I’m not sure what the word “normal” means anymore, but the Chicago Cubs resumed normal operations on Wednesday, holding a workout at Wrigley Field. On Tuesday, I looked at the Cubs’ pitching for Spring Training 2.0. Yesterday, it was the infielders and catchers. Today, it’s the 2020 Cubs outfielders.
Just as crowded as the Cubs’ infield, is the log jam forming for the men who patrol the grass. The Cubs seem to have trouble finding the balance between outfielders with strong arms and gloves, and those who can smash the ball from the plate. Ranking among the bottom in terms of plate production from the centerfield slot, David Ross and Company have some work to do. Further hindering run production for the outfielders on Chicago’s North Side, are continual cold streaks from guys who should be delivering consistently in clutch spots.
Kyle Schwarber, or “Bam-Bam” as I like to call him, has the power to take the ball a long, long way… when he’s making contact. Schwarb’s has never cracked the .250 mark for a season, yet his power has amassed 110 HR and 255 RBI in just under 3-1/2 full seasons worth of work. In 2019, he smashed 38 of them.
Obviously, he was hampered by the knee injury that had him sidelined in 2016, but the knee appears to be fully healed at this point. Once pretty awful, Schwarber’s glovework has improved, however, and no one has ever questioned his arm.
Round one of Spring Training wasn’t so great for Kyle as he stood behind the plate. In 36 plate appearances, he stroked only .219/.306/.344, with 11 total bases and 6 RBI. The big man has slimmed down, and increased bat speed was apparent.
Many have long suspected that Bam-Bam could get traded to an AL team as a DH, most likely for some much-needed pitching help. With the universal DH being implemented this season, he may have his chance to act in that capacity. Other choices would undoubtedly offer David Ross more speed and a more consistent glove in left. The question is, if Schwarber finds a way to get his bat going, do you really want him out of the lineup?
Jason Heyward is back for the fifth of his eight-year albatross contract. Eight-years, $184M, and J-Hey is only stroking .252/.327/.383 for Chicago. The flip side to that coin is that Heyward’s glove and arm are priceless. Having earned five Gold Gloves (2012, 2014-2017), the Cubs can ill-afford to give up his defense. The question is, can they sustain their offense without Heyward’s hitting for average?
Albert Almora Jr.
Almora, known as “Tico” by family and friends is another who’s faced problems with consistency at the plate. With Almora, the problem has been getting consistent playing time, though many will disagree with that statement.
Case and point. Almora is a career .274/.311/.403 hitter, making his bat one of the better choices to have in the lineup. No, he doesn’t hit for a ton of power, with only 28 dingers in 1,194 at-bats. His slash line is below the desired .300/.400/.500 unofficial benchmark, however, he’s had the ability to deliver in pressure-filled spots.
Almora suffered a giant setback in 2019, as a foul ball from his bat severely injured a young girl during a game in Houston. The mental affect it had on Almora was palpable, but he’s in a better place now. Almora worked on his swing throughout the winter, showing some increased consistency this past March, the the shutdown came.
No one argues about Almora’s Gold Glove caliber defense, yet he has none of those to show for himself? Why? Most likely a lack of playing time, as Joe Maddon was never satisfied Almora’s production. Almora should have been a lock for the starting CF spot after Ian Happ was left behind last year, yet he wasn’t.
Maddon described Almora as a guy who wasn’t quite ready to an “everyday player, quite yet.” It’s no secret that the Cubs former skipper disliked Almora, nor was it any secret that Maddon favored Happ. Until this kid gets consistent playing time, he’ll always take a backseat to someone else on the roster.
Ian Happ is the last of the Cubs’ outfield regulars who’ll be returning this season. I swore off Happ over two seasons ago, but the progress he made in Iowa last year was striking.
Although he only returned to Chicago for 58 games last season, his average was up 30 points from 2018, when he batted a dismal .233. In just 140 at-bats last summer, Happ was able to crank 11 homers, seven doubles and a triple. In addition, he contributed 30 RBI and a pair of stolen bases.
Happ went absolutely crazy this spring. In 30 plate-appearances (28 at-bats), Happ amassed a slash line of .481/.500/.815 with an OPS of 1.315. Add to that his 11 RBI, a stolen base and two walks, and then consider he only fanned a total of four times. If he comes out swinging again this season, he won’t see Iowa again, nor will he see much bench time.
Steven Souza Jr.
Over the winter, the Cubs inked 31-year-old OF Steven Souza to a one-year, just a million bucks. Souza has been plagued with injuries since cracking the majors in 2014, having already played for three different teams.
Having never hit better than .239, Souza finished a three-year stint with the Rays in 2017, as he backed his bags for his next assignment in Phoenix. After appearing in only 72 games for the Diamondbacks in 2018, Souza blew out a knee, ending his days in the desert.
Souza’s injury history has left him wanting the same thing that Yu Darvish sought last year – a chance at redemption. A chance for self validation and preservation.
Souza is another who’s never hit for average, but then again, he’s spent as much time on the IL as he has the field. I saw video of him that was posted over the winter. The knee looks healed, and running doesn’t appear to be an issue. He looked good in the first round of spring training this year, and his bat was productive. In March, Souza took a total of 22 official at-bats, slashing .273/.360/.364, with a pair of doubles and as many RBI.
Let’s hope for the Cubs’ sake (as well as Souza’s) that this continues to be the case. I wish him nothing but the best for a bounce back season that he so desperately deserves.
I had no idea who rookie Ian Miller was before the Cubs signed him this winter, but he’s already impressed me as much as the other Ian (Happ) has. If the Cubs want offensive production from their outfielders, the Miller may be worth taking a closer look at.
I’m not sure what ever prompted the Twins to give up on Miller after just a dozen games in his Rookie campaign, but I’m glad they did. Granted, he batted just .176 through those games, but for crying out loud, the kid only got a total of 17 at-bats.
Miller has quickness in the outfield, and while his glove is young, it looks promising. His offensive numbers for Spring Training in March were insane: .382/.462/.471, with a .932 OPS. His strikeout rate was up some (14 Ks in 40 plate appearances), but if the kid gets on base, he’s a menace.
Miller swapped eight bases in March, something that the Cubs don’t do very often. He will take some walks, he contributed six RBI this spring (17 games), and he hit for extra bases three times.
From a financial standpoint, he’s at the league-minimum and controllable through 2025. This kid may not make the 26-man roster this season, but if he keeps it up, he’ll likely be there next year.
Stop back tomorrow for the final part to this series: 2020 Cubs: The Taxi Squad.
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