Tony Kemp

Cubs trade Tony Kemp to Oakland for prospect

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USA TODAY

Cubs trade Tony Kemp to Oakland for prospect

Tony Kemp’s tenure with the Cubs wasn’t very memorable or long. Now, the utility player is on his way to Oakland.

The Cubs acquired Kemp from Houston last trade deadline in a deal for catcher Martin Maldonado (who was acquired two weeks earlier as an emergency catcher). Now, Kemp is on the move again with minor leaguer Alfonso Rivas coming back in return.

Kemp, 28, had 93 plate appearances in 44 games with the Cubs last season. He hit .183 with a .563 OPS. Most of Kemp’s value comes from his versatility. He played all three outfield spots and second base in his time with the Cubs.

Kemp hit much better in his four seasons with the Astros, but is still far from an offensive standout. Kemp is a career .233 hitter with a .314 on-base percentage.

Rivas is 23 and was drafted in the fourth round in 2018 out of the University of Arizona. He is ranked as the No. 26 prospect in the A's organization by MLB Pipeline. Interestingly, his scouting report on Pipeline makes a Mark Grace comparison (sweet-swinging left-handed first baseman with below average power for the position).

He started 2019 with Class A Advanced Stockton in the California League and was named to that league's all-star game. He hit .283/.383/.408 in 509 plate appearances. He played primarily at first base, but did get some time in the outfield as well.

Rivas closed the season with an eight-game stint in Triple-A Las Vegas and hammered the ball. He hit .406/.441/.625 in 34 plate appearances. After the season, Rivas took part in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .306/.417/.449 in 60 plate appearances.

Rivas is far from a big-time prospect, but does have some value. He will be in the high minors in 2020, but isn't going to unseat Anthony Rizzo any time soon at first base.

It's worth noting that Dan Kantrovitz, newly hired as Cubs' scouting director this offseason, was in Oakland's front office when the A's drafted Rivas. He should be familiar with Rivas' skill set and upside.

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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 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.