The rust was evident in Alexander Canario‘s first two at-bats, which tends to happen when you’ve only had one plate appearance in 20 days. His first time up saw him wave at a pair of pitches, one of which was nearly in the dirt, before grounding weakly to short. He went down swinging the next time up, again on a slider that ended up in the opposite batter’s box.
At the risk of putting even the choir to sleep with this sermon, this is why I don’t like the idea of calling up prospects and then using them only as last resorts. While I fully understand and agree with the idea that now is the time to win rather than engage in “prospect baseball,” sitting young players for long stretches virtually guarantees they’re not going to be ready when they do get sporadic opportunities.
In his next two at-bats, Canario went on to prove the rust was only temporary while also lending loads of credence to the notion that he should have been playing earlier. To that latter point, I want to quickly revisit my hypothesis that the lack of playing time wasn’t necessarily a matter of David Ross and the Cubs not trusting the young slugger.
Having him make his first start as the DH on a damp night further supports the idea that the organization put a governor on his playing time down after coming back from an injury that many thought might have cost him the whole season. He has looked no worse for wear since getting back to affiliated ball in June, and now he’s providing a spark for a Cubs team that desperately needed it heading into this final homestand.
That’s why so many are asking why the hell he wasn’t used earlier, like during a five-game losing streak that was part of a 10-game stretch in which the Cubs averaged just 3.2 runs per game. Capable of playing all three outfield spots in addition to possessing prodigious power, Canario probably could have spelled Mike Tauchman in particular to help jump-start an offense that looked gassed out.
The thing about rookies, especially top prospects who’ve built some hype in the minors, is that they bring so much infectious energy when they come up. Fans love the promise of potential and veterans get a chance to relive their own early days in the league vicariously, which is part of why I’m an advocate of playing the kids even if you’re not necessarily in development mode. I don’t mean immediately making rookies your everyday starters, but sprinkling them into the mix can have intrinsic benefits beyond the box score.
Canario was effectively in the game for Tauchman last night because the Pirates had a lefty on the mound to start, so I guess it’s fortuitous that the Cubs didn’t know Bailey Falter was only going to pitch one inning. Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I’m not knocking Tauchman so much as I’m pointing out that it’s a good time for him to sit and get a little mental reset.
Even though the Summer of Tauchman has changed to the Fall of Tauchman — props to whoever coined that first — I think the veteran can still be an integral part of the playoff push after a little break.
Back to Canario, who may have gotten a little break when left fielder Bryan Reynolds slipped and fell in the wet grass in the 6th. The ball was laced and may well have gone for an RBI double regardless, but it felt like one of those moments where the BABIP gods reached down and gave Canario and the Cubs just the right touch of good fortune.
The kid eschewed any assistance from luck and fake deities the next time up.
A hit by pitch, groundout, and a pair of walks — the latter to Pete Crow-Armstrong — loaded the bases for Canario in the bottom of the 8th against righty Kyle Nicholas, who was making his MLB debut. His nerves were palpable in those first few PAs, but his slider and 97-98 mph fastball got him up 1-2 on Canario. Following a foul ball on a heater well above the zone, Nicholas came back with a slider that didn’t end up quite where he wanted it.
We still can’t get over you, AlexSLAMder ? pic.twitter.com/jWYhGWYmuT
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 20, 2023
Talk about easy power. Canario appeared to have been fooled a little by the pitch and was out on his front foot but was still able to muscle it out for a dinger. By doing so, he became the first MLB player ever (or at least since RBI became an official stat in 1920) to hit a grand slam and drive in five or more runs in his first start. What’s more, he became the second Cub wearing No. 4 to hit a granny in his second game for the team this season.
The first, as you surely know already, was not in the lineup the next day and was eventually traded away for a reliever. Is Canario headed for the same fate? I mean, the Cubs do have a ton of outfielders and it’s hard to imagine the kid getting more juice than he’s got right now. Nah, let’s not worry about any of that for the time being.
Tuesday night showed us that the Cubs aren’t dead, especially when they play with the energy and enthusiasm on display at Wrigley in the opener of their penultimate home series. Whether and how they maintain that vibe is still an open question, one that will be answered in part by the contributions of Canario and Crow-Armstrong. All I know is that letting the kids play sure can be a helluva lot of fun.