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Too Much Depth and the Impending Contract Dilemma

The Cubs extensive position player depth is doing more bad than it is good.
Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Too Much Depth isn’t Always a Positive

For the past few seasons, the Cubs have enjoyed a substantial amount of position player depth. There are positives to this, such as Maddon having lineup flexibility and keeping the roster fresh for the entire season without becoming burnt out in July and August. However, I believe it is currently doing (and has already done) significant damage to the development of the young core, for a myriad of reasons.

The mental aspect of baseball plays a major role in player performance. Not knowing where you’re going to play on a daily basis and constantly looking over your shoulder to see if someone is going to take your position takes a toll on your psyche. Thoughts like “If I don’t get a hit today, I will not be in the lineup tomorrow” have an effect on young hitters. It destroys players’ psyches and confidence, and I believe it was a driving reason why the Cubs collapsed offensively down the stretch of the 2018 season. Yes, Joe Maddon is now letting the roster know before each series who is going to play each game, which reduces the psychological warfare stated above to an extent. However, it does not completely eliminate it. Trading some of this depth would not only bolster another part of the roster; it would also eliminate the uncertainty in regard to who’s playing on a daily basis.

In addition to affecting a player’s mentality, too much depth affects a player’s ability to develop his physical attributes. Limiting a young player’s opportunities to consistently evaluate his swing, such as figuring out what’s working and what’s not working, completely derails the learning curve needed to become a dominant hitter in the MLB. People wonder why the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, David Bote, and Ian Happ are so sporadic and inconsistent with their production. It’s because each player cannot find out who they are as a hitter when they’re playing roughly two out of every three games. It’s different for a player like Ben Zobrist, who knows his own ability like the back of his hand. The young guys need more at-bats to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are so they can leverage their strengths and polish up their weaknesses. For example, sitting Kyle Schwarber against lefties leaves only one certainty: he will not improve his hitting against lefties. Also, Ian Happ was enjoying some success last season but struggled down the stretch (just like everyone else). After having a horrific spring training to start the 2019 season, he finds himself in Iowa because there is literally just not enough roster space for him at the major league level. It’s absurd for a former first-round pick with lofty expectations, who proved himself at certain times last year, to be demoted after simply having a bad spring training. Another example is the current play of former Cub, Tommy La Stella, who currently has 11 home runs and a 0.999 OPS for the Angels. He was never even given a shot as an everyday player as a Cub due to the lineup’s extensive depth, and the organization traded him for a return considerably lower than his current playing value. While I’m sure La Stella’s numbers regress a little as the season continues, it is another example of why having too much roster depth has hindered multiple young players’ development and hindered the front office’s ability to see the true extent of production these players are capable of.

It’s no coincidence that both Willson Contreras and Javier Baez have popped after becoming everyday players. If the Cubs make Bote, Schwarber, and Almora everyday players and recalled Happ to give him more opportunities, their production would improve. Even if production does not improve, then management would have a better sense of each player’s ability at the major league level. It would give the front office a much better picture of who to keep and who to trade going forward rather than continually sitting on their hands with all this depth due to the “potential” that exists with all these young assets. At some point, a player’s production should outweigh his perceived potential, and these players need to be given a full opportunity to showcase that production.

The Impending Contract Dilemma

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Another reason to consider trading some of this position player depth is the contract situation that is inevitable in 2021 and 2022. Almost every member of the Cubs’ position player core is set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the same time, per the list below:

The two exceptions are Jason Heyward and David Bote, who will become UFAs after the 2023 and 2026 seasons.

This cluster of future contract decisions means the Cubs need to figure out whom they are going to pay in 2021 and they need to figure it out soon. It is unreasonable to expect the Cubs to retain each of these players, especially considering the ultra-expensive contracts on the books in Yu Darvish and Jason Heyward. The organization cannot run the risk of letting these valuable players walk and receive nothing in return. The closer the player gets to unrestricted free agency, the more leverage the Cubs lose in trade negotiations with another team as each player’s controllability is minimized.

It seems as though the front office has been waiting for the last couple of years to see which pieces of their young core will develop into perennial All-Stars. While this worked out for Javier Baez, as his name was brought up numerous times in trade talks before the 2018 season, the opposite has occurred for Kyle Schwarber. Imagine the return that he would have warranted in a trade after his 2015 campaign in which the 22-year-old rookie knocked in 43 RBIs in 69 games played with an .842 OPS. Fast-forward to right now and he’s probably worth an above-average bullpen arm at best.

I am by no means saying the organization is at fault for not trading Kyle Schwarber after 2015. I’m simply stating that the organization needs to have the fortitude to make tough decisions right now, similar to its decision to trade Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez to the White Sox for Jose Quintana during the 2017 season. While there is a mixed reaction as to the perception of that trade, I believe it was the correct decision. The Cubs had already locked up Jason Heyward on a long-term contract in right field and needed to upgrade the middle of their rotation with controllable pitching. With the intention of winning another World Series, the Cubs were in no position to sit on highly valued prospects. They were in ‘win now’ mode with that trade, and are in a very similar situation right now.

The need for additional bullpen arms is yet another reason to trade from positional player depth. Yes, the Cubs bullpen has been the best in the MLB over the past month in terms of ERA. But with the uncertainty regarding Brandon Morrow ever pitching again, the continual hamstring issues of Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards Jr.’s inconsistency, an upgrade in the bullpen makes the most sense. This is especially true considering the organization has made it pretty clear they have no intention of signing Craig Kimbrel. Sacrificing some of the lineup’s position player depth for a high leverage bullpen arm is the direction the organization needs to move forward with. The Cubs’ World Series window is closing and the time is now to make a tough decision and go for it.

Featured Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP