The recent tragedy in California, where a helicopter accident took the lives of nine people, including NBA legend Kobe Bryant and revered college baseball coach John Altobelli, brought with it a heavy dose of perspective.
Bryant and Altobelli were among those aboard with a daughter, heading to a youth basketball tournament at the time of the crash. Over the past couple of days, I have really enjoyed seeing so many people join in the #GirlDad trend on social media. It's been moving for people to pay tribute by showing how much pride they also take in being a parent.
As I write, my own young daughter is doing a headstand, getting footprints up our living room wall as she daydreams of being a star gymnast. Last year, while watching an NHL game, she said she wished more girls were on the teams. Soon after, she asked to sign up for a kids' floor hockey program in our town. There's no doubt she'll be the athlete of the family, and that's awesome. I can't wait to see where life takes her.
This was all a great reminder that baseball, and sports in general, are a great escape and form of entertainment, but also such a great way to empower our kids and to be there for them. Maybe we didn't need that reminder. We got one anyway, and it's good to reflect on it.
Now, let's move on to this week's Cubs Inbox...
If the Cubs' plan is to use a combination of Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. in center field this year, give me some reason to hope they can bounce back from last year.
-- Dominick B., Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Starting with Ian Happ, there is optimism that the production he put up in September was a sign that all his work at Triple-A Iowa last season paid off.
Over the final month, Happ hit .311 with a 1.021 OPS in 26 games. Within that, he had an 84.6 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone (career rate: 75.2 percent), a 73.9 percent contact rate overall (career: 66.4 percent) and a 13.8 percent swinging-strike rate (career: 15.5 percent).
The strikeouts will always be there to an extent with Happ. Even in that offensive September, he struck out in 18 of 66 plate appearances (27.3 percent). But that was down from his career rate (32.5 percent) as well. It’s worth noting, however, that his overall swinging-strike rate dropped to 14.7 percent in '19 (down from 15.3 percent in '18 and 16 percent in '17).
As for Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs will be leaning on his pre-2019 track record, given how bad things got for him offensively last year. His .255 batting average on balls in play, for example, was a career worst, even though he increased his average launch angle (8.2 degrees) and had a career-best 4.6 percent Barrel rate, per Statcast.
It'll be important to see what changes (either with his swing or approach) Almora is working on this spring. During a discussion at the Winter Meetings in December, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein noted that Almora struggled when pulling the ball. Sure enough, he posted a minus 0.6 degree launch angle to the pull side overall and a minus 4.2 degree mark to the pull side with two strikes, per Statcast.
"For me, it's more approach than swing. He had a pretty clean swing. His swing works," Epstein said. "It's just that freakish contact ability -- the ability to put virtually any pitch in play -- can work against you unless you have the right approach, because you're putting early-count pitcher's pitches into play, because you can. But with shifting and today's defenses, that's a hard way to get on base a lot."
I know Kyle Schwarber is under team control and low-cost, but he's an obvious trade piece for an American League team. He can play left occasionally or be a designated hitter. Or are the Cubs holding on to him to see if they can get more value in an in-season trade? That leads me to my second question (a two-fer!): Do the Cubs think the DH is coming to the National League in the next few years?
-- Joe F., Fayetteville, Ark.
There seems to be a growing sentiment within baseball that the DH (in some form or another) will be coming to the NL in the relatively near future. That would obviously cause a shift in how NL front offices construct rosters and view players like Kyle Schwarber, who -- to be fair -- has been an average defender in left field over the past two seasons.
If the Cubs were hellbent on moving salary to get under the first Competitive Balance Tax threshold ($208 million in '20), then yes, moving Schwarber would offer one solution. But it's worth noting that the payroll figure used for that calculation is the end-of-season amount. So the Cubs could still head into '20 slightly over, monitor the team's progress and potentially make in-season adjustments to the roster.
Schwarber is still great value, too. He will turn 27 in March and is under contract for $7.01 million for '20. Last year, when he made $3.39 million, his production was valued at $20.6 million (per Fangraphs). He hit .250/.339/.531 with 38 homers, 70 walks and 92 RBIs overall. And in the last two months? All Schwarber did was post a 1.043 OPS (eighth-highest in MLB in that span).
Do you see Brandon Morrow making it to the bigs this season if healthy? If that is indeed the case, would he be the perfect eighth-inning guy paired with Rowan Wick?
-- Dustin R., Wisconsin
Brandon Morrow hasn't pitched regularly out of an MLB bullpen since the second half of '18. So, this process will not only be about being healthy. Even if Morrow is 100 percent this spring, the Cubs will need to closely monitor his workload and ability to bounce back from workouts and outings. With so much time off due to injuries, it will probably take time before he's cleared for consecutive games, for example.
But if Morrow keeps checking off box after box from the pitching coaches and training staff, then yes, he will definitely work his way into the bullpen mix. From there, he'd have to earn those high-leverage innings back. That means keeping a close eye on the quality of his stuff, the velocity readings and, of course, the results.
I wouldn't expect Morrow to be an eighth-inning option by Opening Day. And if it happens at some point this season, that means a lot of tests were passed. Right now, the idea of re-signing him to a Minor League deal was really a no-brainer, given the low risk and high reward.
Is there a list of the players the Cubs have signed to Minor League deals and invited to Spring Training? What about in-house non-roster invitees?
-- Robbie M., Northbrook, Ill.
The Cubs have not formally announced their list of non-roster invites (internal or external). That should be coming relatively soon, given that pitchers and catchers report to Arizona on Feb. 11. But we do know some of the names via MLB.com's reporting and that of other outlets.
Beyond Morrow, here are some names reported to have been added this offseason via Minor League contracts: Jason Adam, Carlos Asuaje, Rex Brothers, Noel Cuevas, Danny Hultzen, Ian Miller, Tyler Olson, Hernán Pérez and Josh Phegley. CD Pelham will likely be in camp with the Cubs after being claimed off waivers and later sent outright to Triple-A Iowa.
Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com also reported Friday that the Cubs agreed to a Minor League pact with Corban Joseph. The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma reported that Caleb Simpson is among the Cubs' Minor League signings as well.
What's the word on Pedro Strop?
-- Clara B., Davenport, Iowa
Clara sent this question in prior to Thursday's news that Pedro Strop had agreed to a one-year contract with the Reds. But this is a good opportunity to catch fans up on where Chicago's main free agents have landed. Cole Hamels signed a one-year deal with Atlanta. Strop will join Nick Castellanos (four-year deal) in Cincinnati. Steve Cishek signed with the White Sox for one year, and Brandon Kintzler reportedly has a one-year pact in place with the Marlins.