It looked like Andrelton Simmons would have a shot to return to the active roster in April and boost the Cubs’ middle infield defense, but a recent setback has muddied those waters. As Meghan Montemurro reported for the Tribune, the shortstop is being shut down for the time being after feeling soreness in his right shoulder while throwing at the team complex in Mesa.
“I don’t think it’s a humongous setback,” David Ross said Tuesday. “But it is a little bit like, let’s pause and still build.”
The plan is for Simmons to resume live BP next week, but that’s like saying Wade Miley is going to work on bunt coverage instead of stretching out to 50+ pitches (which isn’t the case, I’m just making a hypothetical comp). When a guy has a career wRC+ of 87 and is coming off of a season in which he posted a 56 with a .051 ISO over 451 plate appearances, the bat is very literally the least important aspect of his game to the Cubs.
As things currently stand, the Cubs are using Jonathan Villar as Nico Hoerner‘s primary backup at shortstop, a situation that is far from ideal. Villar’s versatility is perhaps a bit overstated since his work on the left side of the infield has completely offset his excellent offense, dragging him down to -0.1 fWAR despite a 117 wRC+ on the young season.
“I can’t have [Villar] working at short on the day that he’s going to be playing third or second,” Ross explained. “He can take days like today and he’ll move around and get some real work in and be ready to go whenever the next time he’s in the lineup.”
Sounds like a you problem, Manager David.
While not a make-or-break situation for the Cubs, this is another area in which the roster has precious little margin for error. They have a high-contact approach both as a pitching staff and as hitters, so Simmons’s excellent glove and low strikeout rate should help out at whatever point he’s activated. The problem we’re starting to see a little more frequently is that they don’t have the punch to win when things aren’t going almost perfectly.
They need something approaching elite-level defense to support a pitching staff that generates a ton of grounders, so trending toward mediocrity in the field — the Cubs rank 20th in MLB with 0 DRS and -1.0 Def, respectively — is a killer. Likewise, grounding into an MLB-leading 21 double plays has eliminated far too many baserunners and limited the potency of an offense that doesn’t have much power.
Case in point, they hit just as many homers in their 21-0 win over Pittsburgh as they did in their 4-3 loss the next day and Tuesday’s 3-1 loss in Atlanta. The big fly from Alfonso Rivas was the only one hit with men on base, for what it’s worth. The pitfall of overcorrecting offensively is trading contact for power and still ending up with the same doldrums with different root causes.
Despite a little less of that maddening inconsistency and markedly fewer strikeouts, the Cubs don’t have as much of an ability to come back with one swing. They also lack the kind of defense that can routinely paper over those inevitable mistakes from a starting staff that isn’t built for whiffs. None of this is new by any stretch, it’s just that we’re really starting to see how fine a line they need to toe here.
But hey, maybe Simmons comes back and this squad morphs into world-beaters. Right? Right?