With about one-third of the Chicago Cubs’ Spring Training schedule in the books, there are many positive signs for a team that suffered a disappointing exit from the postseason in 2018.
Kris Bryant, who missed 60 games with a left shoulder injury, has already mashed two home runs this spring, including a three-run blast on Sunday against the Chicago White Sox. As if fans could not tell from Bryant’s on-field play, the third baseman has reminded the Chicago media multiple times that he is fully healthy and ready to take on the 2019 season.
For Cubs fans, that is great news considering the former MVP hit just 13 home runs in 2018 and was a shell of his former shelf following his shoulder injury early in the season.
In addition to Bryant, there is some good news surrounding right-hander Tyler Chatwood. Chatwood, who led the league in walks last season while posting a 5.30 ERA in just 103.2 innings, has appeared in two games so far this spring and worked five solid innings. Across those frames, Chatwood has walked just one batter versus four strikeouts after posting an 8.2 BB/9 rate during his lackluster campaign last year.
As things stand right now, Chatwood will be pitching out of the bullpen if he remains on the roster long enough to do so. With Mike Montgomery dealing with a balky shoulder during the early portions of Spring Training, Chatwood could very well fill an important role for the Cubs in 2019.
With that being said, we are still early in spring and the sample size for Chatwood remains small. In order to fully gauge Chatwood’s off-season adjustments, the right-hander will need to maintain his effectiveness for the rest of this spring and into the season. If he can do that, the Cubs’ rotation will be at least six deep with Montgomery providing even further depth to what has the potential to be the best starting rotation in the National League.
On Monday, the Cubs faced the Cincinnati Reds on the road for their 11th game this spring. With the game being on the road, many of the Cubs’ starters got the day off as Albert Almora, Daniel Descalso and Javier Baez represented the only regulars in Joe Maddon‘s lineup.
Almora, who drew the lead-off duties against Reds right-hander Tony Santillan, took just two pitches before rocketing a ball over the bullpen in left field that gave the Cubs a quick 1-0 lead.
Not known for his power-hitting ability, Almora owns a career slugging percentage of just .412 after posting a .378 mark last year. Because of that less-than-stellar number, Almora has managed just 16 big league home runs in three seasons, about what you would expect from a guy who was rated as having 40-grade game power as a prospect.
Nevertheless, Almora has stuck in the big leagues thanks in part to his elite defense in center field and ability to crush left-handed pitching. For his career, Almora is sporting a .309 batting average against southpaws with an .816 OPS and .147 ISO. Those numbers, which include a solid 7.4 percent walk rate, equates to a 117 wRC-plus, or 17 percent above major league average.
With those numbers alone, Almora would have likely been an All-Star at some point in his career. However, Almora’s numbers against right-handed pitching have relegated the 24-year-old into more of a platoon role with Ian Happ and others in the outfield.
Career wise, Almora is sporting a batting average against right-hander’s of just .279 with a .698 OPS and .111 ISO. While the youngster’s BABIPs are nearly identical in those splits, Almora owns a walk rate of 4.1 percent when facing righties, much of the reason why the outfielder’s OBP sits 52 points higher when facing southpaws.
Almora’s struggles against right-handed pitchers has him sporting an 85 wRC-plus in the split, a number that pulls his overall marks back to league average almost across the board.
Heading into 2019, Almora will need to prove he can hit right-handed pitching at a consistent level if he hopes to break out of his platoon status in Maddon’s lineups.
As stated above, Almora was tasked with leading off against the right-hander on Monday, resulting in a home run, which kicked off yet another offensive outburst for the Cubs this spring.
Despite going 0-for-2 in his remaining at-bats on Monday, Almora was not done making an impact on the ballgame. In the home half of the fourth inning, with Almora manning center field, Reds center fielder Scott Schebler sent a ball deep into the right-center field gap. Running from his spot in center, Almora was able to make the catch while crashing up against the wall to rob Schebler of extra bases.
Just an inning and a half after Almora’s great catch in right-center, Mark Zagunis was able to add an insurance for the Cubs in the top portion of the sixth inning. Zagunis, who entered play tied for the Cactus League lead in RBI with nine, ripped a ball into right field that one-hopped the wall, scoring Trent Giambrone and giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead.
That lead would stand as the Reds were unable to get their offense going on Monday, managing just one run which came with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Reds’ inability to produce much offense on the evening was a direct result of the Cubs’ great pitching and the aforementioned solid defense that cleaned up a lot of the hard contact off Chicago pitching.
Alec Mills, who got the start, tossed two innings, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out three batters, driving his spring ERA down to 2.25. Mills appeared in seven games for the Cubs’ major league club in 2018, including two starts, racking up 18 innings in the process.
With Iowa, Mills made 23 starts, amassing a 4.84 ERA across 124.2 innings. While those numbers will not impress many, Mills displayed an ability to rack up strikeouts, posting 108 with Iowa and another 23 in his limited big league action.
If the right-hander can further hinder run-scoring from the mound, he could become an even more important depth piece for the Cubs’ rotation moving forward.
Behind Mills, both Brian Duensing and George Kontos worked scoreless innings without allowing a hit while Allen Webster and Craig Brooks accomplished the same feat in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
While their pitching clicking on all cylinders, the offense woke up in the visiting half of the seventh inning. With the regulars lifted, the younger Cubs players in camp were able to open up Monday’s contest.
Phillip Evans, P.J. Higgins and Charcer Burks hit a triple, single and double respectively, plating the Cubs’ third run of the ballgame with one out in the frame. Following a walk to Trent Giambrone that loaded the bases, Zack Short bounced a ball toward the Reds’ shortstop.
In what should have been an inning-ending double play, Cincinnati’s shortstop threw the ball away, allowing an additional three Cub players to score, making it 6-0. Another ground ball, this time off the bat of Francisco Arcia, pushed across the Cubs’ seventh run of the game and fifth of the inning.
Entering the top of the seventh, the Cubs were nursing a 2-0 lead and had been largely unable to make much noise offensively. Hits by Evans, Higgins and Burks plus a throwing error and an RBI ground out transformed that into a seven-run advantage for the Cubs.
An inning after their offensive outburst, the Cubs plated two more runs, one on a wild pitch by Amir Garrett and another on a Burks RBI single, pushing the score to 9-0 Cubs.
Overall, Burks finished the game 2-for-2 with an RBI and a run scored in relief of Almora while Evans went 1-for-2 with a walk.
With the win, the Cubs move to 7-4 this spring, while the Reds drop to 3-6-1.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will face the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday, March 5 at 2:10 p.m. at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Taking the ball for the Cubs will the right-hander Kyle Hendricks who has made one appearance so far this spring. In that outing, the 29-year-old tossed two innings, allowing two hits and garnering one strikeout while frequently mixing in his curve-ball.
As we progress deeper into Spring Training, expect Cubs starters to rack up higher pitch counts in anticipation for Opening Day on March 28.
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