Tony Kemp

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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Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

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USA Today

Cubs playoff race: Hope on life support after another disastrous meltdown

The Cubs took the field Saturday afternoon with only a 21.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

That number will certainly go down after another epic meltdown in a season full of disastrous moments.

Just five days earlier (after Monday's win), the Cubs had a 76.7 percent chance of October baseball.

But that's what five straight losses will do, especially when the other teams in the race keep on winning. They still couldn’t get back to their winning ways Saturday despite a hard-fought effort in a wild 9-8 loss that saw seven lead changes.

The Cubs are now 6 games back in the division and 3 games out of the final playoff spot in the National League with only seven contests remaining.

"Obviously it sucks," said Javy Baez, who struck out to end the game. "But we are really close to the other teams. We just gotta play our game — try to get hot in the last two series and see what happens when the last game is over."

"It doesn't matter how you lose at this time of the year," Anthony Rizzo said. "It sucks. A loss is a loss. Especially with seven games left. It sucks." 

Quick thoughts

—Kimbrel’s disastrous weekend

This is not what anybody had in mind when the Cubs addressed their biggest weakness and signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year deal in early June.

In his first 19.2 innings as a Cub, the closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory surrendered 9 home runs — the latter two coming on back-to-back pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday.

Called on to protect a 1-run lead, Kimbrel could only watch in disbelief as Yadier Molina sent his first pitch into the left-field bleachers and Illinois native Paul DeJong followed suit on the very next offering.

"It's tough. it is," Rizzo said. "Craig's a Hall of Fame closer. He's got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He's an amazing guy in the clubhouse. You don't want to ever see anybody give up runs. We have his back. It's tough. It feels bad, but he's a competitor and a champion and he'll bounce back."

Kimbrel spent most of this month on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but returned Thursday only to give up the lead and get saddled with the loss in the 10th inning after the Cubs had just pulled off an epic 3-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extras.

Kimbrel now has a 6.53 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs this season.

—Javy suits up

Baez scored the tying run as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but his at-bat to end the game Saturday was his first plate appearance since breaking his left thumb three weeks ago. 

He struck out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez to end the game and admitted it was a tough at-bat given the layoff.

"It was hard, especially with him out there throwing 100 mph," Baez said. "It's tough, but you gotta give it a try and try something for the team."

Baez said he hopes to be able to start the game Tuesday for the Cubs in Pittsburgh.

"I've been feeling good," he said. "It's still bothering me a little bit, but I would do anything to help my team. We're in a hard situation right now that we gotta win games and if not, we'll be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're gonna give everything, we're gonna give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back before the regular season is over. It's been a quick process, so hopefully I'll keep getting better and after the day off, I'll probably be out there."

—The winds of change

At first pitch Saturday, the wind was blowing straight out at Wrigley Field at 17 mph. That proved to be a huge factor in the game.

Each team felt the benefit of Mother Nature, with Marcell Ozuna somehow golfing this very low 0-2 pitch from Kyle Ryan into the bleachers in the top of the seventh inning for a go-ahead blast:

The Cubs’ big boost from the wind came on Tony Kemp's signature moment with the team in the bottom of the inning (though this game won’t be remembered for his heroics).

After Ben Zobrist had doubled with one out, Kemp was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and appeared to strike out, only to get new life when it turned out a balk was called. He hit the next pitch in the air to center field — deep enough to at least get Zobrist home from third as the tying run — but it wound up carrying just a few rows into the bleachers for an enormous, game-changing home run.

The Cubs had been waiting for their baseball luck to turn and I think it's safe to say the balk call qualified, though it ultimately proved to only set the stage for even greater heartbreak for the fanbase.

—Brad Wieck's big moment goes for naught

Kemp wasn't the only player to deliver his signature moment with the Cubs Saturday afternoon.

Wieck was called on to protect the 1-run lead in the eighth inning of a crucial, Game 7-esque contest Saturday — just like everybody predicted back when the Cubs traded for him on July 31. Despite walking the leadoff hitter and plunking Tommy Edman, Joe Maddon left Wieck in the game to face the heart of the Cardinals order — righties Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — even though veteran Steve Cishek had been warming up in the Cubs bullpen.

Goldschmidt flied out to left field and Ozuna struck out, giving Wieck a huge boost of confidence and setting the Cubs on the path for a much-needed victory before the ninth-inning meltdown.

—Oh, that's where the offense was hiding...

Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson certainly helped out with back-to-back-to-back-to-back walks after Nicholas Castellanos' double in the first inning.

The team that scored only 1 run on 9 hits in Friday's ballgame then plated 3 runs on just 1 hit in the first inning of Saturday's contest.

Baseball, man.

The Cubs generally had a solid approach at the plate all day, drawing 6 walks and slugging 7 of their 10 hits for extra bases.

Rookie Nico Hoerner delivered a clutch go-ahead homer in the bottom of the sixth, his third longball of the homestand after hitting just 3 homers in 75 minor-league games this year.

—What bum ankle?

This weekend series hasn't gone the way the Cubs wanted, but Anthony Rizzo's shocking return to the field and subsequent play has been one of the consistent bright spots.

After a nasty-looking sprained ankle that was originally thought to keep him out for the rest of the regular season, Rizzo returned to the Cubs leadoff spot just 20 minutes before Thursday's game and he even provided a homer in that contest before the Cardinals pulled out a victory in the 10th inning.

In 11 plate appearances over those three games, Rizzo reached in six of them, including three hits Saturday. He even hustled out a double in the second inning, sliding into second on that injured ankle and trying to give his team a spark.

—Q's about Q

What is going on with Jose Quintana. He hasn't made it through 4 innings in any of his last three starts and has gone more than a month since pitching at least 6 innings (Aug. 18).

He's now given up 18 earned runs and 25 hits in 13.2 innings this month - good for an 11.85 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

Quintana was a rock for the Cubs in the rotation for the first five months of the season, but he's taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction at the absolute worst time. His struggles are even tougher to swallow when taken alongside Cole Hamels' last couple months of injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment, Quintana would be in line to start the first game in St. Louis next weekend, but the Cubs could always utilize the off-day to change up their rotation a bit.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Pirates Saturday night and are 3 games up on the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Nationals update

The Nationals beat the Marlins and have a 4-game lead on the Cubs and are 1 game up on the Brewers for the top Wild-Card spot.

What's next?

The Cubs finish their 2019 regular season home slate Sunday afternoon, though some serious storms are projected to hit Chicago.

If they are able to play, will this be the final game at Wrigley Field in 2019? If they're not able to play, the Cardinals have a game Monday night while the Cubs are off, so the makeup would have to be pushed back to Sept. 30 if it still holds weight for the playoff race.

Yu Darvish takes the hill for the Cubs against Miles Mikolas. Catch all the action on NBC Sports Chicago or the My Teams app, with pregame live beginning at 12:30 p.m.

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Tony Kemp takes to Twitter to voice frustration after dicey third strike call

Tony Kemp takes to Twitter to voice frustration after dicey third strike call

Tony Kemp just can’t catch a break.

In the midst of a Cubs comeback bid against the Padres Tuesday night, the diminutive utilityman was the victim of a pretty brutal squeeze by home plate umpire CB Bucknor, and he took to Twitter Wednesday morning to air his grievance:

To his credit, the called third strike (the fourth pitch of the at-bat) that ended the Cubs’ eighth inning felt juuuust a bit out of the zone.

This isn’t an isolated incident for Kemp, who was rung up on an even more egregious call by Marty Foster a couple weeks ago in Philadelphia:

Sometimes it simply ain’t easy being a 5-foot-6-inch major league baseball player.

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