Early looks at second base, centerfield, and bench competitions

David Bote (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

David Bote (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Second Base

The one guy we know will be in the mix is David Bote. He's gotten off to a good start this spring and no doubt understands he has an opportunity for a larger role this season than ever before. He does have an option remaining, but barring an unexpected circumstance Bote is a roster lock throughout the course of the season.

Signed to a Minor League deal last month, Jason Kipnis has looked like himself so far this spring. Which means he is providing steady plate discipline and should offer above average power for a second baseman. His range looks fine. He is three years removed from being an impact player, and is fairly useless versus left-handed pitching, but as a veteran platoon bat the Cubs can do worse. Fans should keep their expectations in check, as his name exceeds his ability at this point, but he should be more consistent than any of the players the Cubs ran out at second in 2019.

Nico Hoerner (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Nico Hoerner (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

We haven't seen David Bote get reps at shorstop so far, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. As of right now Nico Hoerner is getting more reps there then he is at second. That could be good or bad for his chances to make the Opening Day roster, depending on your viewpoint. On one end, if the Cubs aren't readying another viable option to cover shortstop, it means they view Hoerner as capable of filling that role. On the other, they won't bring Nico north just to function as a backup shorstop on the roster. He needs regular playing time. If he can't force his way into the second base competition then he'll open the year in Iowa.

My guess is we will either see Bote taking some reps at short as the spring progresses, or Hoerner taking additional reps at second and/or in center to prepare him for a larger role in Chicago.

Centerfield

While we have yet to see Nico Hoerner get any run in center, we likewise have not seen Ian Happ play on the dirt this spring. He's been exclusively playing outfield so far. Again, it's early and things can change quick, but I do think this provides an indication for the Cubs intentions. They see Happ as the primary guy in center.

Happ's approach has been there, as he is laying off pitches up in the zone. He did misplay a ball in center yesterday, but he looks far more comfortable as an outfielder than he did back in 2018. I did see progress with his jumps and routes in Iowa last season, and he is still one of the fastest players on the team.

He's one of the few former 1st rounders of this group with untapped potential. The tools are there, and are beginning to be refined.

Albert Almora

Albert Almora

Happ isn't the only bounce back candidate the Cubs are relying on. Albert Almora has a new swing, and so far, has done an admirable job laying off pitches outside the zone. He's also going the other way and making frequent, hard contact. Almora does have another MiLB option year remaining, so he needs to keep up with his turnaround, but it is difficult to project him on the outside looking in the way Descalso is, despite each coming off similar trainwreck seasons.

I doubt he ever grows into a patient hitter, but If Almora's limits himself to swinging at strikes he can still be a league average offensive contributor in a platoon or semi-regular role, which you gladly accept alongside his above average defensive work.

Almora has admitted to losing his confidence in 2019, and while he refused to point to the foul ball incident in Houston last year as a contributor to his struggles, it is easy to see how devastated he was, and how that could further shake someone in a fragile mental state.

It is difficult to remember given how poorly he played as the season progressed, but Almora did get off to a decent start last year. Midway through that fateful series in Houston his OPS stood at .762 (.266/.307/.455). Over his final 80 games? He'd post just a .560 OPS (.211/.241/.319).

The centerfield platoon we expected in 2018 (and for years to come) may just be back on track.

Bench

Victor Caratini forms one of the top offensive catcher tandems in the league alongside Willson Contreras. There is no real competition for his job. He's a solid pitch framer and game caller. This is the one area where the Cubs have a starting caliber backup as depth.

A serious knee injury kept Steven Souza, Jr. out of action in 2019. I haven't seen a ton of him in the outfield yet, but from what little I have, he seems to be moving fine. He doesn't help with the Cubs need for contact hitting, but he's got legit power, and if fully healthy (which appears to be the case), he is a potential steal on his $1M deal. If the Cubs are smart, Jason Heyward does not make a start against a left-handed pitcher this season. Souza should form a straight platoon with him in right, while also providing Kyle Schwarber the occasional rest in left.

With Jason Kipnis showing he still has some juice remaining, it could put Daniel Descalso on the outside looking in. The veteran does not appear to be in the running for regular reps at second base, and his defensive versatility is no longer what it once was. I can't see the Cubs carrying two left-hand hitting bats who are primarily viable only at second base at this point in their career.

The Cubs could release Descalso, or perhaps he agrees to go to Iowa rather than choose free agency, as I doubt he'd be picked up off waivers. If he exercised his right to free agency I can't see there would be much of a market for his services coming off the season he had in 2019, even at league minimum he could find it difficult to find a team willing to give him a 40-man spot.

Trent Giambrone (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Trent Giambrone (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Both Robel Garcia and Trent Giambrone offer similar depth at second base, but also provide the ability to move around the infield and outfield. There is a lot of overlap between the two players. Giambrone offers more speed, while Garcia offers more pop and switch hitting ability, but it is doubtful the club would carry both on the 40-man. They are older prospects who can't be your primary utility man because they shouldn't be played at shortstop. That means they have to hit. Unless one of them hits enough to earn a platoon role in the Majors they are looking at a role as a AAA shuttle player.

Last spring it appeared Giambrone would be first in line for any open 40-man spots that cropped up, but his struggles coincided with Garcia's surprising breakout, and he allowed Garcia to snag the roster opportunity from him. Garcia is now in the driver's seat. If he continues to falter against offspeed pitches it could open the door for Giambrone to take his spot during the course of the year.

PJ Higgins (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

PJ Higgins (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

The competition for Garcia's position as the primary shuttle player from Des Moines extends beyond Giambrone though. Thanks to improved size and strength over the past two years, P.J. Higgins now offers enough offense to pair with his solid defensive versatility to be considered a viable candidate. Not only can Higgins provide the Cubs with a third catching option, but he is a solid corner infielder, who can even take a few innings at second base if the need arises. He'll never hit for power, but he works counts and puts the ball in play.

Another player who offers a unique element is outfielder Ian Miller. Not only does he have good range at all three spots defensively, but is the type of base-stealing threat the Cubs have lacked for years.

Last, but not least, the veteran catcher. Josh Phegley doesn't offer much besides experience and a bit of pop at the plate, but we know how this goes, and how teams operate in regards to the catching position. I don't actually believe the Cubs will open the year with three catchers on the roster. It isn't necessary if Contreras and Caratini are both healthy. There are plenty of off days built into the schedule the first month of the season. But come June, or if one gets nicked up before then, Phegley will be right there with Higgins as a potential option.

If the Cubs need a shortstop, and don't feel Hoerner or Zack Short are ready, they've got Hernan Perez as an option. In my opinion this should be a "break glass in case of emergency only" scenario, as Perez was never very good in his prime and is coming off three replacement level or worse seasons for Milwaukee. But just like with Phegley, we know how MLB teams operate. They tend to be conservative at the two most important defensive positions and usually turn to the player with no ceiling (but a known floor) rather than rolling the dice on a young player.

My hope is, that with two young shortstops already on the 40-man the team won't waste time, and potentially lose another player to make room on the roster, on a dead end option.

Filed under: Spring Training

Comments

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  • I think you've hit the nail on the head on the IF situation. Hoerner doesn't need to be up in MLB to be the backup SS as he's a short plane ride away and they already have a good idea what he can do a 2B. He likely starts at AAA allowing Kipnis and Bote to hold down 2B. Hoerner gets to see AAA pitching and continue to play everyday. Win Win.
    As far as the OF, as much as I don't love the idea of platooning a guy making as much money as Heyward, it's a no brainer if Souza can play a decent RF and still has the power (which he should). The 26 man roster allows Almora to be the 5th OF and if he can play his way past that so be it. All signs point to Ross using a little bit more of a consistent lineup meaning that guys have to play their way into time on the field.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Heyward has had plenty of opportunities to show he still deserves ABs against LHP and failed. If he was still an ELITE defender you could justify giving away some offense to keep the defense in the lineup, but Heyward has lost a step and is now just a very good defender rather than a guy making a consistent impact with his glove.

  • I’ve been very pessimistic on the team, including predicting a fourth-place finish. But as the season gets closer, I find myself getting excited. Maybe Happ will have a breakout year...

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    I'm cautiously optimistic. A few of the guys we need to have rebound seasons are showing positive early signs they can pull it off. On top of that, everyone is healthy so far.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    I like to think of simple math. What are the chances that Almora, Descalso, Happ, Bote, and whoever else may fill in at 2B/CF ALL suck as bad as they did last season? Something about averages and regression to the means.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Desclso looks like he’s still lost. Maybe they can give him to some team for some broken bats. Wasted economy move from last year.

  • In reply to Cubs09:

    I’m cautiously optimistic as well, but believe they could also fall as far a third. I don’t see any scenario where they’re worse than Milwaukee with their turnover of nine players. I’ll likely pick the Reds to win the division still but they have a lot to prove. Not all teams gel after making big acquisitions

  • Great article Michael, it’s been a long time since I commented. I have been out to 3 games so far and a few practices. Couple early impressions; the catching depth is amazing this year. Higgins is the big surprise, could be in competition for 3rd catcher. Phegley has looked good too. Higgins has a strong arm, very good hitter, high contact hitter and can play 3rd, 1st and they are trying him in the outfield in practice. Happ and Almora have looked fantastic at the plate. Both need to keep working on defense. Souza so far has looked ok in the outfield, let’s see how the spring progresses. He is an excellent hitter, going the opposite way when needed, fighting off inside pitches. Descalso can not play third, he doesn’t have a quick first step and his arm is not strong enough, so he lacks versatility. It was horrible to watch, poor Lester.

  • In reply to TROS:

    The Cubs do have very good upper level catching depth. Contreras/Caratini are a great duo and then Phegley/Higgins/Pereda form a solid trio in Iowa. Amaya is the big hope at AA.

    If Caratini takes another step, or Amaya has a breakthrough this year where it looks like he can be ready for prime time at some point in 2021 or early 2022, then it could open the door for the Cubs to trade Contreras next offseason in order to continue restocking the prospect pipeline and redirect financial resources elsewhere.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I think Ross should find ways to get both Contreras and Caritini in the same lineup more often. I am leaning to Higgins as the 26th spot. Good hitter for average, plays multiple positions very well. Great arm.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Great article. Love the the way Contreras plays and his attitude. I hate the though of losing him. His type is rare and how many catchers are better?btw How often will you need a 3rd catcher? If a injury happens then you'd have to go to Iowa. The outfield may need help soon. Losing faith in Heyward and glad He won't Be hitting against lefties. Keep up the good work.

  • In reply to TROS:

    I was willing to give Descalso a modicum of benefit of the doubt during the offseason given the reported injury he tried to play through last year, but nothing looks different this spring. He looks slow in the field and at the plate. Very possible he is just done as a viable MLB player. It has happened to plenty of players younger (32) than him.

  • Nice, concise.

  • Posting a followup to my earlier post here since its a more fitting article re the 26th man.

    With the cubs being 19-27 in 1-run games last year: Better fundamentals and bullpen usage should makes us .500 in 1-run games this year - Ian Miller puts us over. Gonna need every win that can be scratched out this year. Happ can still play anywhere if needed, so I don't think too many OFs is an issue.

    I like PJ Higgins as my second choice so Caratini can be the primary backup to 1st and 3rd.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    Problem for Miller is I can't see the Cubs carrying three backup OFs and one backup IF. Souza and Almora are ahead of him right now and he needs to show he is clearly better than Almora in order to force his way on to the 40-man, let alone the 26-man. They may happen over the course of the season, but barring injury I can't see a path for Miller to open the season in Chicago.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Yeah, Garcia's to lose.

  • In reply to DarBar15:

    Garcia has no business being on a MLB team. He is just about an automatic strikeout.

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    We have good catching depth at the upper levels and also have drafted a couple last year and one was the top catching prospect too.
    I hope they look closely at Ian Miller. As you said, he plays all 3 outfield positions and has speed and with our awful record in 1 run games he could really make a difference.
    Thanks for this very informative article Michael.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    A good thing to keep in mind is that record in one run games is generally not predictive or repeatable. It really is often a matter of luck. And to a further extent, one player is not going to have much of an impact on it. Cubs need team-wide improvements on defense and on the bases.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Yes, on defense. The team has slipped away from that, and we too often look at offensive potential and "plug-in" players wherever they can fill a spot on the field. If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times: OK, I won't, but something about numbers and the "R" column at the end of the game.

    Overall trends in the game, specifically the "3 true outcome" explosion, have diminished the value of defense. But I'm still a believer. Bryant is not what he was at 3B, Rizzo will slow with his 1B D, and 2B is an unknown at this point. Javy is Javy, and is and always has been a better SS than Russell. The OF defense may take the biggest hit, and that could be magnified by the sheer number of balls lifted above the IF and the shift.

    The pitching staff, as a whole, is likely the weak link on this 2020 Cubs squad, and could greatly benefit from a few extra outs turned, or at least not lost, by the defense. I'm really interested in Boss Ross's philosophy. I'm sure he will handle the staff better than Maddon, and the defense is a major factor in that equation. I'm curious to see how this thought process effects roster decisions, and movement within the "Iowa shuttle" when planning for series matchups.

  • My main concern at the beginning of the year is the bullpen. Hopefully Wick and Ryan and hopefully Hultzen will come thru. My concern is Kimbrel. I watched him and Q throw today in a sim game - to Schwarbs and Bote and Nico and a few others. Q looked fine - but Kimbrel had a hard time throwing 2 pitches in a row, over the plate. We need him to be the difference maker.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    If they’re going to carry eight in the bullpen, I think they need to find at least four more on the spring cuts. Haven’t seen Maples yet.is he hurt?

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    Given his track record I think Kimbrel deserves the same benefit of the doubt Lester and Q have that he will be ready once the season kicks off. It doesn't take long for a reliever to ramp up in spring. As long as he looks good by the final week he should be fine.

    Ryan is a key early in the year. They need him to provide some stability early on in case Wieck is delayed.

    The biggest thing though is finding a reliable 8th inning guy. They need Wick to repeat his 2019 or Jeffress to rediscover his 2018 form.

  • Why hasn't Dillon Maples been on the mound yet?

  • In reply to Hagsag:

    I haven’t seen any reports, from national guys or AZ Phil, of an injury/illness regarding him. But that could be the case regardless.

    Maybe they are making a mechanical or grip adjustment for him in the Pitch Lab to help him with consistency and they want him concentrating on that instead of pitching in games.

  • Great recap Michael. You pretty much nailed it.

    I am glad you pointed out 1 run records are meaningless from year to year when lookIng for some predictability.

    I think the gap is probably those 4 games that you have no business winning or losing. It would help to get the extra 1-2 wins per month the first 3 months so you don’t have to make those up late in the year. How about a couple of walk off 3 run HR when down 2 in the 9th and Kimbrel going 20-20. That wilLbinstall confidence and keep us at the front of the pack instead of losing games in horrific fashion. I looks forward to not punting games early like Joe has done. I believe Ross manages the Cubs more like traditional teams.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    I'll echo you on Michael, great recap. First inning Bryant single to right. Rizzo double to the gap in left with Kris running the bases like few can. Love it!

  • IIRC, the ‘knock’ on Almora was that he always made contact when swinging. While that sounds great, the problem was he made contact on pitcher’s pitches and created weak outs. If he can swing at hitter’s pitches, we’ll have something. Unfortunately, we’re about 4 years into waiting for this to happen. I hope it clicks soon.

  • Brandon Morrow, need I say more?

    He was temporarily shut down a couple weeks ago after experiencing tightness in a chest muscle. He threw Thursday, and the chest felt great! But...

    He was running afterwards and felt pain in his calf. An MRI on Friday revealed a slight tear, and he's out for about two more weeks.

    Sigh.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Still on that hill, Michael? I've been there with you, but starting to scope out some escape routes.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    My resolve has not faltered.

    I said Morrow will help this year. I never said April and in fact, never wanted to even see him try for April. I want them to get him prepared for the second half.

    These setbacks could be blessings in disguise. I've always wanted him to stay back in EXST. To take his time. Avoid the cold weather. There never should have been an expectation for him to make the OD roster and stay healthy all year.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I am so conflicted about this season. I can't root against the Cubs, but my worst fear is we are a middling team in July, yet still in the NL Central race. We throw "every season is precious" caution to the wind and stay over the tax threshold in a fool's run at the postseason. That will absolutely doom 2021, and be a worst-case scenario.

    I'd love to see Morrow throw 20-30 productive/dominant innings. Hopefully in June and July, so we deal him to a contender at the deadline and recoup some of the lost cost.

    Go Morrow! Go Cubs!

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Plenty of talent on this team to win the division this year.
    If you add to this years team you will not doom 2021.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    My point about 2021 was having to to with the tax penalties. There was a goal to get under the $208M threshold this offseason to reset and avoid the 2nd-year penalties, but the prolonged Bryant grievance put all our plans in limbo. The plan now seems to be to play half a season and reassess. If we're out of it, sell to reset for next season. If we have a chance, go over again and take our chances this year.

    That latter option worries me. I don't want to limp into the playoffs with a marginal team that is once again over the penalty threshold. If we do that, I believe there is zero chance we go over again, for a 3rd consecutive season and the compounding penalties that go with it, in 2021. We will have to be under next year, taking away many possibilities for improving the team.

    Of course the current CBA (which dictates the penalties) expires after the 2021 season, so there is that unknown. I just think this whole situation has been mismanaged, and many within the organization admit that. This was (is?) the season to reset. If we can't or don't, no major improvements next year, either.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Why are you limping in if you make the playoffs?
    Just make the playoffs and anything can happen.

    Make the playoffs and you generate a lot of extra revenue - more than paying luxury tax.

    A lot of contracts expire and they will be able to make improvements. They can make trades to improve which they have been hesitant to do the past 2 seasons.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Sounds like you're getting behind my thoughts of the Cubs needing to start the rebuild in July of 2019, eh?

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    From reading the recap from today a lot of our relievers--Mekkes, Underwood Jr, Norwood, Maples, etc all have really good FBs and their secondary pitches are effective too, but all have trouble locating the FB. I'm sure location is the difference between a good pitcher and a bad one. Every team could write these recaps. Now if one or two can do better we'll have an effective bullpen, but again, there's a reason why these guys haven't been up here before now.
    Darvish was throwing extremely well today and I would say that right now he's got to be in the lead to start on Opening Day. John Lester would be the sentimental favorite, especially because this is his last year, but we've seen a slow decline in his skills and I wonder how long he can pitch this season. Will the Cubs have a tough decision this year around June or July about what to do with him.
    Ev'ry mornin' at the mine you could see him arrive
    He stood six foot six and weighed two forty five
    Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip
    And everybody knew, ya didn't give no lip to Big John.
    Just change the word "mine" to "mound" and that's our Big John.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    I would not give up on Lester just yet. He thinks he will have a solid year and pitch 200 innings. I hope he is right.

  • In reply to John57:

    "Big Bad John".

    He's pitching for a contract, and ain't ready to hang 'em up just yet. I'll never question his tenacity.

  • Grandpa Ross should have a batting clinic and have Almora, Baez and Caratini show everyone else "How to HIT, take walks and strikeout LESS".

  • In reply to clarkAddson:

    Just imagine if these players culd show KB, Rizzo and Schwarber how it is done, we would have a really good team.

  • In reply to clarkAddson:

    A batting clinic is not going to change players approach at the plate and make them more selective

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Says who.. You??? My statement was only to point out that certain players made some changes and are improving and some players continue to remain the same.

  • In reply to clarkAddson:

    Says all the baseball sabermetrics experts. It is very rare for players to change.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Show me where you are getting this nonsense. Players batting change all the time.

  • What are your thoughts on Dewees? I don't see him getting the 26th spot, but I'm always impressed with him whenever I see him play; does he play the infield at all?

  • In reply to Treebeard:

    Dewees is not in big league camp, which isn't a good sign for someone his age. I honestly have never considered Dewees to be a valid MLB prospect going back to when he was drafted. He has some above average tools, but nothing that impacts a game, and his arm keeps him from being a valid CF option. That severely limits his usefulness, as he is a corner OF who isn't an impact hitter.

    Dewees is a solid AAA player, and a guy that might eventually get a cup of coffee as an injury fill in, but I don't envision him ever earning a full-time job or even a steady place on a 40-man roster.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Isn't he someone we let go, and then either re-signed or traded to get back? He does seem like someone that wouldn't be much more than a pinch hitter/injury fill in, but he looks better than Delasco; although, just about everyone does these days.......

  • In reply to Treebeard:

    Dewees was a 2nd round pick who had a huge draft year at a smaller school. The Cubs liked his hit tool and were likely hoping he could develop into a high average, contact hitter who could make some impact on the bases. But he didn't develop much power, patience and didn't manage to even hit .290 in his two seasons in the organization. He was then traded to the Royals for Alec Mills. He had one solid year for KC at AA (IIRC) but struggled to breakthrough in AAA/MLB. They essentially gave up on him, as the Cubs re-acquired him last offseason for a raw, overage short season pitcher (Stephen Ridings).

    The Cubs were desperate for OFs to fill out the Iowa roster, and credit to Dewees, he did okay. But while his numbers look solid on the surface, the PCL was an insane hitters environment in 2019. It translated to below average output (90 wRC+) which is simply not good enough as a 25-year old corner OF. Dewees is essentially a 3rd/4th OF in AAA. The statistical projections like ZIPS and Steamer project him as a .240/.295/.370 hitter in the Majors and I can't make a case for him to be better than that outside of getting a little BABIP luck.

    He's 26 now and despite showing solid plate discipline for the first time in his career, it is difficult to see a path for him to improve beyond his 2019 output. The Cubs brought in Ian Miller and Noel Cuevas to give Iowa a boost and provide an upgrade over Dewees. Those two, along with Mark Zagunis are three guys of similar age who have all had more AAA success and each has received MLB call ups. The Cubs also recently signed Jordan Patterson as a 1B/OF that fits the same mold. That group, along with utility guys like Robel Garcia and Trent Giambrone figure to be the primary options in Iowa. Dewees is going to be fighting for playing time against more productive players in Iowa. He just isn't a Major League option at this point.

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