Early looks at second base, centerfield, and bench competitions
today at 12:51 pm
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 he has in year’s past. He does have an option remaining, but barring an unexpected circumstance Bote is a roster lock throughout 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 play 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.
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.
David Ross name checked Miller during the broadcast when prompted about potential 26th man candidates.
Phegley also mentioned.
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) February 27, 2020
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.