Robel Garcia

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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Reinforcements coming for Cubs: Ian Happ promoted back to big leagues

Reinforcements coming for Cubs: Ian Happ promoted back to big leagues

As the Cubs gear up for the next week where they will play back-to-back series against the two teams trailing them in the NL Central standings, they will reportedly get some reinforcements on the roster in the form of Ian Happ.

Des Moines Register Iowa Cubs beat reporter Tommy Birch reported Thursday afternoon that Happ is on his way back up to the big leagues after being sent down to Triple-A in the final week of spring training and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer confirmed the move on 670 The Score. No word yet on what the corresponding roster move will be.

Happ got out to a rough start to the season in the minor leagues, but has turned it on of late and his overall line — .242/.364/.432 (.795 OPS), 16 homers, 53 RBI, 66 runs — looks pretty solid now. 

In back-to-back games on June 30 and July 1, Happ went 0-for-9 with 3 strikeouts and watching his season batting average with Iowa drop to .217 and OPS to .715.

But since then, Happ is hitting .348 with a 1.129 OPS and nearly as many walks (17) as strikeouts (18) while mashing 10 extra-base hits, including 5 homers.

This is exactly the type of extended hot streak the Cubs have been hoping to see from the former first-round pick.

"The attitude is fantastic. He's working hard," Hoyer said of Happ last month. "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."

Happ looms as one of the Cubs' top trade assets — a 24-year-old switch-hitter who can play multiple positions and already has proven he can hit with power and speed at the big-league level. 

He also represents valuable depth for the Cubs, especially if Kris Bryant has to miss any time at all in the near future with the right knee injury that forced him out of Wednesday afternoon's game in San Francisco. Happ has experience playing third base, including filling in at times for Bryant a season ago.

The Cubs just sent Addison Russell down to Triple-A Iowa Wednesday, so there is also conceivably room for Happ to see some playing time at second base, though Robel Garcia figures to remain in the picture as well.

There's also room for Happ in center field, especially against right-handed pitchers as Albert Almora Jr. has been in a funk offensively for the last couple months. 

The Cubs are struggling on the road and it's officially "go time" in a tight divisional race, so they can use all the help they can get at the moment.

Why the Cubs haven't given up on Daniel Descalso yet

Why the Cubs haven't given up on Daniel Descalso yet

Now that Addison Russell is back in the minor leagues, there's one less player in the mix for the Cubs second base picture.

So what does that mean for Daniel Descalso?

The veteran signed with the Cubs this winter to fill a valuable utility role and provide a boost inside the clubhouse. 

By all accounts, thing have played out exactly according to plan on the latter (for more on Descalso's impact on this team behind the scenes, listen to Kelly Crull break it down on our latest podcast), but the former hasn't gone according to script. Descalso has only started 38 games this year, all coming at second base, and his last start came nearly a month ago — June 30 in Cincinnati.

In fact, Descalso hadn't even seen an inning at second base since then until he was subbed into Tuesday night's game in San Francisco and stayed on the field as the contest went into extra innings.

In total, the 32-year-old has only 7 plate appearances in July as he's been banished to the bench amid his nearly three-month long struggles (he's hitting .107 with a .355 OPS since the end of April). 

"No question, it is difficult [to keep him involved]," Joe Maddon said Sunday as the Cubs wrapped up their homestand. "But he makes it less difficult. He's a professional — he's always working, he talks to everybody, he's there to support everybody else. ... He's outstanding as a person and as a teammate, so he's made it easier on everybody else, actually."

As the Cubs continue to struggle on the road amid a tight division race, it's become an everyday occurrence to see fans wondering when the team is going to designate Descalso for assignment or place him on the shelf with some phantom malady

The Cubs could clearly use another productive hitter in the lineup on a regular basis with the recent struggles from guys like Albert Almora Jr. and David Bote. Descalso came up with a bunch of clutch hits in April and posted a .762 OPS in more than 1,100 plate appearances over the three seasons prior to 2019.

Between that track record and the veteran presence Descalso provides, the Cubs have not yet reached a point where they want to give up on the left-handed hitter despite rarely using him over the last month.

Now that Russell is in the minor leagues for the near future, that might open the door to some more playing time for Descalso, though Robel Garcia has been impressive in limited duty. The trade deadline also looms as a potential shake-up to the roster of position players if the Cubs acquire another bat.

As the Cubs came out of the All-Star Break earlier this month, Maddon acknowledged he has been talking to Descalso often about the situation and knows it's tough for the veteran to stay sharp enough to even pinch-hit when he's only getting a couple at-bats a week.

"In spite of all this, the guy continues to contribute as a veteran player," the Cubs skipper said. "Not playing everyday, I watch what he does with conversation with guys. I know he's frustrated, but he really deals with it well. 

"I don't know when the breakout period's gonna come. You look back at spring training — he looked great. You look at the first part of the season — he looked great. And then he got hurt a little bit and came back and he just wasn't quite the same. I cannot put my finger on it. 

"But the guy's a professional. He's handled it as well as it could be handled or dealt with and we need to continue to work with him. ... I cannot speak more highly of him or what he's done behind the scenes with this group."

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