Baseball

Granted, this is a poor post to explore a day after you’ve been smothered by Ivan Nova, statistically the worst starter in all of baseball. One is capable of the irrational at the moment. And it’s not fair to get really emotional about it when you’ve just run the Dodgers gauntlet for four games, because right now no one is scoring against them. But the thing is if you want to go anywhere, you’re going to have to bust through that Crossing The Desert, or out-slug them, or out-slug the Brewers to even win the division (Lord knows the Brewers aren’t going to out-pitch anyone), or the suddenly nuclear Braves…anyway, you get it.

The worry area for the Cubs all season has been the pen, and the signing of Craig Kimbrel doesn’t magically make all of that go away. And you still imagine that when the deadline approaches, that still will be Priority #1, and possibly #2 and even #3. Fair enough, the Cubs still only have two to three reliable guys right now, and that might even include Kimbrel. There are a lot of wildcards out there.

Still, what’s been apparent is the Cubs have obvious holes in the lineup. They’re at second, center, and right. The last is being a tad harsh, as even with Jason Heyward’s abhorrent May, he’s still having an above-average offensive year (barely). But we can aim for a little higher than barely above average, at least I hope we can. Mom always told me aim high. The Cubs can carry average or a tick below at one spot, maybe even two.

The problem is that when the main five–Bryant, Rizzo, Contreras, Baez, and now Schwarber–aren’t all firing at the same time then the offense becomes something of a wasteland after the fifth hitter. Baez is in a slump, Contreras has gotten ground-ball happy again, and this is a big reason the Cubs haven’t put together a bunch of runs of late.

Still, I don’t want to base things on a bad week or two. It’s a long goddamn season. But over the last month, the Cubs are 10th in runs in the NL, 12th in average, 11th in wOBA. A month gets harder to ignore.

And what’s clear is that the answers mostly aren’t on the team. There’s no way the Cubs could have foreseen that Ben Zobrist would leave the team and his return be totally up in the air. It’s easy to forget how good Zobrist was last year in a more limited role in service of his age, but his 123 wRC+ or .355 wOBA would be miles above anything they’re getting for the most part from anyone not in that fivesome mentioned.

With Zoby 18 being somewhere in the quantum zone, the Cubs aren’t left with many answers. Carlos Gonzalez is dead. He’s not going to be reanimated. Everyone but Joe Maddon seems to know this. What’s hilarious is that Mark Zagunis was never given near the opportunities that CarGo has been, and his numbers are significantly better. And no, that’s not a plea to recall ZagNuts and play him. It’s just an illustration of how toast CarGo is.

Addison Russell is probably not going to hit, because he never really has. Some in the organization are blinded by the 98 RBI he put up once, but that’s more a function of the great offense ahead of him in ’16 than him being a great hitter. He’s never had an above-average offensive season, and has been actively bad the last three seasons. Daniel Descalso has been a disaster, and would likely be DFA’d if Zobrist were to return.

Whatever momentum Albert Almora might have had in May has been stunted by the arrival and usage of Gonzalez. I’m not sure how exactly, but Almora had a productive May. He had terrible luck (.253 BABIP), still hit too many grounders (50%, but that was down from April), and yet hit for enough power to overcome all of that. It’s the Heyward argument; given his defense you take average or just above offense and you have yourself a very useful player. June has seen Almora hit the ball in the same fashion as May, at least contact-type wise, it’s just that none of it has gone out of the park as a quarter of his fly balls did in May. I don’t know what the truth is here, but I know there’s more potential here than trying to wheeze one more breath of oxygen into CarGo.

The only in-house answer right now is to play David Bote every day. I know that Maddon would tell me that would expose Bote, or make the Cubs too right-handed, but quite frankly that’s horseshit. In fact, Bote has been terrible against left-handed pitching this year and great against right-handed, the complete opposite of last year. Which makes you at least hope he could blend the two one day.

Bote’s run into some bad luck in June as well, as he’s had a 32% line-drive rate in the month which is insanely high. Overall, his hard-contact rate is down but I can’t see how lacing line-drives all over the place is a bad thing. He’s hardly a star, but given what else you have, it’s just about the only choice. Whether that’s playing second with Almora in center and Heyward in right, or at third with Bryant in right and Heyward in center, I really don’t care. You have to at least try. We know Maddon loves his roster flexibility, but that’s not this roster. Quite frankly. Russell, CarGo, and Descalso have played themselves off the rotation. That’s just how it is.

The problem with getting a bat via trade is they’re going to be costly, whereas you can find any reliever anywhere (and I’m kind of in the would rather have Bummer than Colome camp right now if the Cubs go shopping crosstown again). In my dreams you plug Howie Kendrick into second base and get on with your life. But even if the Nats decide to pack up the cats, Kendrick is going to cost and I don’t think the Cubs have the boat to spend, prospect-wise. It’s like Alzolay and Hoerner and that’s pretty much it. We’ll throw Amaya on there, but he’s a long way off. And Amaya is probably the only one you’re comfortable, barely, including in any deal just because he plays catcher and you seem set there for a while.

Any other bat on the market is probably the same story. It’s hard to know who that would even be. Whit Merrifield isn’t going anywhere and if he did it wouldn’t be cheap. Eric Sogard? That’s a risk but would probably be cheap? He’s kind of Zobrist-lite at this point and is only a year removed from being a black hole for the Brewers. Maybe you wait out how the Reds toggle the Derek Dietrich/Scooter Gennett conundrum, but neither are guaranteed to be moved and neither would be cheap if they were.

It’s a problem, which is why Bote should probably be given the month to see what he does with an every day role. Hell, you extended the guy anyway, right?

Baseball

No.

 

 

…all right fine. We can try and dig a little deeper into this, but there isn’t much point. What I find curious is that on the day the Cubs unveiled Craig Kimbrel, Theo Epstein was asked about Gonzalez and Albert Almora Jr., who has lost playing time to the former’s arrival. Theo’s quote was basically that Gonzalez was here to be a bat off the bench, and Almora needed to play.

Gonzalez has started four of the past six games. If you want to know why Joe Maddon has not received a contract extension, here’s a piece of evidence for you.

Let me present some numbers:

.169/.242/.186  .429 OPS  9.1 BB% 31.8 K%

.258/.287/.536  .823 OPS  3.8 BB*  15.4 K%

The former is Gonzalez’s numbers in May, and the latter’s are Albert Almora’s. Now, Almora’s aren’t exactly breathtaking, but they come out to an above-average offensive player, just, who plays plus defense. Gonzalez’s numbers make doves cry, and his defense really isn’t any good anymore either.

It’s been three seasons since Gonzalez was an above-average offensive player, and that’s accounting for the Coors factor. His power zapped away in 2017 and hasn’t really ever come back, though the .467 slugging off the bench would be fine. You’d take it. We all understand that in searching for a left-handed bat simply to replace Ben Zobrist and maybe take PH ABs from Daniel Descalso and his other interpretation of sadness at the plate, the options you can have for free are limited. It’s a free roll of the dice.

But you’re still going to get snake-eyes. And it’s fine for now because Kyle Schwarber has carried the outfield, and Gonzalez has cobbled together a couple hits that has fooled everyone into thinking he can still hit, which he can’t. Unless his .211 average since joining up really makes something stir in your bowels.

So I’m trying to see what the Cubs think they might be able to mine here, and my hope is that Joe Maddon is only trying to get CarGo in a rhythm before he’s reduced to simply pinch-hitting and spot-start duty. The only thing I can fathom is that the Cubs think they can get CarGo to go the opposite way more, which he actually does well but doesn’t do often. CarGo has been a pull everything guy for most of his career, settling for somewhere between 20-25% of his contact going the opposite way. CarGo has consistently run an average over .400 on balls the other way, though that might have something to do with being shifted against a lot and there being a lot of open territory there. But that’s belied somewhat by most of his contact the opposite way is still in the air, where a shift wouldn’t do much about it.

That’s about as near as I can figure, and his homer the other night, certainly a Wrigley product given where it landed, is hopefully a sign that CarGo is willing to change his approach to salvage another year or two in the majors. Beats working at Sears, as we know.

Still, it’s awfully harsh on Almora. I’m not Almora’s hugest fan–he hits way too many grounders and is slow, but this May was his first plus-month in the majors since the first half of last year thanks to an injection of power. There were still way too many grounders, over half his contact was, and maybe the Cubs have already concluded he would crash back to Earth with that. Still, May saw Almora hit the ball harder than he ever has, and his .253 BABIP in the month suggests he had to fight through fortune to produce a plus-month instead of ride the wave as he did last year.

It wouldn’t be a big deal, and it probably isn’t anyway yet, if Jason Heyward were hitting. But he’s not. So Joe Maddon is essentially tossing another outfield spot away on a hunch that isn’t going to play out, whereas Almora still allows us to be curious about what could come next. To boot, CarGo’s defense just isn’t that good in right.

I get the impression this won’t be a problem come July 1st when everyone sees CarGo is toast, but you never know with Maddon. And by then Almora might have lost all his momentum. He’s at least the devil we don’t know completely yet instead of the corpse we do.