a guy like Whit Merrifield and have no desire to sit and watch a "trainwreck." But do they have what it takes in the farm system to acquire Merrifield? That's the more relevant question.

I agree that Merrifield would be a great option for the Cubs, as he could conceivably slot into the leadoff spot in the order (currently has a .355 OBP) and can play all over the field, including second base and center (the Cubs' two biggest areas of need at the moment). 

But he's also locked up on a very affordable deal through at 2022 and the Royals currently hold a $10.5 million team option for 2023, so Kansas City won't be giving him up for nothing. Who could the Cubs offer that would entice the Royals to let go of a guy who has more hits than any other American League player since the start of the 2018 season?

The Cubs farm system isn't bare by any means, but they lack an Eloy Jimenez or Gleyber Torres type of impact prospect. Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya are the Cubs' top two prospects and maybe the front office would part with them this summer, but it would probably take a lot. The same applies to Adbert Alzolay. Trading for a 30-year-old player who has only 2.5 years of MLB production and would come at a high cost isn't as easy of a decision as fans make it out to seem. 

As for the big-league roster, Mike Montgomery seems like a relatively simple option for the Cubs to trade away given his decreased role on the team, but he also hasn't pitched well this year (5.67 ERA, 1.78 WHIP) and just turned 30 on July 1. I'm just not sure how much value he has to a team like the Royals, and the same can be said of Schwarber, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.

Who do you see as potential trade targets? Who do you see the Cubs parting with? - @famouslastwrds1

The second question was already answered in the Merrifield blurb above, as the Cubs don't have a ton of players they'd want to part with that would be enticing to other teams. 

However, there are always lower-profile moves to be had at the trade deadline that can pay big dividends. Think back to Jesse Chavez, whom the Cubs acquired last July for a Class-A pitcher and Chavez went on to become the most valuable piece of the bullpen in the second half.

Those moves are tougher to find and pull off, but the Cubs have some solid depth in the farm system they could use to pull off some trades. Brailyn Marquez, Cole Roederer, Brennen Davis and Aramis Ademan are all years away from helping the big-league team and could be enticing high-upside options for rebuilding teams this summer.

I believe the Cubs need another left-handed reliever (more on that in a bit), but their top need is another veteran bat — ideally a guy who could hit left-handed and play either second base or the outfield (or both). 

This offense needs a boost and a guy like David Peralta or Nicholas Castellanos (though he hits right-handed) would figure to be a good fit. Maybe even somebody like Corey Dickerson becomes available if the Pirates decide to sell and wouldn't mind trading within the division.

(1a) Can the cubs reach and go deep in the playoffs without a prototypical leadoff-hitter and additional LH relief pitcher? 
(1b) is 2B/CF Dee Gordon a possible option to fill that former need? - @Izzycrazy92

Yes, of course the Cubs can reach the postseason and go deep into the playoffs without a prototypical leadoff hitter. It's been done before by this team (2017) and by many teams across baseball as the "prototypical leadoff hitter" has been so hard to come by. Mookie Betts, David Freese and Brian Dozier are not stereotypical leadoff guys, but they filled the role for the Red Sox and Dodgers on their respective World Series runs last fall.

The second thing will be tougher for the Cubs to accomplish. While they have plenty of right-handed relievers who can also get lefties out, they do not want to head into October with Kyle Ryan as the only established reliever, followed by Montgomery (who has struggled as a reliever), Randy Rosario and Tim Collins on the depth chart. They very well may have another lefty if they fold Jose Quintana into the bullpen for October, but it would make a ton of sense for the Cubs to add another southpaw before the trade deadline.

Please get out of here with any Dee Gordon questions. The dude still has roughly $20 million left on his deal and he's a 31-year-old with a career .320 on-base percentage (and that OBP has actually only been .291 since 2017). That would not help the Cubs' leadoff chances in any way. They may as well put Almora (.286 OBP) or Daniel Descalso (.285 OBP) in the leadoff spot, as the on-base skills would be equivalent.

Is there any chance the Cubs move on from Daniel Descalso, and if so who would they replace him with? - @carter_hazlitt

That's certainly a fair question and one that has permeated throughout the fanbase for a little while now. Epstein famously said after last fall's early exit the team would prioritize production over potential in 2019 and since the start of May, Descalso is slashing just .113/.226/.138 (.363 OPS) with only 1 extra-base hit, 4 RBI and is striking out nearly a third of the time.

Then again, he's also hardly played in that span, notching just 94 plate appearances as the Cubs have been able to lean on Garcia, Bote and Russell at second base of late. 

That being said, the Cubs got Descalso for a reason and he has a long track record of being a productive hitter and a valuable clubhouse guy. By all accounts, Descalso has provided leadership and a positive impact inside the clubhouse and he was the team's best clutch hitter through the first month of the season.

Can he get back to the hitter he was in March and April? Absolutely. But when will he? That's another question and one the Cubs will have to weigh moving forward.

As for replacing Descalso, there simply aren't many great options at the moment, with the Cubs wanting Happ to show a high level of success for a couple-week stretch in the minors before they would entertain the thought of a call-up.

Who will be sent down or released when Zobrist returns? Garcia? Russell? Descalso? - @alyse818589

That's a good question, Alyse, but one that won't have an answer for quite some time. It's still not a guarantee Zobrist will return this year, though it is looking likely.

Still, when he is ready to return to the baseball field, Zobrist will undoubtedly need some time to ramp up his skills and work on his timing after missing more than two months. Envisioning a full six-week spring training is too long, but it would probably take at least three weeks of baseball activity in Arizona and the minor leagues before the 38-year-old would be ready to rejoin the big-league team. And it very well may take longer than three weeks to accomplish that, depending on what type of shape and work Zobrist has been doing during his time away.

So even in a best-case scenario, it's hard to envision Zobrist returning to Wrigley Field before mid-August and by then, there may be a clear answer as to whose roster spot he takes. The Cubs may also play things safe and not rush him back until Sept. 1, by which case they'd have extra roster spots to play with at the big-league level.

Will Brandon Morrow throw another pitch for the Cubs? Will Ben Zobrist take another AB? - @ABC7Jeff

No and yes, respectively.

Morrow has suffered too many setbacks along his road to recovery that there is no telling what his future will be, even though recent reports have been positive.

For Zobrist, it's sounding more like a return is in the cards, as we discussed, and the Cubs could really use him. In addition to his quality at-bats and defensive versatility, his presence both in the clubhouse and in the lineup has been sorely missed.

Are they going to keep sleep walking in the second half?! The hitting is so inconsistent and the bottom half of the lineup has been terrible the past 2 months! - @RonnieWooCubs

I do not think the Cubs will continue to sleep walk through the second half of the season.

Yes, the second half of last year is still fresh in everybody's mind and when you mix that with the first half of 2019, it's a full season's worth of disappointment and underwhelming play for the Cubs. 

However, they also have done very well overall in the second half under Maddon (.647 winning percentage last four years) and I think the four days off during the All-Star Break can be just what the doctor ordered for a mental breather as much as anything for this team.

Fans can chalk it up as an excuse all they want, but mental and physical fatigue is a very real thing and the Cubs just got done playing a stretch of 52 games in 54 days. Let's see what a fresh, rejuvenated team looks like coming out of the break. I'm anticipating good things for this team.

Will anyone win the nl central? - @jameshawley1974

Of course somebody will, but I get your point. The division certainly has been very "cannibalistic," as Maddon referred to it last weekend.

I still think the Cubs win the division, based on the current talent, the track record of success and the ability to get better either by improving performance or adding to the roster via trades or returns (i.e. Cole Hamels, Zobrist, Morrow).

Can they fix their bullpen? - @DavidBloomberg

Huh? Since that season-opening road trip, the Cubs have the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.67), behind only the Braves and Indians. And most of that hasn't been with Craig Kimbrel, who is still shaking off the rust through his first 4 appearances.

The Cubs bullpen has not been the issue for months now and while they can certainly add another left-hander, this group of relievers very well could be a strength of the team in the second half.

Who’s going to be the leader of this team going forward and start holding people accountable? - @bdkinning

I get why this question is being asked, but I don't think leadership and holding players accountable is really the issue with this team right now. It's simply a lack of execution. They haven't played well and they haven't gotten the job done in many aspects (baserunning, hitting with runners in scoring position, defensively, holding leads, etc.). 

But as much as anything, I think the old adage of "holding players accountable" can actually be a detriment. When Rizzo makes boneheaded baserunning blunders on back-to-back days, is somebody supposed to put him on blast in the clubhouse and yell and scream about it? He knows he messed up. He doesn't need anybody "holding him accountable." 

Leadership has been a legitimate question since David Ross left and I still feel there is something of a void. But in the few weeks leading up to the break, the Cubs were making uncharacteristic mistakes. That's probably not a result of a lack of leadership and more likely due to mental/physical fatigue and — as Maddon said — trying to do too much and being afraid to make mistakes. 

These guys have been through this all before. I understand the fan freakout and wanting to know where to point the fingers, but I don't believe accountability and leadership within the clubhouse is the problem. 

What has been the missing magic sauce since November 2nd, 2016. Cubs have been a very good team but not a great team since that time. Why? - @kjdevore28

As much as anything, I think this question is actually a testament to how great that 2016 season was for the Cubs. Just about everything went right. It was a magical season and those types of years are hard to come by in any professional sport, let alone baseball.

Yes, the Cubs have many of the same players who won it back then, but it's really tough to reproduce that level of success. The league has adjusted to a lot of these players since then, plus injuries and other issues have come into play. 

But the championship window is still very much open for the Cubs and that's why these next few months will be so crucial for this team as they enter the second half in first place despite playing poorly the last six weeks.

Who's production are the Cubs counting on the most in the 2nd half? - @thipsher85

I'm going to say Schwarber and Yu Darvish. 

Despite Bryant's return to health/stardom, Contreras' and Heyward's resurgence and typically productive seasons from Rizzo and Baez, the Cubs offense is still a problem and if Schwarber is going to continue to lead off, he has to be part of that solution. He got out to a good start leading off, but his overall numbers atop the order have cratered, to the point where he has only a .311 on-base percentage despite a .508 slugging percentage. 

With Darvish, it's more of the same. The Cubs really need him to step up and pitch like the guy he was before the 2017 World Series. The time has come and gone for moral victories and they simply need more out of him than a 5.01 ERA and 4 quality starts.

When do the excuses run dry? - @Big4Fin5

In my opinion, the excuses have already run dry. There are reasons to point to (fatigue, poor execution, etc.) as to why the Cubs struggled to end the first half, but the time for excuses has been over for a while — probably since last October. 

Things have been far from perfect for the Cubs in 2019, but they enter the second half in first place and they control their own destiny. It'll be very interesting to see how the next couple months play out.

Why not Happ vs this guy from Italy? - @BeauKnows75

Garcia earned his spot on the big-league roster with his consistently excellent play in the minor leagues this season and that consistency is something Happ is still searching for. 

Happ went into the Triple-A midseason break on fire — hitting .455 with a 1.495 OPS, more walks (7) than strikeouts (5) and 5 extra-base hits (including 2 homers) in 6 games — but over the previous month-plus, he was hitting just .191 with 47 strikeouts in 36 games.

The Cubs want to see Happ sustain this success for a couple weeks at a time before they're ready to call him back up to the big leagues. Of course, he could be traded before that point...

Why can’t we develop arms in the minor leagues? - @daverin2005

That's a great question, David, but there is no good answer. Even the Cubs can't figure it out.

It would absolutely help the organization to develop pitchers in the minors that can help the team in Chicago, but it looks like we're finally starting to see that with Alzolay's arrival last month. 

Will there be enough off days in the second half this year? - @xMrChristmasx

The Cubs may have had a tough stretch in May and June (52 games in 54 days), but it doesn't appear any such stretch will follow them into the second half. They currently have 72 games scheduled for 80 days from Friday through the end of the season and that includes three more off-days in July. 

They only have two days off from Aug. 27 through Sept. 29 (the end of the season), so that will be something to keep an eye on if any rainouts hit.

Will they run out of the box whenever they hit a deep fly, instead of admiring it thinking it's a homerun? - @Toppazblue

I think we've found The Kapman's burner account!

if ben zobrist retires, does the zobrist meme retire, too? - @markstrot

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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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