Less than a week into Spring Training and the Chicago Cubs were already pulling double duty with split squad action on Monday afternoon. At home, the Cubs faced off against the San Diego Padres and left-hander Nick Margevicius. The remaining portion of the Cubs’ roster faced the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch with Brock Stewart on the mound for the Dodgers.
With the game at home, the Cubs kept the majority of their regulars at Sloan Park on Monday including southpaw Jon Lester who drew his first Spring Training start.
Lester is entering his age 35 season having come off yet another solid season in 2018. Despite an increased BB/9 rate (3.2) and decreased K/9 (7.4), the veteran left-hander still managed a sparkling 3.32 ERA across 181.2 innings and 32 starts. For his efforts, Lester was selected to his fifth All-Star Game and finished top-ten in the National League Cy Young voting for the second time in three seasons.
Perhaps more importantly, Lester continued to prove he can be an effective pitcher no matter his age and hold down the Cubs’ rotation as one of the elder statesmen of the group. For an arm that has already racked up more than 2,300 regular season innings, the Cubs are banking on Lester’s presence at the top of their rotation if they hope to be competitive again in 2019.
Lester’s aforementioned low-three ERA propelled the Cubs’ starting rotation to finish tenth in baseball with a 3.84 mark as the group finished even higher in the rankings with a 76.1 percent left-on-base percentage (fourth in the majors).
Those numbers, however, could not help the Cubs’ sluggish offense down the stretch which ultimately resulted in the club’s way-too-early departure from the postseason.
As Spring Training crescendos into fill vigor, the Cubs’ offense has scored a total of 17 runs over their first two Cactus League games, both resulting in wins. An eight-run second inning on Sunday saw the Cubs send 13 men to the plate with a slew of players collecting RBI base knocks.
Just one day later, in their home match-up against the Manny Machado-less Padres, the Cubs’ offense got off to a much slower start. Luckily for them, Lester settled down after a shaky first inning in his first game action since early October 2018.
Lester, throwing high-80’s and lower 90’s in tune-up action, walked lead-off man Travis Jankowski, setting up a 22-pitch inning for the big left-hander. After reaching base, Jankowski promptly stole second and third base. Even with Jankowski running around the bases, Lester was able to induce two pop-outs and the first of his three strikeouts on the evening to get the Cubs out of the early trouble.
After walking the Padres’ lead-off hitter, Lester settled down as evidenced above as he sat down San Diego’s five- through seven-hole hitters quickly in his second and final inning of work, garnering two additional strikeouts in the process.
Lester was not the only solid pitching performance on the mound for the Cubs in their third Spring Training game this season. Both Brandon Kintzler and Brian Duensing got work on Monday behind Lester, their first action since lackluster 2018 campaigns left fans with a bad taste in their mouths for each pitcher.
Kintzler, who was picked up from the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline last season, worked to a 7.00 ERA across 18 innings with the Cubs last season. That lofty ERA with Chicago also included a 4.5 BB/9 rate and below career average 6.0 K/9 rate for the right-hander.
Known for his ability to induce ground balls, Kintzler’s ground ball rate dipped to 49.7 percent in 2018, the lowest such mark for the veteran in his career. Perhaps as a result, Kintzler allowed a lofty 31.4 percent hard contact percentage, his highest mark since his rookie season of 2010.
Under contract after exercising a player option this off-season, Kintzler is attempting to get his career back on-track after a lackluster stint with the Cubs last season. In his spring debut, Kintzler promptly allowed his first hit of 2019, a solid single into center field. Two ground balls in the inning and a strikeout of Jankowski, however, allowed Kintzler to exit the inning feeling good about his first outing of the season.
As for Duensing, the left-hander could fill a very important role for the Cubs in 2019; high leverage left-handed reliever. That is the same role the veteran filled in 2016 when he posted a 2.74 ERA across 62.1 innings and 68 appearances.
Duensing’s effort in 2016 earned him a two-year, $7 million contract from the Cubs prior to last season, a deal the southpaw greeted with a 7.65 ERA in just 37.2 innings last season. That mark was amassed after Duensing failed to allow a run through his first 17 appearances of the year.
With the Cubs needing a left-handed pitcher not named Mike Montgomery for their bullpen in 2019, Duensing looms as a possible bounce back candidate, just like Kintzler. Also like the right-hander, Duensing posted an impressive outing on Monday, striking out the first two batters he faced, working in the fourth inning.
While it’s still very early in Spring Training, both Kintzler and Duensing look ready to positively impact the bullpen in 2019. For a team that decided not to spend big this off-season, that will no doubt be a welcomed site.
As for the offensive side of the ball, the Cubs came out much slower than they did on Sunday. Without a hit into the home half of the fourth inning, the Cubs had managed just three base runners before starting catcher Willson Contreras stepped to the plate mid-way through Monday’s match-up.
Prior to Contreras’ at-bat, second baseman Daniel Descalso scolded a ball that almost left the ballpark but was eventually hauled in by San Diego’s center fielder. Heyward, who had been moving with the pitch, was almost thrown out attempting to get back to first base. Luckily for the Cubs, the Padres were unable to nab Heyward, a play that very well could have changed the complexion of the inning.
With Heyward safe and Bryant representing just the third Cubs base runner after drawing a walk (giving him a home run, single and two walks in his first four Spring Training plate appearances), Contreras stepped to the plate with a chance to do damage.
Damage is exactly what Contreras did, mashing a long, three-run home run deep beyond the left field fence, supplying the Cubs with a quick 3-0 lead.
For Contreras, that home run must have felt nice after the youngster struggled mightily in the second half of 2018. An All-Star for the first time in his career, Contreras owned a .279 batting average and 123 wRC-plus at the break. Those numbers, however, fell off a cliff after the break, dipping to a .200 batting average and wRC-plus of just 62.
Contreras’ second half numbers included just three home runs and eight doubles after the back-stop mashed seven long-balls and had 19 two-base hits prior to the All-Star break. That lack of extra base hits culminated in an .074 ISO for Contreras down the stretch last season versus a .170 mark during the first portion of ’18.
To get Contreras back to form would do wonders for what once was a powerful Cubs offense not that long ago. With Bryant healthy and Contreras back to full vigor, the Cubs should not be forced to endure another performance like they did last season. Less than a week into Spring Training, all signs point to a bounce back season for some of the Cubs’ biggest names, much to the elation of many of their fans.
Contreras’ three-run blast helped to provide enough offense on Monday as the Padres were held to four runs by the Cubs pitching staff, two of which came with one out in the ninth inning. Aside from Contreras’ home run, the Cubs were able to tack on three additional runs in the home half of the seventh inning. Those runs came on an Andy Weber RBI single and a Jared Young two-run home run that made the score 6-1 in favor of the Cubs.
Young was a 15th round pick by the Cubs in 2017 and has made it as high has Single-A Advanced where he finished last season. A first baseman with a career .796 minor league OPS, Young is buried deep within the Cubs’ infield depth. With that being said, Spring Training home runs will no doubt help the 23-year-old work his way up the depth chart.
With their 6-4 victory over the Padres, the Cubs briefly moved to 3-0 in Cactus League action. However, after their split squad loss to the Dodgers, the Cubs fell to 3-1 in early action.
Split Squad Action
In that contest against the Dodgers, the Cubs trailed the entire game after a Justin Turner first inning home run put Chicago in an early 2-0 hole. It only got worse from there as Turner tacked on another RBI while eight additional Dodger players contributed an RBI in their 11-2 victory.
The Cubs’ 1-1 record in split squad action on Monday moves the club to 3-1 early on this spring.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will face the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, February 26 at 2:05 p.m. at Sloan Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Yu Darvish (0-0, 0.00 ERA). Darvish is looking to bounce back from a disappointing season in 2018 that saw him spend most of the year on the disabled list (now named the injured list) with what turned out to be an elbow impingement.
In the first year of his six-year, $126 million contract, Darvish struggled out of the gate, posting a 4.95 ERA across his first eight starts spanning 40 innings. It was in that last outing, a May 20 start against the Cincinnati Reds in which Darivsh allowed just one run over six innings, that the right-hander seemed to turn a corner and make a step toward getting his season back on track.
Unfortunately for Darvish and Cubs fans, the veteran would be plagued by injuries the remainder of the season, never pitching in another big league game in 2018.
Now that the calendar reads 2019 and Darvish’s elbow has healed, the right-hander is on a comeback mission that will hopefully culminate in a more typical fashion for the four-time All-Star. That comeback starts on Tuesday in what will be Darvish’s first action since he tossed a one-inning rehab outing in August of last season.
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