If Cubs Really Value Production Over Talent, It May Be Time to Demote More Players
Theo Epstein’s October 2018 proclamation that it was “time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production” seemed like a call to arms. And bats. Many assumed the Cubs would be making significant changes to the roster and perhaps moving on from some young players who had not fully proven themselves as major-league regulars.
This has not been the case. Other than Ian Happ, who was optioned to Triple-A Iowa under the rationale that he needs the consistent at-bats he wouldn’t be getting in the majors, the least productive and most inconsistent young members of the Cubs roster are still seeing time in the Show.
Albert Almora Jr.
All Cubs fans should appreciate Almora’s baserunning in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series that led to the Cubs scoring the go-ahead run in the 10th inning. He has also been an outstanding defender, leading MLB in non-routine plays last year. Almora had a great spring, slashing .377/.389/.604 and winning the starting job in center. However, his history at the plate is inconsistent and leads me to believe he is another candidate for demotion.
Almora has typically performed better in the first half of the year than the second, with slash lines of .297/.343/.419 with a .351 BABIP and .272/.295/.391 with a .306 BABIP in each respective half. The reason BABIP is particularly relevant to Almora’s production is because he is the opposite of teammate Kyle Schwarber in terms of the “three true outcomes” (TTO – walks, strikeouts, home runs), with ratios below MLB averages in all of the TTO categories.
This means Almora’s OBP is highly dependent on his batted balls landing safely for hits. And since he is primarily a groundball hitter (49.6% ground ball rate) and has a below-average hard-hit rate (28.3%), you can imagine why his stats would suffer as the season wears on.
Given Almora’s second-half splits and need to improve against right-handed pitching, the Cubs could demote him if his average and OBP again take a dive around mid-season.
The young catcher was given the backup job in 2018 over veteran Chris Gimenez, who was ostensibly signed to recruit Yu Darvish. Caratini appeared in 76 games, slashing .232/.293/.304 with two home runs and an OPS of .597 (OPS+ 58). This is a highly disappointing line for a catcher who was expected to excel with the bat, which is the only good reason to keep him at the major-league level rather than sign a veteran backup.
Inability to rely on Caratini to carry the load led to Willson Contreras racking up the most innings caught in MLB last year (1109.2). Nor has it done any favors to Caratini’s receiving skills, as he was converted to a catcher only a few years ago while he was part of the Braves organization. He could use more time behind the plate than the one or two starts a week he’ll get now.
Like Almora, Caratini’s batted ball statistics show he has a high groundball rate (55.9%), while he had a fairly low hard-hit rate (29.5%) during his seasons with the big-league club. This does not bode well for his power potential and it’s no surprise FanGraphs suggests he could benefit from an “adjusted approach.” Where better to adjust his approach than in Iowa?
Edwards has been one of my favorite young Cubs because his stuff is supremely filthy. However, I remember thinking of both him and Javier Báez as diamonds in the rough back in 2016. Three years later, Báez is a polished and cut MVP finalist, while Edwards is still just plain rough thanks to wavering command of the strike zone.
He has posted a very respectable 3.21 ERA (ERA+ 135) in 160.0 IP with the Cubs, but his 5.1 BB/9 outweighs that to a great degree. Last season was particularly difficult year in terms of command, as he nearly equaled his 2017 walks total in 14 fewer innings pitched. His WHIP also climbed to 1.31, the highest he’s posted at the MLB level.
Unlike some of his veteran teammates, Edwards has noted difficulties working himself out of jams. That was the case on Saturday, when a gift leadoff single to the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus snowballed into a game-winning three-run homer served up to Joey Gallo. And after entering Thursday’s game with two on, he walked Freddie Freeman to load the bases before uncorking a wild pitch to allow a run. Then he walked Ronald Acuna Jr. to re-load the bases and was lifted for Tyler Chatwood
Edwards had a better outing in a much lower-leverage situation during the Cubs’ 8-0 loss to Atlanta after returning to his old delivery when his reworked delivery was ruled illegal. He allowed no runs on no hits with one walk and one strikeout in one inning. The construction of the Cubs’ bullpen means Edwards is a key setup man and Joe Maddon can’t really afford to save him for lower-leverage situations in order to build up his confidence again.
Given that Edwards’ delivery was ruled illegal at the beginning of the season with little warning, he could benefit from time in Iowa to get reacquainted with his old mechanics and build confidence. This would pull another block out of the Jenga tower that is the Cubs’ current bullpen, but better to shift the load than risk Edwards blowing more games in a tougher division.
Why are the Cubs not making these moves?
Theo Epstein has spoken more than once about the potential of moving young players to fill needs, but the returns on potential trades for players like Happ, Almora, and Caratini must not have been in line with their perceived talent level. Epstein may need to adjust his expectations downward to the MLB production of these players if he wants to make something happen.
Ownership’s offseason penny-pinching is also likely a significant factor. The near league-minimum salaries of Almora and Caratini are much lower than the millions it would take to sign an outfielder and veteran backup catcher to short-term deals. Edwards’ $1.5 million salary is also quite a bit lower than what the Cubs paid to sign Brandon Morrow (2/$21M). The total bill for a free agent shopping list consisting of an outfielder, backup catcher, and proven high-leverage arm would likely come to tens of millions, which the Ricketts were not willing to cough up for anyone other than veteran starter Cole Hamels.
If the Cubs are truly serious about valuing production over talent, it’s time to consider demoting more than just Happ. That also means giving shots to those players in the minors that could bolster the 25-man roster in Chicago. More of what we’ve seen so far will leave them with no choice.