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Descalso adjusts at the plate to win over Cubs

@castrovince
March 20, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- Daniel Descalso saw enough of the free-agent landscape to know he was one of the lucky ones. To sign a mid-December deal in a market that took an eternity to move -- especially for position players -- was to be living in the lap of relative luxury.

MESA, Ariz. -- Daniel Descalso saw enough of the free-agent landscape to know he was one of the lucky ones. To sign a mid-December deal in a market that took an eternity to move -- especially for position players -- was to be living in the lap of relative luxury.

“I was happy I was able to get something done relatively early,” Descalso said of his two-year, $5 million commitment (with a third-year option) with the Cubs, “and just enjoy the rest of the offseason.”

There is comfort in knowing where you’re headed, and there is even greater comfort in coming to camp and not having to fight for a job. Descalso has been slowed this spring by a left shoulder issue, but he has resumed fielding and swinging a bat. And, when Descalso is ready to go -- on Opening Day or shortly thereafter -- the Cubs will have a spot reserved on the roster.

A few years back, Descalso was on a trajectory that made such fights an inevitability. The hard truth is that 30-somethings with uninspiring offensive numbers (Descalso’s career OPS+ of 85 is 15 percent below league average) don’t command much bargaining power in the modern market, no matter how much versatility and leadership ability they might bring to the table. In an alternate universe in which Descalso does not honestly evaluate and aggressively act on his own offensive issues, he’s likely in some camp on a Minor League pact right now, not a multi-year deal with a championship-caliber club.

But Descalso made the necessary changes to build on his value and get to this point.

“Watch this guy,” manager Joe Maddon said. “If you scout him for a day or for a weekend, you might go away and not get the right impression. You stay with him for a week, you’re going to walk away a fan. He’s reinvented himself at the plate, he’s a tough out, there’s more force in his swing, utilizing the entire field. He’s a tough out.”

Descalso was far from the sexiest addition the Cubs could have made to an offense that, in president of baseball operations Theo Epstein’s phrasing, “broke” in the second half last season. But his positional flexibility in the infield and outfield is augmented by an offensive approach that could/should improve a team that, for whatever reason, hit the ball in the air and hit for power far less frequently down the stretch in 2018.

That Descalso is considered an upgrade in that area is a testament to the changes he made in 2016. We focus so much on the swing reassembling that turned the likes of Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner and J.D. Martinez into superstars that it’s easy to overlook the smaller stories of careers that were legitimately salvaged by an uppercut approach aimed at more fly balls and fewer grounders.

“I felt like there was more in the tank, and I was just having trouble unlocking it,” Descalso said. “I’ve just always watched a lot of video of how other guys did stuff and scoured the internet for things. The thing that really clicked for me was getting on-plane early. The pitch is coming from a down angle, so if I swing down on it, then my bat and the ball intersect for only a short amount of time. Whereas, if I’m on plane a little bit underneath, now my margin for error is wider, because my bat’s in the zone a little longer. I don’t have to be as precise. That made a lot of sense to me.”

It’s not for everybody, and it’s not as easy as we might make it sound. But Descalso rescued himself from the abyss of anonymity by becoming a pretty fly guy.

From 2013-15, he made 1,589 plate appearances for the Cardinals and Rockies, had a 0.88 ground-ball/fly-ball rate, a 22-percent line-drive rate and a 3-percent home run/fly-ball rate. It resulted in a 78 OPS+.

From 2016-18, he made 1,110 plate appearances for the Rockies and D-backs, had a 0.60 GB/FB rate, a 30-percent line-drive rate and an 11-percent HR/FB rate. It resulted in a 94 OPS+.

Even in his age-31 season of 2018, Descalso was still making strides, with a career-low 30.1-percent ground-ball rate and career-high 46.3-percent fly-ball rate.

“If you want to stick around, you’ve got to adjust,” he said. “This is a game of adjustments. I was just trying to hit balls in the gap, and I think my swing allows me to do that more successfully now.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.