Baseball

As the Cubs have searched for a manager, and my fears about the offseason in general grow thanks to having far too much time on my hands and struggling to escape the cynicism of my youth, one thing I’ve tried to reassure myself with is that it’s not really in Theo Epstein’s DNA to do something completely moronic. Something you’d see the Mets or Edmonton Oilers do. Sure, some moves haven’t worked out or not gone as well as hoped, but almost every one of them you could see the logic behind at the time. The math added up.

Except for his first draft pick here in Chicago. That might have been a complete and utter whiff. Seems to be a theme in Chicago sports these days.

2019 Stats

130 games, 363 PAs

.236/.271/.381

12 HR  41 RBI

4.4 BB%  17.1 K%

64 wRC+  .271 wOBA  .651 OPS

-1.1 Defensive Runs Saved  -0.7 WAR

Tell Me A Story: This season started much like 2018 did, with a lot of people contending–even screaming from the truly unhinged–that what Albert Almora Jr. really needed was just consistent playing time. That being jerked in and out of the lineup and never starting more than three days in a row, if that, was stunting his development. It ended just like 2018 did, where it’s pretty clear that there isn’t anything to develop.

There was only one stretch of the season where Almora looked like a Major Leaguer, and that was May with a 107 wRC+. That was almost entirely due to hitting six homers in the month, and seeing as how he managed six more in the other five months, one wouldn’t count on that to happen too often again, if ever at all.

This is where the “WE NEED CONTACT” Big Audio Dynamite tribute argument kind of falls flat for me, though it’s cherry-picking admittedly. Albert Almora makes plenty of contact. He doesn’t walk much, but he doesn’t strike out much either. The problem is almost all of that contact is soft, and most of it is on the ground. So where does that get you? A negative-WAR player’s what it gets you. But hey, if you think the answers to the Cubs problems are having more guys ground out to short more often, well you go as far as you can with that, Big Shooter.

To be fair to AA, his hard-contact rate in July and August was actually pretty good, and his ground-ball rate declined throughout the season. But that’s also when his playing time dried up, which he also earned, so it’s hard to tell if that’s progress or just a few spasmed ABs out of a shallowing collection of them. And I don’t think the Cubs are going to bother to find out anyway.

If Almora was taken in the first round due to his athleticism, and you’d never followed him before, you’d swear he suffered some sort of bad knee injury in the minors or something. He’s slow, and he doesn’t have natural power because he doesn’t really have that much bat-speed. Even his instincts, which somehow had him stumble into being a decent centerfielder, went away this year as he graded out negatively in the field. Which would lead one to ask what it is he does at all. And that would be a question no one has an answer for right now, other than really upgrade the hair in the clubhouse.

But he rescues dogs, so he’s a good guy.

Contract: Team Control, Arbitration eligible in 2021

Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: Well, he can’t be on the team next year. All he’s earned is a fifth-outfielder role and if the Cubs have any hope, however slim, that Almora can develop into anything he’s not going to do it with four ABs a week. What the Cubs probably need to do, because he has options left and they never actually let him do it before calling him up, is play full-time in AAA for a full season. Or most of it. Almora never hit in the minors before joining the 2016 team. He just had a glove and promise. Now he doesn’t seem to have either. He’ll get you nothing in a trade, and I doubt you could even make him a throw-in to another deal at this point. He costs nothing, so there’s not much harm in letting him get at least three or four months in Des Moines to play every day and see if he can’t discover something, while Happ and Heyward and possibly an acquisition figure out centerfield at Wrigley.

At 26 at the beginning of next season, you don’t want to say that there’s no hope for Almora. But also by 26 we should have seen something, anything, to suggest there’s anything to be excavated out of him. Have you? No, you haven’t. And he’s not going to get faster, which probably means the defense is going to struggle to be plus before too long. If that ship hasn’t sailed already.

Maybe a new manager can whisper something to him, and stop putting him in spots to fail like Maddon had a habit of doing (he’s leading off again, is he Joe? How does Binny’s pay you exactly?). But everything with Almora needs to be considered a longshot at this point. And before too long, it’ll probably be in another uniform.

Baseball

And of course on the day I was just bitching about the nickel and dime and middle of the road moves the Cubs have engaged in this season, they go and get what was one of the best bats on the market, trading for Detroit’s Nick Castellanos. Of course, this is on the same day, even hour, their “contemporary” Astros get Zack Greinke. You see what I mean, folks?

Anyway, there’s no question Castellanos lengthens either the lineup or the bench, depending on what his role is that night. Castellanos is only having an ok year, with a wRC+ of 106. However, he’s been murdering left-handed pitching all year, to the tune of a 166 wRC+ this season, with a 51.7% hard-contact rate. Even if he only starts against lefties, he’ll bring that to the table and take any of Schwarber, Heyward, or Garcia out of the lineup (with Happ moving to second, if that’s a game we want to play) and that’s an upgrade.

If Castellanos gets more playing time than that, it still removes any temptation for Almora (more on him in a second), or Garcia (though I can’t see Happ getting THAT much time at second base), less Happ, or less Schwarber I guess if that’s the way they want to go. At the very least it puts some of those guys on the bench on a given night to give Joe Maddon some pinch-hitting options other than Victor Caratini or Willson Contreras, whichever wasn’t starting.

It’s not without some concerns. When Castellanos plays and moves Heyward to center, or out of the lineup completely with Happ in center, that’s a legitimately terrible defensive outfield. Again, the Cubs mitigate some of this by being the best ground-ball generating team in the league, but any fly ball that heads out over the heads of the infielders is going to have their pitchers swallowing their tongues. Castellanos gets a break in going from the gargantuan outfield of Comerica to Wrigley…as long as the sun and wind don’t cause him to asphyxiate (no guarantee there).

As for knock-on effects, either Happ’s call-up was short-lived and he’s headed back to Iowa, or Albert Almora is. AA has been simply woeful at the plate going on two months now, and maybe the only way to save him is to give him the ABs in Iowa he never really got in the first place. That seems the most likely move.

Even made more so by the acquisition of Tony Kemp, who can play center and left and second base, though none all that well. Kemp isn’t completely helpless with the bat, though it feels like this is the pinch-runner-in-big-games thing they love, except they aren’t going to be playing in any big games, are they (chuckle, chuckle)? Kemp’s BABIP is in the toilet this year, though that might because he never, ever hits a ball hard. Still, last year he put up a 107 wRC+, and with any slice of luck he can at least not be a giant sucking sound at the plate for whatever ABs the Cubs deign to give him. Again, strengthens the depth….but by a measure you’ll need a magnifying glass to see. Kemp probably thieves the defensive replacement role from Almora as well.

As far as David Phelps, what he provides other than the opportunity for Seinfeld Steinbrenner jokes, I’m not sure. Two years ago he was really effective with the Marlins, when he was striking out nearly 12 hitters per nine innings. But he’s been less so with Toronto, and ouchy. His fastball has lost some serious juice this year, which has caused him to with far more cutters and curves. Neither is generating any results that are going to cause tumescence anywhere. He’s a guy. That doesn’t mean he won’t get more usage than he should, because that’s just how things work around here.

As for what’s going away, neither pitcher the Cubs gave up for Castellanos would be considered anything more than a lottery ticket. Both Paul Richan and Alex Lange have not lit it up at High-A, though they’re only 22 and 23, so they have time to figure it out. At best they were two seasons way, more likely three. On the one hand, you wonder if the Cubs should be giving up on any pitching prospects at this point. On the other, given their track record, they might as well cash in on every one because they’re likely not going to do shit.

As for flogging Carl Edwards Jr. to San Diego for Brad Wieck…it’s just sad. You could see it with Edwards, he was so close to being a real thing. And he clearly wanted it pretty badly. And maybe that was the problem. He couldn’t handle it not working, because you could see him go into a sulk when the slightest thing didn’t go his way. Then he pitched scared, and wildly, and that’s how we got here. It just wasn’t ever going to happen here for him, and it’s best for everyone to move on. I just wouldn’t trust the dude who gave up a ton of homers in San Diego to do much for you.

At least there are more options now. At least they haven’t given up. Now get your head out of your ass and let’s go.