Joe’s Maddon-ness on Full Display as Cubs Halt Skid with Positional Shell Game
If you watch the Cubs long enough — maybe, like, three innings — you’re bound to see something that makes you question whether you saw what you just saw. Friday’s contest was no exception, as the Cubs and Marlins played a palindrome in which they combined for 8 runs in 1 inning and then 1 run in 8 innings.
Of course, things weren’t actually the same backward as they were forward. Which is exactly the story idea that germinated and bloomed in my brain, forcing me out of bed on one of the few mornings it would’ve been acceptable for me to stay there. But I long ago prioritized writing over sleeping — which probably explains a few things — so I’m not all that upset about the situation.
In any case, the Cubs rolled out a head-scratcher of a lineup in an attempt to halt a season-high four-game skid. It was peak Joe Maddon, with guys shuffled all over the diamond and the order. I had originally planned to use the former to order my take, but I think I’ll now order it with the order. Oh boy, this is already getting weird.
Fan have been clamoring for weeks to have Jason Heyward moved down in the order, a wish that was finally granted Friday night. Maddon moved his right fielder so far down that he actually came back around to the top and was hitting in the leadoff spot. You can’t really call 0-for-3 with a walk a productive day, but J-Hey seemed to be seeing the ball well and making solid contact. His lineout in the 1st actually kicked off a big Cubs rally, so there’s that.
Kris Bryant, reigning Rookie of the Year and leading vote-getter among NL third basemen, started the game at first base as Anthony Rizzo continued to sit with a stiff back. Bryant tagged the first pitch he saw from Marlins starter Tom Koehler for his 18th home run of the season, a no-doubter to deep left. He looked comfortable in the field too, making a few nifty plays before moving back to his natural corner in the 7th inning.
Ben Zobrist followed Bryant with a single in the 1st but didn’t do much else of note until he took a Mike Dunn slider to the foot in the top of the 7th. He would stay in the game to run the bases, but was lifted as part of a game of musical chairs that included Bryant’s move.
What can we say about Willson Eduardo Contreras that hasn’t already been said about something that is really awesome? Not much, that’s what. With Zobrist on first and Koehler still pumping fastballs, Contreras barreled up and went oppo for a two-run shot. It was his third home run in only seven games and the rookie is now hitting .412/.474/.941 with a wRC+ of 274. Extrapolated over a full season, he’d accumulate 9.3 WAR.
This hot start can’t last, at least not at this breakneck pace, but it’s reminiscent of another rookie catcher who forced himself into the lineup. Contreras would later add an RBI single in the 7th, the lone run scored in the final 8 innings, before moving to first to replace Bryant as David Ross came in to catch.
Chris Coghlan, who has inexplicably compiled the highest scrape/ire ratio of any scrappy player in Cubs history, batted fifth and started in left. All the guy has ever done as a Cub is play borderline great baseball, particularly when you consider that they snagged him on the cheap after he was released by the Marlins. Sure, he was awful to start the season with the A’s, but he’s not playing in Oakland now. And in 32 plate appearance back with the Cubs, Coghlan is slashing .250/.438/.417 with a 21.9% walk rate.
According to his -1.7 WAR, Cogs was the worst player in baseball at the time he was reacquired. That mark now sits at -1.2, which means he’s actually at 0.5 for the Cubs. I hate to break it to the haterz, but that’s a 6-WAR player. It’s highly unlikely we’ll see that trend continue, though it was equally unlikely that Coghlan would continue to play as poorly as he had by the Bay. I think I remember someone guaranteeing this move would work well. Oh yeah, that was me.
I need more than just a paragraph or two to describe Javy Baez, a man who has gone from a potential bust to a non-starter utility player to a non-starter in trade talks. While he drove in a run in that big 1st inning, it’s the glove that has truly become Baez’s calling card. That’s incredible when you think about how he was originally billed. Javy still has room to grow as a hitter, but Friday marked his second insane play in as many days starting at third base. When Zobrist left the game, Baez simply moved over to second as Bryant walked across the diamond.
Kyle Hendricks allowed only one hit in 5 innings of work, which would normally look really good. An Addison Russell error and a pair of walks, however, meant that that one hit was a grand slam off the bat of Justin Bour. Because of the error the runs were all unearned, though I can guarantee you Hendricks isn’t taking much solace in that. He was able to settle in over the rest of his start, effectively shutting down what can be a pretty potent lineup.
I know a few of you might be thinking it, so I’ll nip this in the bud right now: the rough first inning wasn’t about Contreras. Hendricks was missing his spots early and was being extra careful with dangerous hitters Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton, which resulted in early walks. The fateful pitch to Bour was more center cut than cutter, a mistake by the pitcher not the untested backstop. Contreras still has lots of room to grow, sure, but let’s not go laying blame for big innings at his feet.
Hendricks was lifted for Matt Szczur, who hit in the 8th spot in the 6th and moved out to center to displace Albert Almora. After a scorching start, Almora has cooled significant and looks to be first on the list when it comes to corresponding moves once players start being activated from the DL. He’s still hitting .262 with the Cubs and his defense is spectacular, it’s just that he could probably benefit more from working on his approach with everyday at-bats in AAA for a few months.
Maybe it doesn’t look as crazy when you lay it out as I just did. Then again, let’s think about three of the players/moves in particular. Bryant and Baez both started somewhere other than their natural positions and both moved to the other side of the diamond late in the game. Contreras went from catcher to first late in a tie game after having started there the previous day.
And we’re not talking about journeymen being forced into weird roles while playing for a team that’s going nowhere. These guys are all former top prospects putting in work for the team with the best record in baseball. This stuff just doesn’t happen. Except it does. To that end, how can you even calculate WAR* for these guys? I mean, Rizzo is being replaced by Contreras and Bryant; Bryant is replaced by Baez and vice-versa. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
That Maddon has the confidence to move these guys all over the place is one thing, but for them to have the willingness and talent to pull it off is quite another. I don’t know you can be a baseball fan and not enjoy watching what this team does game-in, game-out. Well, you know, unless you’re on the other end of it.
*Yes, I understand that it’s based on a constant and not the given players on that team.