These days, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the Cubs’ bench for a passable major-league team. When Manager Joe Maddon stacks the lineup with lefties, Jorge Soler (.264 TAv), Javier Baez (.282), Austin Jackson (.198), Starlin Castro (.240), Matt Szczur (.231) and Chris Denorfia (.243) find themselves manning the bench. And when righties are needed on the field, Kyle Schwarber (.310), Tommy La Stella (.284), Chris Coghlan (.283), and sometimes even Miguel Montero (.279) ride the pine at Wrigley. That crowd—particularly the lefty group—is a tough one to beat, and lately the league has had trouble doing exactly that.
But here’s the thing: I’ve left one name out. And for those discerning title-readers among you, it’ll come as no surprise: Jonathan Herrera. After a season of fairly significant contributions to the club, he now finds himself a man without much of a role on the team. And this is man who made 16 starts at second base this season, and nine at third! After the ascendance of Russell and Baez, in particular, Herrera went a spell as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement late in games the Cubs were winning. Now, with the re-emergence of Castro and the renewed health of La Stella, even that role has been taken away from him.
I think that’s a shame, because Herrera’s brought a fair amount to this team. Sure, his triple-slash line (.230/.242/.333) doesn’t exactly look brilliant, but his defense has been passable, and he’s permitted Maddon to feel comfortable that late in games a ball hit up the middle will be turned into a double play more often than not. That’s worth something; and it was especially helpful early in the season when the Cubs’ fundamental defensive play was in question. He also did things like this, in addition to giving us the bubble-gum rally cap:
Herrera’s declining fortunes are also a shame because he’s exactly the type of player who’ll never be a star. He doesn’t hit a lot, and his defense, while solid, is never going to wow you the way Andrelton Simmons or Russell might. At 18 years of age, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2002 and made his debut for the defending National League champs while filling in for an injured Troy Tulowitzki in the early part of the 2008 season. Talk about a way to break into the big leagues.
Herrera left Colorado via trade in the 2013-14 offseason, playing another season for a team one year removed from pennant glory. The 2014 season turned out to be a tough one for him, as limited playing time and weak performance led him to be outrighted to the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox at the end of the season. He rejected the assignment, underwent offseason elbow surgery, and finally signed with the Cubs in early December 2014.
In all likelihood, Herrera won’t make the playoff roster. His spot will be needed for a speedster, like Berry, or a strong bat off the bench, like Denorfia. His skills as a defensive replacement will be covered by the likes of Baez, Castro, and even La Stella. He’s a superfluous man on a team that has prized redundancy over all else, and while that’s great news for the surging Cubs, it likely means the end of the Chicago tenure of a man who’s come in to town, done his business in the best way he can, and seen the team pass him by.
If that feels tough, it’s because it is. In the course of six months of summer baseball in Chicago, the Cubs have gone from a team that needs Jonathan Herrera to a team that can cast him aside. They’ll play on into the crisp October air flying higher than they’ve flown in a half-decade and, in part, it’ll be because of what he did here in that Chicago summer. You don’t have to remember Herrera; but you should not forget him. Baseball is a game of many things, and sometimes it’s a game that passes you by. Let us not forget Jonathan Herrera.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.