As the calendar is now firmly in August, every fan’s attention starts to drift to the postseason and who will be on the team’s roster come October. With the condensed 25-man playoff player limit, many teams have hard decisions to make once they get to that time of year of who to play and who to sit out.
The Cubs have had a fairly standard and predictable line-up position-wise this season, particularly across three spots of the diamond. Manager Joe Maddon has mixed up the batting order a lot, but the standard has been Anthony Rizzo at first base, Kris Bryant at third base, Javier Baez at shortstop. The one big IF in the lineup so far has been at second base.
The Cubs have used a total of seven different players at second so far this season. Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, David Bote, Addison Russell, soon-to-be-back Ben Zobrist, newly-acquired Tony Kemp, and recently promoted Ian Happ have manned the position, hoping to gain the trust of Maddon in order to get consistent starts. Yet no one player seems to have risen to the top.
This begs an obvious question: Who should the Cubs start at second base when it really matters?
David Bote has had a solid 2019 season so far. He is hitting .252/.342/.420 with 39 RBIs to go along with 10 home runs.
Bote has also always seemed to come up clutch, and has a knack for big moments (who could forget the walk-off grand slam against the Nationals back in 2018). He’s also had a few big at-bats this season, most notably his walk-off single on April 21st against the Diamondbacks.
However, Bote can struggle on defense. On the season, he has accumulated 12 errors (nine coming at third base, to just three at second base, but an error is an error). He also has had two bad at-bats in his only playoff game (2018 NL Wild Card Game) where he went 0-2 with two strikeouts.
Bote could be a viable option at second and could get a few at-bats in before he’s taken out late in the game for a better defender if the Cubs have the lead.
The Cubs’ 38-year-old super utility man has been out of game action since mid-May, so who knows just how well he can play once his minor league tour leaves him feeling back in baseball shape.
In the 26 games before his leave of absence, Zobrist was hitting an unimpressive .241/.343/.253 with 10 RBIs. He had just one extra base hit in that span, with 20 of his 21 hits being singles. It may have been the issues off the field, or maybe he was starting to show some decline in his 13th MLB season, but Zobrist’s production took a huge dip in 2019 prior to being placed on the Restricted List.
However, once Zobrist comes back, the Cubs are going to get a veteran presence with plenty of big game and playoff experience, which can be a huge asset down the stretch and come playoff time (lets not forget he had one of the most important hits in Cubs history). Plus, prior to 2019, Zobrist had an outstanding season, hitting .305/.378/.440 with 58 RBIs in 2018.
If Zobrist can get some things straightened out during his minor league stint, he could be a great fit to hold down the fort at second base down the stretch and get the starting nod come playoff time.
Happ has spent the majority of the 2019 campaign down at Triple-A Iowa trying to regain the dominant hitting he had displayed in his rookie 2017 season with the Cubs where he hit .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs and 68 RBIs. After a big decline in 2018, where Happ struck out a whopping 36 percent of the time and hit only .233, the Cubs sent him to Iowa to regain his hitting stroke.
The demotion seems to have worked. In his 14 games back in the majors, Happ has hit .294/.400/.588 with a ridiculous .988 OPS, three home runs, and 10 RBIs. Not to mention, he has only struck out seven times in 36 plate appearances (19 percent), showing marked improvement in what has been his biggest weakness.
This is a small sample size to be sure, but if Happ keeps up the hot hitting (especially like he did in Cincinnati on Thursday night), you would definitely want to keep his bat in the lineup come playoff time. Luckily for Joe Maddon, Happ can play every outfield position in addition to second base, but it would be nice to see him get the starting nod at second.
Many may wonder why I would even suggest a guy batting .223/.297/.397 should make the playoff roster. However, Kemp is known to cause trouble. He has always put the ball in play, and has an impressive 14 percent strikeout rate, which plays really well come playoff time.
The downside for Kemp is his limited playing time at second base. In his three starts since being traded to the Cubs from the Astros, Kemp has played only at second. However, he has played most of his MLB career in the outfield.
Kemp may be a good speed guy off the bench, or possibly a good defensive replacement towards the end of a game, but I don’t see him getting any significant playing time at second down the stretch and into the playoffs.
The Cubs have had three additional players play second base so far this season. Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, and Addison Russell all have had some time at the position. However, Garcia and Russell have already been demoted, and Descalso, after a hot start, has been hitting a very poor .181/.283/.263.
Unless Russell or Garcia have a breakout down at Triple-A Iowa, it’s hard to envision a scenario where any of these three get playing time down the stretch. Unless a significant development arises — injury or otherwise — expect these three to remain off the playoff roster.
So far, the “second base by committee” maneuver Joe Maddon has been utilizing this season has been unexciting, and at times shaky, but it’s been necessary given the state of the roster. In going with the player that’s been hot, or account for splits versus the pitcher they’re facing that day, the Cubs’ keystone platoon have netted a .230/.316/.366 slash, with an unfortunate wRC+ of just 79. Interestingly, however, they’re Defense Runs Above Replacement (Def) of 8.0 per Fangraphs is by far the best in baseball, affording the team an adequate fWAR (1.1) throughout the 2019 campaign.
However, down the stretch and in the playoffs you’d like to see one player produce consistently enough to net the majority of starts at second. Maddon has a lot of weapons to choose from, and especially for someone of his creative ilk, that’s never a bad thing. But when October come one of these guys need to stick out and convince Maddon they deserve the bulk of playing time when the games matter most.
I’m not a betting man, but If I had to bet on anyone, it would be Ian Happ.
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