The Cubs had a very good 2015, and many experts are saying they’ve had an even better offseason so far (if that’s even possible). When people who know baseball agree that a 97-win team has “won” the offseason, you have to feel pretty good about the state of said team going forward.
That is, until you start talking about the 2015 Nationals. They were the preseason favorites last year, and that didn’t work out so well for them—for many reasons. One of those reasons was something all teams have to deal with at one point or another: a barrage of injuries.
When it comes to injuries, the 2015 Cubs were pretty lucky. Sure, they had some players miss time here and there (like all teams do), but it wasn’t anything major. According to mangameslost.com, their biggest loss (in terms of “lost WAR”) was Mike Olt. And once he went down, they replaced him with Kris Bryant—the eventual Rookie of the Year.
Need I say more?
I’m not here to say that the Cubs’ “injury luck” is going to be a horror-show reversion to make up for last season. Besides, this team can probably weather the storm of short-term injuries better than most. With Joe Maddon’s craftiness and the versatility of players like Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber, this is probably the most flexible team in baseball right now. If someone has to come out of the lineup for a few games, it won’t be a big deal.
But what about a more serious injury? What if a current starter (position player or pitcher) goes down for 50 or even 100 games? How would this team’s vaunted flexibility hold up then?
I wanted to find out, so I began by going through every single position (including the starting pitchers and the closer—the bullpen is the bullpen and will always be changing around, especially with the depth they’ve amassed there) and analyzing the options available if each one were out for an extended period of time.
Don’t worry—I won’t go through that whole exercise here (although it might feel like it by the time you reach the end). Not because I don’t think it’s worthwhile, but because I started noticing certain patterns about how the team would respond to such an injury.
Scenario #1: An Infielder Breaks
This one’s easy: if an infielder gets hurt, it’ll be Baez stepping into the lineup and taking over at 2B, SS, or 3B. His flexibility really stands out when you realize that he alone can cover almost every single position in the infield (we’ll talk about his outfield play later) while potentially putting up huge offensive numbers.
The only wrinkle in this plan involves Anthony Rizzo getting hurt. Bryant would probably shift over to first, and Baez would have to play third. And it’s worth spending a bit more time on the “Rizzo gets hurt” storyline, because while he’s still the team’s best player he’s also the least flexible player on the club. No one in baseball played more games at 1B last season than Rizzo (160), and only three other players played more than 150 (Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Eric Hosmer). Rizzo plays first base and that’s it. The only other Cubs to get starts at 1B were Mike Baxter and Kris Bryant.
The only other natural first baseman on the 40-man roster is Dan Vogelbach, who just made it to Double-A last season and is currently trying to figure out what happened to his power.
I’ll add one more thing here, and that’s about losing Ben Zobrist. While it seems relatively simple enough to replace him with Baez at second (he’s played more innings there than anywhere else in his short big-league career), you do lose a fair amount of that vaunted flexibility if he’s out of the lineup and the next-most flexible player becomes your starting second baseman. Of course, once you have a significant injury to an everyday player, the one thing no one expects you to still do is maintain flexibility and depth. At that point, it’s all about keeping your head above water.
Scenario #2: An Outfielder Rolls an Ankle
For all the talk about how deep this team is, right now the outfield is its one real weak point. Signing Jason Heyward put most people’s minds at ease (as it should), but with him in center and Jorge Soler (and his injury history) starting in right, the depth beyond the infield dirt is pretty flimsy. Right now the backup center fielder is Matt Szczur, who has 134 at bats in the big leagues. He and Chris Coghlan could be used in a lefty-righty platoon in left if someone goes down—but for 100 games? And what about center field, then? Szczur is the only other guy on the team who could be decent in center.
The Cubs have some options they’ve employed in the past: Bryant could move to CF and Baez could play third. Zobrist could also move to the outfield and Baez (there he is again!) could play second—although Zobrist does seem to have an agreement with the front office that the bulk of his innings will be at second. The latest option involves plugging Baez himself into the outfield if the front office is pleased enough with his current work in winter ball at that new position. So far, so good:
Am told when Javier Baez has played CF, been good, instinctive, threw Caguas runner out at the plate
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) January 6, 2016
If Maddon doesn’t want to change the makeup of the defense that much, he could also use Albert Almora as the defense-first, backup outfielder (that could play a mean center field). Like last year, a Cubs top prospect could provide that needed depth if something catastrophic were to happen.
The outfield is a point of weakness right now despite the myriad options the Cubs have. Having options is great, but playing a guy like Bryant in CF on a full-time basis isn’t ideal. Look for the Cubs to add a Denorfia-type player before the season to build up their depth here.
Scenario #3: The Catcher Kaputs
If Miguel Montero goes down for an extended period of time, the Cubs will have a bit of a situation on their hands. Losing your starting catcher is never good. This is the guy that’s most familiar with all your pitchers, their tendencies, how to calm them down, etc. He affects every single pitch from every pitcher he catches. Besides all those intangibles, Montero is a very good framer and can handle the bat, which means he’ll be nearly impossible to replace.
David Ross would probably play more, but everyone in baseball knows that Ross is not around for his bat—he’s barely around for his glove. He’s mostly around because he’s a great clubhouse presence and because he’s Jon Lester’s personal catcher. That’s not an insult to the guy, it’s just the reality.
Thing is, if you need to replace Montero for 100 games, I don’t believe the front office will want to simply play Ross for the bulk of those games. Which brings me to the aforementioned “situation.” It goes beyond simply replacing the leadership, defensive prowess, and offense that Montero brings to the table.
It’s about the Cubs keeping their word as an organization. It’s about Kyle Schwarber. He’s always said he wants to catch (and the ferocity with which he wants to do so is something the front office loves about him) and the Cubs have always said they’re going to give him that chance.
“The fact that he wants to catch is a really big deal,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “A lot of guys catch through college, catch through the minor leagues. They don’t love it. And I think that’s a really limiting factor to being really good at it.”
“That’s a position where you have to sit there in the film room and study like crazy. You have to be willing to take the pounding necessary to do it. And he wants to do it. We believe in him.”
Glowing words, but if Montero goes down, we’ll find out how much Hoyer really meant them. With Montero going down for some time last year, Schwarber did get a chance to catch in his debut season (he got 15 starts behind the plate). So if the Cubs say they want to give him that opportunity and Schwarber is proclaiming he will be a catcher, why wouldn’t the Cubs just slide him in to catch if Montero goes down?
Two reasons: first, he may not be ready for full-time catching duties, and that added responsibility so early in his catching career might adversely affect his bat.
Second reason: Willson Contreras. He had his coming-out season last year, slashing .333/.413/.478 with 8 home runs in the minors. Then he went on to the Arizona Fall League and forced his way into the “who’s the best prospect in the system” conversation by slashing .283/.361/.547 with 3 home runs in 14 games against the best prospects on the planet.
Contreras is considered a strong defensive catcher, Schwarber is trying to convince the world he can simply be serviceable. Just look at these rave reviews about Contreras, from someone who’d know:
@2008_nbalottery @coolbearcjs wait until u see his defense and arm
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
@ronawsumb all star major league catcher
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
@ronawsumb catch he's going to be one of the best trust me
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) August 5, 2015
It’s one thing to hear glowing reviews like this from a position player or someone else who really doesn’t “get” what it takes to be a catcher, but those tweets are from Montero himself: an elite pitch framer who can also hit.
For the sake of this article, this scenario isn’t something we should be worried about: the Cubs have two very good options here. There is depth regardless of how they decide to fill in for a potential injury. If Schwarber catches (which is the most likely scenario unless Contreras is absolutely dominating in his first taste of Triple-A), then Coghlan would probably play left field against righties and Bryant shifts out to left against lefties, with Baez (there he is again!) playing third base.
Scenario #4: A Starter Feels a Twinge
We can break this one down into two distinct scenarios: one if Arrieta or Lester go down, and one if any of the other three starters get hurt.
Let’s start with the scariest of the two scenarios. The Cubs don’t have anyone that can come in and “replace” Lester or Arrieta. Nobody does. There’s no hotshot prospect in the minors waiting for a spot to open up so he can flash his plus stuff. While the Cubs have been diligent about acquiring depth in case a starter goes down (Rian Watt discussed depth last week), it’ll be really tough to feel confident about the team’s chances if Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill are trying to step into Lester or Arrieta’s shoes.
If the Cubs really are all in this year, the more likely scenario involves dealing away a some of the team’s depth (or prospects) to make a move. Sure, they’ll probably give their internal guys a shot at sticking in the rotation, but the front office may take another look at guys like Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar—which might mean a guy like Soler or Baez gets packaged in a trade.
Losing one of their other three starters (likely to be John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks) means the team probably relies on what they have now and patch it together with a combination of long relievers and perhaps giving Pierce Johnson a shot as well. The Cubs have some great looking pitching prospects, but none of them are anywhere near ready to contribute in the big leagues.
Scenario #5: Rondon’s Shoulder Barks
At first blush, the Cubs seem a little light in the closer department. With teams like the Yankees and Royals having what amounts to three closers on the team, it’s easy to look at the Cubs and think “they’re in trouble if Rondon goes down.”
And they might be—they don’t have many players with closer experience in the big leagues. Pedro Strop has 9 career saves, Travis Wood has 4 (all last season), while newcomer Rex Brothers did save 19 games for the Rockies in 2013 (he still has to make the team, however).
But this is another scenario where we have some history to draw from. Last year Maddon removed Rondon from the closer role—not because of injury, but due to ineffectiveness. Jason Motte came in and didn’t get the job done either, so eventually Maddon went back to Rondon and he was very good. The reason why the Cubs shouldn’t be too worried is because Pedro Strop seems like he could do it, and he’s proven himself adept at cleaning up the 8th inning on a consistent basis. Because the Cubs have piled up so many arms to build this bullpen, it would be easy to move everybody up a slot and bring someone else in to fill the long-reliever role or something less stressful than the late innings of a close game.
We’re talking about Maddon, so I’m sure he’ll find a creative way to fill the void. He’s not afraid to do unconventional things, so the closer role isn’t something we should worry about too much.
Scenario #6: The Super Sub Goes Down
You were waiting for this one, weren’t you? It seems that, in every scenario, Baez comes in and saves the day. He can play elite-level defense at multiple positions and could also (theoretically) hit for a ton of power. This is a guy that PECOTA projects to hit .255/.311/.445 with 25 HRs and he doesn’t even have a position right now.
So what happens if your one-stop solution to all these potential injuries goes and gets himself hurt? What’s Maddon going to do then?
To figure that out, we need to go back in time and take a look at the guy we all hoped would become the super-sub/Zobrist guy: Arismendy Alcantara. He had the worst season of his career last year and has dropped way down on the depth chart. He’s still just 24 years old, so it’s too early to write him off, but if an injury does take a starter (or Baez) out, then he’ll possibly get another shot. If Alcantara bombs, Coghlan becomes the closest thing to a super sub on the team, and that’s a guy that posted 2.5 WARP in 2015. In case you’re wondering, Alcantara is playing winter ball in the Dominican and is slashing .259/.336/.371, which sounds pretty “eh” but hopefully it means he’s working on specific things that will bear fruit in 2016.
One guy to that could be a dark horse is Christian Villanueva. He gets overlooked a lot because he’s the best third base glove in the system and right now the Cubs have a pretty good one playing over there. He can also play some first and he might be ready to contribute at the big-league level. He’s slashing .322/.434/.480 with 9 HRs in 64 Mexican League games (winter ball).
Again, nothing much to worry about here. If you’re depth guy gets hurt, you lose said depth. That’s the way the cookie crumbles in this game—you can’t have it all.
Tired of reading the word “scenarios?” Good—we’re almost done.
What’s amazing about running through all these possibilities is how many different options Maddon will have to deal with a major injury. And that’s all due to having flexible, athletic players that can play multiple positions. Guys like Zobrist, Baez, Schwarber, and Bryant give Maddon a mind-blowing array of options that would make any other manager envious. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t have to use them.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.