Tyler Chatwood

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

What Cole Hamels’ oblique injury means for Cubs’ roster now and in near future

What Cole Hamels’ oblique injury means for Cubs’ roster now and in near future

School might be out for the summer, but the Cubs will soon be put to the test.

The Cubs announced Saturday that Cole Hamels has a left oblique strain and placed the veteran left-hander on the 10-day injured list. In a corresponding move, the team called up Dillon Maples and Rowan Wick, designating outfielder Carlos Gonzalez for assignment. The Cubs will have a better idea how long Hamels will be out after he undergoes an MRI Monday in Pittsburgh.

The early ramifications to Hamels’ injury are obvious. With Kyle Hendricks on the injured list due to a shoulder injury, the Cubs will be without 40 percent of their Opening Day starting rotation for the foreseeable future. Hamels and Hendricks rank first and second in ERA (Hamels: 2.98, Hendricks: 3.36) and WHIP (Hamels: 1.20, Hendricks 1.14) among qualified Cubs starters.

Hendricks, whose return date is still uncertain, last pitched on June 14 against the Dodgers. Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it’s possible that Hendricks could return before the All-Star break (July 8-11), but nothing is set in stone.

"It is possible. We're not excluding any of that," Maddon said Thursday morning at Wrigley Field. "He's doing really well and he's feeling really good. If everything plays out properly and it looks like it's the right thing to do, we will. But we're still gonna listen to him and his body, but he sounds really encouraging right now."

Hendricks returning in the near future would help soften the blow of Hamels going down. If he doesn’t come back until after the break, though, the Cubs will have to ride with a rotation of Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood until then.

The Cubs already announced that Alzolay will start on Monday against the Pirates, once again taking Hendricks’ turn in the rotation. Who will start after that is to be determined, Maddon said on Saturday. Chatwood was going to return to a relief role before Hamels’ injury. Now, he will likely get at least one start before returning to the bullpen whenever Hendricks comes back.

Alzolay and Chatwood have looked up to the task when starting this season, excluding Chatwood’s start Thursday against the Braves in which he allowed six runs in five innings Chatwood’s other two starts:

-April 21 vs. Diamondbacks: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R/0 ER, 2 BB, 3K
-June 20 vs. Mets: 4 IP, 6 H, 3 R/2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K

Chatwood has thrown 71, 73 and 90 pitches, respectively, in his three starts this season. The Cubs have been cognizant of his pitch count since he has pitched mostly in relief this season. His pitch count should increase, now that he will likely be exclusively starting until Hendricks returns.

Hamels going down not only affects the Cubs’ pitching staff, but the position player group, too. Cubs relievers have pitched 22 1/3 innings since Monday, including seven on Friday after Hamels departed. Because the bullpen is taxed, the Cubs had to call Maples and Wick to give Maddon a few fresh relief arms.

Hamels going on the injured list opened up a spot on the active roster, but Gonzalez was somewhat of a roster casualty, as designating him for assignment opened up another spot. Gonzalez has struggled this season (.200/.289/.283 slashline in 145 total at-bats, .175/.306/.300 line in 40 at-bats with the Cubs), however.

Thus, the Cubs have one less position player available off the bench on Saturday and perhaps on Sunday. However, designating Gonzalez for assignment also opened up a spot on the 40-man roster. After they leave Cincinnati, the Cubs can shuffle their active roster as they see fit.

Robel Garcia has been making noise in the Cubs’ farm system this season. Entering Saturday, the 26-year-old holds a .293/.371/.610 slashline with 21 home runs and 57 RBIs in 69 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He’s also a second baseman, a position in need of an offensive boost for the Cubs.

Cubs fans have been clamoring on Twitter for the team to call up Garcia. However, he’s struck out 86 times in 246 at-bats this season, including 64 times in 168 at-bats with Iowa. And, before this season, he last played professionally stateside in 2014. Garcia’s numbers are eye-popping, but the minor leagues and MLB are two different stories.

Still, the Cubs giving him a chance at the MLB level is at least slightly more possible, now that there’s an opening on the 40-man roster. There will be more clarity on what roster moves the Cubs make following Hamels’ MRI on Monday, though, and even more after Hendricks returns.

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Cubs place Cole Hamels on injured list, designate Carlos González for assignment

Cubs place Cole Hamels on injured list, designate Carlos González for assignment

The Cubs will be without their most consistent starting pitchers for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, the Cubs placed left-hander Cole Hamels on the 10-day injured list with a left oblique strain. The team also designated outfielder Carlos González for assignment, promoting relievers Dillon Maples and Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa in corresponding moves.

Hamels exited Friday's game against the Reds ahead of the second inning after experiencing discomfort in his side throwing warmup pitches. Manager Joe Maddon said Hamels would be placed on the injured list with an oblique strain, making Saturday's announcement a mere formality.

This marks the second time in three seasons that Hamels has suffered an oblique injury. He missed nearly two months in 2017 with a right oblique strain, though he told Mark Gonzales from the Chicago Tribune that he doesn't think the injury will be as bad this time around.

Be that as it may, Hamels will likely be out for an extended period of time, which leaves the Cubs without 40 percent of their Opening Day starting rotation. Kyle Hendricks is currently on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, and while he could return before the All-Star break, his return date not set in stone.

Without Hamels and Hendricks, Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood will be fixtures in the starting rotation for the foreseeable future. The Cubs already announced that Alzolay will start Monday against the Pirates and that Chatwood will return to the bullpen. Now, Chatwood will likely return to starting, at least until Hendricks returns.

González is somewhat of a roster casualty. Since Hamels only pitched an inning last night, the Cubs were forced to stretch their bullpen out, using Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, Kyle Ryan and Steve Cishek. Chatwood, Strop and possibly Kimbrel were unavailable on Friday, hence the need for Maples and Wick to come up from Triple-A.

At the same time, González has struggled in big league action with the Indians and Cubs this season. The 33-year-old holds a .200/.289/.283 slashline in 145 at-bats, including a .175/.306/.300 line in 40 at-bats with the Cubs.

Maples hasn't allowed a run in 5 2/3 MLB innings this season, striking out 10 batters compared to nine walks. He has struggled with command in his young MLB career, walking 20 batters in 16 1/3 career innings. However, he's walked just two batters in his last 5 2/3 innings at Iowa, striking out 12 batters over that span. 

This marks Wick's third stint with the Cubs this season. The hard-throwing right-hander has allowed just one earned runs in 3 2/3 innings with the Cubs this season, striking out six batters. He holds a 2.22 ERA in 28 1/3 innings with Iowa this season, striking out 34 batters compared to eight walks.

The Cubs now have just three bench players available Saturday against the Reds — David Bote, Victor Caratini and Daniel Descalso. 

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