Breaking down the Cubs' options at 2B
CHICAGO -- The Cubs will have a few areas of competition this spring. Chicago has to sort out the last spot in the rotation and sift through a pile of options for multiple bullpen jobs. There will be debate over how to handle center field and who will get the new 26th roster spot.
Another position that will be the source of conversation throughout Spring Training is second base. Chicago cycled through eight players at that spot in '19, and three of them are no longer in the fold. Top prospect Nico Hoerner will be in the running this spring, but Chicago will also have to balance his development as part of the decision.
"We have a number of good players on our roster at second," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said earlier this offseason. "We've said that we’re not closing any doors on Nico. We’re open-minded, and we'll use Spring Training and put our heads together on what we think is best for him and the best for the team.
"But, you could see a combination of players fill that role for us, including the possibility of someone that's not currently on the roster."
Here is a breakdown of the current possibilities to patrol second base for the Cubs this year:
Pros: Before last season, the Cubs signed Bote to a five-year, $15 million extension that runs through 2024 with two additional option years. In '19, he ranked fourth on the Cubs in average exit velocity at 89.7 mph (min. 100 results), per Statcast. Overall, Bote posted a 106 wRC+, saw a jump in walk rate and posted a .271 average (.820 OPS) against righties. He also had four Defensive Runs Saved and one Out Above Average in 270 2/3 innings at second.
Cons: Streakiness defined Bote's '19 campaign. His overall season line was greatly influenced by a strong start that included an .833 OPS over the first two months. He hit .241 (.745 OPS) the rest of the way. The Cubs tried to use him as a weapon against lefties, but he hit .218 (.683 OPS) off southpaws. Overall, Bote also made 15 errors (though 11 came at third base).
Pros: Hoerner headed home to California in September after his season with Double-A Tennessee concluded, but it turned out he wasn't done. After the Cubs lost both Addison Russell and Javier Báez to injuries, Hoerner was summoned to the big leagues. He held his own offensively and defensively as the fill-in shortstop. The Cubs' No. 1 prospect left no doubt that he could handle playing regularly in The Show.
Cons: Hoerner has exactly zero career at-bats at Triple-A and has been limited to just 375 plate appearances in two Minor League seasons due to injuries. His impressive 20-game showing with the Cubs was propped up by a .317/.364/.512 slash line in his first 10 games. Hoerner hit .243/.237/.351 down the stretch, showing plenty of room for growth. Maybe some more development time at Triple-A Iowa is a good idea.
Pros: The Cubs might want to pair a lefty bat with a right-handed option at second, and Descalso was signed last offseason with that kind of role in mind. The 33-year-old veteran posted a .436 slugging percentage in '18 (up from .395 in '17) and hit a career-high 13 homers. He also posted a .353 on-base percentage that season, prior to signing a two-year free-agent pact with the Cubs. Descalso also brings some leadership to the clubhouse.
Cons: There is a reason the pros feature statistics from 2018. Last year, Descalso labored through the worst season of his 10-year MLB career. He hit .173/.271/.250 in 82 games and posted minus-4 Outs Above Average at second base. Later in the season, Descalso acknowledged that a left ankle injury that flared in May was an issue all summer and impacted his swing and mobility.
Pros: Garcia was out of affiliated ball and playing in Italy when the Cubs signed him last offseason and gave him a shot. The 26-year-old switch-hitter slugged his way through Double-A (.590 SLG) and Triple-A (.585 SLG) en route to Chicago by mid-summer. He ripped nine extra-base hits (including five homers) in the 15 hits he recorded in his MLB stay. He also held his own in his brief exposure to second base (one OAA).
Cons: All that power came with a lot of swinging and missing. In 31 MLB games, Garcia posted a 43.8 percent strikeout rate. He was especially susceptible to breaking balls, against which he slugged .208 with a .067 expected slugging percentage. The Cubs also need to weigh whether Garcia would be better served working as a utility player (second and third base, plus corner outfield).
Pros: All offseason, the Cubs' brass has touted Happ as a great candidate to take a big step forward in 2020. Much of that belief stems from his strong showing in September, when Happ hit .311 with a 1.021 OPS and was the final National League Player of the Week winner of the year. That performance came after Happ spent most of the year refining his swing and approach at Triple-A.
Cons: This is where it needs to be mentioned that Happ is more realistically an option for the Cubs' outfield for the coming campaign. He has the ability to play second and third base, but he fits the roster puzzle as a center fielder and fill-in for the corners right now. With no major offseason additions to date, Happ and Albert Almora Jr. are the top options for center.
It's still possible that the Cubs look to add another external candidate or two to the mix. The Cubs are among the teams to have been in contact with free agent Jason Kipnis, for example. They have also reportedly shown interest in Scooter Gennett. Both would fit the concept of trying to find the best lefty-bat option to potentially pair with Bote or Hoerner.
Internally, non-roster invitee Carlos Asuaje could try to win a job on the Opening Day roster as that left-handed complement for second, or as a utility man. The Cubs will also have Hernán Pérez in camp as a non-roster option with a real shot at winning a utility job.