The first thing I want to say is thank you to Chad “copinblue” and all those who contributed for their generosity. It is very much appreciated as we transition into a new home, new state, and for my wife, a new job and position. The transition has been a lot about getting ourselves settled and acclimated — and we haven’t had a lot of quality time to ourselves yet. With our anniversary coming up in about 10 days, we’ll be sure to enjoy it.
The Cubs now own the 6th best record in baseball but they are still just 3rd in their own division. Yet you get the feeling the Cubs haven’t clicked yet. The best is yet to come, yet they are learning to win with the group they have right now.
The 25th man…
I’ve been thinking about the rosters and some of the questions that have cropped up recently. The prevailing thought is that you go with “your best 25 guys”, whomever that may be.
The problem is your best 25 guys on a roster and in the clubhouse isn’t the same as your best 25 players in a vacuum. It’s easy to say the Cubs should bring up Arismendy Alcantara or another talented player to contribute off the bench. The reality is different.
The Cubs have a pretty set lineup right now, especially once Jorge Soler comes back, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room when it comes to getting everyone reps. Chances are if a player is on the Cubs bench, he will only see sporadic playing time.
I think we get a little too frustrated when it comes to guys like Chris Denorfia, Jonathan Herrera, Mike Baxter, and David Ross but the truth is that sitting on the bench for much of the 162 game season and then getting put into game situations with expectations to produce is not an easy job. It really is more about a mentality than physical talent. We saw that Junior Lake and Mike Olt were not able to handle that kind of role last year. Matt Szczur struggled it with it this year. Asking young players who have seen such little MLB pitching to be productive with no set routine is unrealistic. It will take time before they can be productive in that kind of role and some never quite get there.
In the meantime, the Cubs have filled those spots with veterans who are accustomed to that kind of role and while they may not be any more productive than the kids, they can add value in the way that rookies cannot. They understand how to prepare and establish routines. They accept– and appreciate — their roles. When you are trying to manage a 25 man roster over the course of 162 games, those kinds of players make it a lot easier to get through the long grind of a season. Eventually the Cubs may need more production from their bench and I think they will upgrade it as the team gets closer to the playoffs, but for now they are giving the young Cubs what they need.
The Kyle Schwarber situation…
Meanwhile, players like Alcanatra and Kyle Schwarber are better off getting reps in the minor leagues. Schwarber, in particular, is a unique case because he is learning a new position. Schwarber can add a lot of long term value if he can catch — even if it is just for 5 years. So the Cubs must balance that with the perceived need to have another bat in the lineup.
The question then becomes whether a potential upgrade on offense in the short term is worth forgoing the long term benefits of keeping him at catcher.
What has made it more complicated is the emergence of Chris Coghlan, who in the last 25 games has hit .315/.375/.536 with a 7.5% walk rate and a 15% K rate, the latter of which rates really well on this team. Coghlan also has hit the lowest rate of softly-hit balls on the Cubs this year and ranks 4th in hard-hit balls behind sluggers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler.
For the year, Coghlan is hitting .249/.320/.453 with 8 HRs in 201 PAs. That is above average offensive production for the MLB this year (107 RC+ where 100 is average). And while we don’t know what Schwarber would hit if the Cubs were to promote him and play him in LF, expecting a player with less than a year’s worth of professional experience to be a significantly better than average MLB hitter is asking more than you think. In fact, ZiPS projects Schwarber to be an average (100 RC+) with a line of .234/.299/.427 and 21 HRs. He also projects as a 0.8 WAR player over a full season while Coghlan has already been a 1.1 WAR player and we are not yet halfway through the season.
So it is not just about whether it is a good idea to forgo long term value for the sake of short term gains, there is a legitimate question at to whether or not Schwarber presents an offensive upgrade at all in the short term. And while there is no guarantee Schwarber sticks at catcher if the Cubs keep him in the minors, those odds drop to zero if you give up on it now and make him your everyday LF’er. They him and themselves toh see if he can catch. He has made tremendous progress with his receiving and game-calling while his ability to control the running game is showing signs of improvement as well. It is not out of the question he can be an adequate MLB catcher by this point next season.
That is not to say he can’t be up this season as well. The minor league season comes to a close around late August and the Cubs can call him up sometime that month, by which time he will have had substantial reps — and may even need some rest after his first full season behind the plate. The Cubs may actually be able to accelerate his offensive development by exposing him to MLB pitching while also accelerating his defensive development by virtue of the instruction that comes not just from an MLB coaching staff, but also because sitting next to smart veterans like Miguel Montero and David Ross can only enhance that experience.
As for the Cubs as a team, they can benefit from having another LH bat and a 3rd catcher on the roster down the stretch. I would expect Schwarber to play more OF if he were to be called up this year, but his ability to catch gives the Cubs added flexibility.
I think if the Cubs can wait just a couple of more months, they may be able to have their cake and eat it to with Schwarber.
The Next Plateau…
I have taught myself to play guitar but I will be the first to tell you I am at best a replacement-level player. Yesterday, I was listening to Meat Puppets II, the second self-titled album of the influential Arizona-based punk band.
If I can get myself to play those creative, distinctive solos with a reasonable amount of skill, I will consider myself very successful. The learning curve has not been so much a curve as it is an alternating series between short bursts of upward linear progress followed by stretches of longer (and sometimes frustrating) plateaus.
The past two dramatic wins aside, the Cubs appeared to have leveled off a bit as well as they continue to cling to playoff hopes through mid June. But they’re learning to win with what they have as they balance their roster with dual goals of development and contention. For now, development is still king, but as the season goes on, that balance will begin to tip a little bit more toward the short term. It may not just be anticipated trades. We may also see the likes of Schwarber, Alcantara, and others contributing off the bench to help the Cubs reach their next plateau.
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