While the core remains largely unchanged on the Northside of Chicago, there’s plenty of uncharted waters for rookie skipper David Ross to navigate through in this unique 2020 season.
One of the biggest changes for the Cubs — and the rest of the National League — will be the implementation of the designated hitter across baseball universally in 2020. But this is a good problem to have, and actually might work out favorably for the Cubs.
The Cubs stack-up well on paper with just about anyone in the National League when it comes to offensive production, but their volatile bullpen, and their increasingly de-stabilizing starting rotation will need the offense to score a bunch of runs this season if they want a shot at winning the division. Especially in a shortened season, where they can ill-afford to fall into a prolonged losing pattern.
Having the newly implemented universal DH at his disposal, David Ross has the opportunity to help solidify that lineup from top-to-bottom.
You can trace the belief that Kyle Schwarber would one day end up being a DH all the way back to his early days coming up through the Cubs system.
Hell, he did it in the 2016 World Series less than a year removed from knee surgery and played an instrumental part in the Cubs winning their first World Series Championship in 108 years.
Schwarber was taken fourth-overall by the Cubs in the 2014 MLB Draft, as a catcher from the University of Indiana. It wasn’t long before the idea of moving him off of the catcher’s position was almost a certainty, and left-field became his new home.
While Schwarber — once considered an absolute liability defensively in left field — has become a much better defender, and by some metrics a competent one, he’s a long-term fit at DH. He’s done it 22 times and carries a 1.046 OPS with nine home runs in 98 plate appearances.
While Schwarber might be a long-term fit in that role if the universal DH becomes permanent in the next CBA, other players on the roster might make him better suited to stay in left field for the time being.
Has there been a more scrutinized player with a career OPS+ of 111 than Ian Happ? Now, that’s not to say that the scrutiny is completely unwarranted. Happ has always had a strikeout issue, with his career strikeout percentage sitting at a gaudy 37.9 percent, and that was a major contributor to him being demoted to Triple-A last spring after logging 142 games played with the Cubs in 2018.
But, when Happ finally did make his way back to Chicago in 2019, he posted a healthy 126 OPS+, hit 11 home runs, and drove in 30 runs in 58 games with the Cubs. He also had an improved strikeout rate of just 27.8 percent, nearly 10 points lower than his career mark.
Sometimes a player needs a wake-up call, and if Happ’s abbreviated 2019 performance wasn’t enough of an indication that the message was received, he was blistering-hot this spring before the pandemic, hitting .481 with an OPS of 1.315 in 10 games. In those 10 games, Happ struck out only four times.
David Ross can play Happ in the DH role, and keep Albert Almora‘s glove in center field, or he can relegate Almora and his career 85 OPS+ to a fourth-outfielder/defensive replacement role and give Happ an everyday job with an opportunity to prove that he’s really turned the corner in his development.
Veteran infielder — and Chicago-area native — Jason Kipnis might just be the guy that makes the most sense here.
Kipnis has had a fantastic career, and the Cubs saw first-hand in 2016, that he can get as hot as anyone in the league. That would be ideal for the Cubs in this 60-game campaign, but asking him to play second base almost every day, and contribute offensively at 33-years-old might be a tough ask.
Kipnis has seen his numbers decline since 2016 when he hit a career-best 23 home runs for the Indians and helped them get to within striking distance of a World Series, and the Cubs have Nico Hoerner in the mix at second base.
Hoerner played 20 games for an injury-plagued Cubs team in 2019 and hit .282 after making the jump from Double-A late in the season.
If David Ross played Kipnis at DH, Hoerner at second base, and Schwarber/Happ in left and center field respectively, that would be maximizing the offensive firepower that this team has, and let’s face it, they’re going to need all of it with that bullpen no better than the past few years.
Caratini wouldn’t be the everyday DH because he’s got to spell Willson Contreras behind the dish, and he’s even spent some time doing the same for Anthony Rizzo at first. But, having the DH in 2020 can afford David Ross some more opportunities to get Caratini’s intriguing bat into the lineup.
2019 saw Caratini get his biggest opportunity yet as the 26-year-old played 59 at catcher, 23 at first base, and a pair of games at third base. In 279 plate appearances, Caratini posted a .348 OBP, hit 11 home runs, and posted a 104 OPS+ for the Cubs.
While Caratini will still get the bulk of his starts behind the plate or at first base, having this new spot in the lineup could give Ross more opportunity to get Caratini’s bat into his lineup.
One thing that David Ross has said that he’ll be doing differently than his former manager Joe Maddon, is operating with a more consistent lineup. Maddon’s ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey,’ lineup construction was often the center of ire from fans and his bosses, and you can bet you won’t be seeing that this year.
The 1-5 of — in some combination — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber will likely be seldom changed, leaving 6-9 to play around with a little bit depending on matchups. Maybe that means Ross uses a ‘by committee’ approach with the DH position, spelling guys defensively while keeping them in the lineup, or to get guys like Caratini extra at-bats.
We’ll likely have a much better idea into Ross’ plans for the new luxury in the coming weeks, and however it shakes out, it’ll be a plus for the Cubs 2020 playoff aspirations.
Featured Photo: Chicago Sun-Times