The Cubs are far from the first team that’s tried to catch lightning in a bottle, but their recent efforts have looked more like those of a child putting fireflies in a jar and forgetting to punch holes in the lid. At a certain point, even the most vigorous tapping of the glass serves only to rattle the lifeless husks around the bottom.
I suppose it’s fitting that former Cubs manager Leo Durocher is credited with coining the catchphrase above since another of his aphorisms may well be at play for this year’s team. Nice guys finish last, or so The Lip said. Billie Joe Armstrong took it a little further with Green Day back in 1997, adding a pair of lines that are all too applicable to the Cubs.
Oh nice guys finish last,
When you are the outcast.
Don’t pat yourself on the back,
You might break your spine.
In the interest of full transparency, the inclusion of that song was the result of an earworm I got while looking up the origin of “lightning in a bottle.” But that’s kinda how things work sometimes and the end result was more apropos than anything I’d have come up with more intentionally.
The Cubs paid a lot of lip service this winter to shifting their vaunted clubhouse culture in order to maximize what they said was already an elite collection of talent. They’ve long prided themselves on their mental skills program and for putting character and chemistry at the top of their list of priorities.
Then they talked about regaining the edge dulled by the complacency that had been born of success and cared for by a well-meaning but neglectful nanny. They very publicly lamented the leadership vacuum left by David Ross’s retirement and talked about how their offense sucked. They vowed to spend all their energy fixing it.
So they went out and signed Daniel Descalso as both a veteran leader and historically clutch hitter who could address multiple issues and once. He could also do it on the cheap, which was the real key. They signed Brad Brach, another cheap option who could solidify the back end of the bullpen and wouldn’t cause any problems with the clubhouse stereo system.
You know, because of the mono. Oof, that was bad. Let’s just forget this ever happened and move on, which might apply as much to some of these signings as it does my awful joke.
The whole Addison Russell thing is on another level entirely when it comes to how and why the Cubs did what they did, but it all ties back to the same concept. Then you’ve got Carlos González, who was brought in on a minor league deal after the Indians — who have been viewed as potential sellers since the end of last season — released him.
All of these transactions or decisions are bound by the common threads of low risk and low cost, at least in theory. Most of those are obvious, but even the PR hit from keeping Russell around is mitigated by the fact that, like it or not, a large number of fans are easily able to compartmentalize their consumption of the team on the field.
Ah, but therein lies the issue. Whether these are nice guys or nor, it all comes down to what is actually happening on the field.
“It has to be more about production than talent going forward,” Theo Epstein declared during his lengthy post. “And beyond that, it’s also trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players.
“It’s our job not just to assemble a talented group, but to unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Are we doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys?”
It appeared as though the Cubs were establishing a hard line on that whole production-over-talent thing right out of the gate, optioning Ian Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the conclusion of a disappointing spring training. But while Happ’s head remains on a pike in Des Moines as some sort of warning to would-be trespassers, the aforementioned players have done little to justify their own roster spots.
At least the versatile switch-hitting Happ offers a little pop to go along with the low batting average (.231) and high strikeout total (78 in 68 games). His 11 home runs in 292 plate appearances are two more than CarGo, Descalso, and Russell have hit in a combined 413 plate appearances this season. Even allowing for the disparate levels of competition, I think we can all agree that Happ’s got a much higher upside.
He also plays both second base and the outfield, so it’s not as though there’s some sort of positional deficiency blocking his path. If the Cubs want lightning in a bottle or a way to temper what appears at this point to be pretty blatant hypocrisy, they need to consider making additional personnel changes.
Maybe that’s not calling up Happ, but it’s very much time to consider cutting their losses with the veteran hitters languishing at the bottom of the lineup. González has just a .652 OPS with a 72 wRC+ in 37 plate appearances with the Cubs, which is hardly better than what he put up with the Indians. Small samples be damned, this is who he is now.
Descalso’s outlook is even more bleak at this point, as he hasn’t collected a hit since June 1 and has been reduced to little more than bench-bat duty. After posting a .757 OPS with a 102 wRC+ through the first month of the season (86 PA’s), he’s produced a .348 OPS with a wRC+ of 2 — yes, 2 — since the start of May (74 PA’s). He’s literally 100% worse in the latter sample as has become unplayable.
CarGo still offers a platoon option since his 101 wRC+ in 32 PA’s against right-handed pitchers during his time in a Cubs uniform indicates he can still be an average run-producer against them. But Descalso isn’t even treading water against righties, putting up a -1 wRC+ over his last 66 trips to the plate against them. He’s walking at a 13.6% clip, but that’s less than Happ’s career rate (14.3%) as a lefty batter.
But let’s say the Cubs want to stick to their guns and really make Happ earn it. Trent Giambrone plays second base and has hit 14 homers, five of which have come in his last 10 games. He’s a righty batter with a mere .621 OPS against right-handed pitchers, but you’ll take that because he’s popped five homers against them. And at 25 years old, it’s at least plausible that he’s still reaching his ceiling rather than digging a new cellar.
Or how about 26-year-old Robel Garcia, who’s taken the Cubs’ system by storm following a tour of the European baseball scene that has him looking like a whole ‘nother player. A switch-hitting middle infielder who has similar platoon splits, but with 12 of his 17 homers against righties, Garcia is another exciting option waiting for a shot to produce at the next level.
Listen, we all get that the Cubs have done a great job of creating a family-first environment that is very attractive to free agents. It makes sense that they may not want to endanger that by cutting players at the first sign of struggles. But being nice guys may indeed lead to them finishing last. Or second, which is still last according to Reece and Ricky Bobby.
The Cubs took shots on Descalso and González and it looked early on as if those moves might work out really well. It’s pretty clear at this point, however, that neither is capable of producing at a level required to hold down a roster spot on a contender. That’s easy for me to say when I’m not the one actually making the hard choices, but I don’t know how much longer the Cubs can afford to wait for these guys to maybe bounce back.
That goes for Russell as well, though he’s at least got youth and the backup shortstop role on his side. But since hitting homers in back-to-back games in Houston at the end of May, he’s put up a .367 OPS with a -6 wRC+ and has thrown his bat more often than he’s hit safely (6). Loose grips sink ships and the Cubs would do well to find a suitor for Russell by the deadline, or simply to option him to make room if he can’t be traded.
How he’s somehow granted immunity from the same fate Happ has suffered defies explanation to a Philistine like me. Russell’s got options left and provides little at the MLB level that the Cubs can’t replace on an interim basis. If anything, inflating his numbers against Triple-A pitching might increase his value.
While I suppose this could be construed as some sort of screed against veterans who aren’t hitting well, that’s really not the point. Or maybe it is to an extent, since the Cubs really need to consider a little roster churn. More than that, it’s simply a call for the front office to make good on the claim that 2019 wasn’t going to be another return to the status quo.
If it’s truly about production over talent, some moves need to be made in order to follow through on that edict. And if that can be done without breaking up the core of the team or costing the club a ton of money, what the hell are they waiting for?
Again, it’s much easier to ask and answer these question when you can do so without regard to any of the consequences. At the same time, you’d imagine the very real ramifications for the Cubs should they continue to roster players who can’t help them win would spur them to action.
Now watch CarGo and Descalso catch fire and slug their way to integral roles over the remainder of the season. Or, you know, not.