The Cubs’ signing of Carlos Gonzalez to a minor league deal hardly rippled the water. The general sense around the baseball world suggests the move was mundane, or worse, a reach for an aging, past-his-prime veteran. Yet just a few days after the ink dried CarGo found himself at Wrigley Field, batting fifth for a team sorely needing a shot in the arm.
Obviously it’s impossible to project long-term what we’ve seen from just two games statistically, but that’s irrelevant to what we know about CarGo and what he can bring to the table: he’s an established veteran with a chip on his shoulder and he wants to win. In what little we’ve seen of him so far, that has proven beyond true.
Of course there was that catch in his debut, saving two runs and allowing Jon Lester to finish the seventh inning in what became a lopsided victory. A key double, a rally sparking single, and a sac fly round out his contributions in his first two games, both of which the Cubs won.
It’s doubtful, to say the least, that CarGo returns to his prime year numbers. It’s also more likely, however, that his stint in Cleveland was an anomaly rather than the new norm. While his 2019 numbers overall are atrocious (.216/.288/.288, .257 wOBA, 53 wRC+) his 2018 — and final campaign — in Colorado was more tidy than people might recall: .276/.329/.467, .338 wOBA, 96 wRC+, with 16 home runs. Those 2018 numbers come with the standard Coors Field caveat, of course, and while his home/road splits last year are telling they aren’t altogether absurd. In other words, CarGo still did some damage on the road last year, and it’s not unreasonable to think a prorated version of his 2018 season can be extrapolated out over his 2019 tenure with the Cubs.
CarGo is the Right Fit
It goes without saying, but the loss of Ben Zobrist has an incalculable impact on the clubhouse. Despite the fact that ‘Zo was having a down year (.241/.343/.253, 69 wRC+) he’s revered by teammates, the front office, the Wrigley faithful, and at-large around the league. The Cubs providing him the space and time to attend to family matters was the only right decision; there’s nothing to do but wish him the best and allow him whatever he needs, even if that means he’s played his last professional game.
Replacing a player that embodies so much to a franchise is impossible. The front office clearly acknowledged that to be a fool’s errand, instead finding a veteran on the cheap with a positive disposition, tons of experience, and a respected pedigree. Further, they found a player that, with adequate production, fills the void on the field that 2019 Zobrist leaves behind.
At age 38, in the final year of his contract, ‘Zo was playing less and less at the keystone, logging just five starts at second this season while amassing 14 between right and left field. Further, the bulk of his starts came against right handed pitching, as he logged 81 plate appearances against righties to just 18 against lefties. That is to say that despite ‘Zo’s legendary versatility he was relegated to a platoon corner outfielder from the left side in 2019 — the precise role CarGo is stepping into.
The day the Cubs signed Gonzalez I agreed with the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan on two fronts: this signing is reminiscent of Gary Gaetti in 1998, and it affords the front office a chance to see what a veteran like Gonzalez can offer before the July 31 trade deadline.
This is the first year in which waiver trades no longer exist, meaning the Cubs won’t be able to find a role player like Leonys Martin or Austin Jackson in the month of August. Picking up a veteran whose belief in himself outstrips what front offices around the league believe about CarGo was therefore as frugal as it was preemptive. CarGo finding success in his new gig would mean yet another savvy, prescient move by this front office.
Why CarGo instead of Happ?
It’s clear the front office does not believe Ian Happ is ready to contribute. His strikeout rate remains quite high at AAA (27%), with a paltry .230 batting average and unfavorable peripherals to boot. Versatile as Happ is defensively, with switch-hitting capability, the Cubs roster as it stands needs neither of those things, especially if consistent production isn’t being exacted.
What becomes of Happ is perhaps of the greater mysteries of this franchise, but for now, he’ll stay stashed in Iowa.
Enjoy the CarGo Experiment, for Whatever it’s Worth
One of my favorite elements of a veteran getting a new opportunity is that their emotional attachment to the game is rejuvenated. That’s clearly the case with CarGo in Chicago, who’s not only ingratiated himself to his new teammates and fans but has shown passion and joy on the field while doing so.
This experiment could be temporary. It could also be a tremendous signing, CarGo cementing his place on a 2019 roster that makes a deep playoff run. Regardless, the early returns are terrific, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the rest of this ride — however long it lasts.
Follow Austin on Twitter (@aj_bloomberg) for more Cubs news and opinion.