I’ve always enjoyed Lorenzo Cain’s game. The hustle, the defensive and base-running smarts, the solid fundamentals, the enthusiasm. He displayed all this in the recent Cubs-Brewers series in which he paced the Crew to a narrow 2-1 series win.
The series also rewound my memory to this past offseason. I was among the few Cubs fans openly hoping the Cubs would sign him. He seemed to address many shortcomings of the Cubs’ stagnant playoff offense. These included a table-setting lead-off hitter, a base-stealing threat, quality contact and situational hitter, and another steadying veteran presence.
During the winter, a scenario did briefly arise that made Cain a possibility for the Cubs. In December, they signed Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Tyler Chatwood. The latter received a three-year, $38 million contract. Word then leaked in January that the Cubs also offered Alex Cobb a slightly richer contract to pair with Chatwood at the back end of the rotation.
But Cobb – probably to his eternal chagrin – balked and landed in a Baltimore purgatory. For his pains, he did get one more year than the Cubs offered. However, reviewing Cobb’s initial 2018 stats (7.23 ERA and AL-leading eight losses), fans probably feel the Cubs dodged a bullet there.
Technically, though, we’ll never know how things would have worked out. After all, purgatory does strange things to people. Some go up, some go down. What we do know is this: If Cobb had signed with the Cubs, the domino effect would have led to two things.
First, the Cubs don’t sign Yu Darvish because the rotation would have been full. Second, the Cubs probably use their remaining payroll dollars for a substantial addition on offense. They very possibly may have bid for Lorenzo Cain or, who knows, maybe even made that much-rumored, foolhardy Manny Machado trade.
But none of this happened. So to paraphrase Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, let’s focus on who we are. Not who we are not. Fortunately, this means reflecting on a better-than-expected Cubs outfield. In fact, the outfield has provided more pleasant surprises than probably any other Cubs group this season.
Ian Happ pulled a Tuffy Rhodes by leading off the season with a homer, though, also like Tuffy, he has left us starving since for a suitable encore. Then starting in late May, Jason Heyward’s bat shocked most everyone by stealing a fellow outfielder’s line and saying “I don’t suck.”
But the biggest outfield surprise has to be the Freaky Friday role-reversal pulled by Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber. I mean, who’d have guess it would be Almora’s bat and Schwarber’s glove earning rave reviews?
Interestingly with Schwarber, his hype coming into spring training was all about the weight loss. I chuckled at the illogical hope floated that somehow just losing weight might improve Schwarber’s quick-twitch reflexes and give him Ted Williams’ 20/10 vision to drop that K rate.
Naturally this did not happen, and, surprise-surprise, he’s remained largely the same hitter he was in the 2017 second half. In fact, Schwarber is actually hitting a tad behind that standard so far this year.
Of course, many fans’ (and the front office’s) hopes for Schwarber are much higher than this. But he has at least tangibly increased his value by going from a defensive runs sieve to a more than competent left fielder. He’s even competing with Cain for league lead in outfield assists.
But let’s return to Cain for a moment. If I could turn back time, would I prefer him in a Cubs uniform? It’s very tempting, as Cain has a .289 career average and .787 OPS against power pitchers, the Cubs’ playoff Achilles heel. This would nicely balance out all those all-or-nothing swings that failed last postseason.
And yet, if the price of getting Cain included having Alex Cobb on the roster as well, I’ll have to decline. Frankly, I never saw much upside in either Cobb or Chatwood, but I could not complain with either as a No. 5. I am also very satisfied with the current outfield performance, and I’m not as down on Darvish as everyone else. I say let him rest his arm on the DL and save a good 18 starts for the second half and the playoffs when the Cubs most need him at his best.
Let’s just cross our fingers that Cain doesn’t prove to be the Brewers’ version of Gary Matthews, that emotional final piece that finally shakes a team free of its postseason demons. If that happens, then all of us and the front office should eat a plate of Cobb salad with a healthy dose of crow.