The Cubs’ 2019 season didn’t turn out the way any of us would have wanted it to.
I will take this opportunity to remind you that a lot of things went wrong even before the nine-game losing streak that killed the Cubs’ chances:
- Four significant starting position players on this team suffered injuries that either put them out of action for a lengthy period, or made their performance decline while they were playing, or both.
- Three of the five starting pitchers and several key relievers spent significant time on the injured list
- The Cubs never really had a lockdown closer, even after signing a guy who was supposed to be that pitcher. Largely as a result, they lost EIGHT games they led entering the ninth inning. In 2018, they lost two such games. Win six of those eight this year and the Cubs are in the postseason — and if two of the six games changed would have been the last two at Wrigley against the Cardinals, the Cubs would have been division champions.
So maybe the problems aren’t as unfixable as you might think. That’s a tale for later, though, and there’s plenty of time for thoughts about the future this fall and winter.
Here, then, are my midseason grades for Cubs players for the 2019 season to date. Please remember that I’m making these grades somewhat subjectively, not only for their numbers but also for their performance relative to the expectations for that particular player — and sometimes just for personal likes or dislikes.
Also, don’t say I didn’t warn you: This is gonna be long.
Anthony Rizzo: A
I cannot imagine an act of team leadership greater than Rizzo coming back to play just four days after suffering this gruesome injury [VIDEO].
Rizzo playing at maybe 75 percent is still valuable — he went 8-for-20 with a double and a home run after he came back — and the selflessness he showed should rub off on his teammates.
Beyond that, he had a typical Rizzo year at the plate, even if his counting stats were down slightly because of the time he missed.
The Cubs ought to sign him to a contract extension that would ensure that he never plays a game for another team.
Javier Baez: B+
Javy had a year not quite as good as his second-place MVP season of 2018. And, he missed most of September after suffering a hairline fracture on his thumb on the first day of the month. Would September have been better for the Cubs with a healthy Javy? We’ll never know.
Beyond the thumb injury that cost him September, Baez injured his right heel on this play May 19 in Washington [VIDEO].
While he didn’t miss much time (just one game), he had been on a hot streak up to then (.348/.387/.565, 24-for-69, with nine doubles and two home runs in his previous 17 games). Over his next 11 games after the heel injury: .200/.273/.375 (8-for-40 with 20 strikeouts). It’s entirely possible this injury never properly healed all season.
The Cubs ought to explore an extension with Javy, with the caveat that he turns 27 in December. Javy’s quick-twitch athletic skills are those that could decline quickly after he turns 30. But a three-year extension would take him through his first potential free-agent year.
Kris Bryant: B+
Bryant was on his way to another MVP-quality season when he banged up his knee July 24 in San Francisco. At the time he was hitting .299/.405/.562 with 21 home runs in 97 games. After that: .247/.333/.440, 10 home runs in 50 games.
Then there was the injury, almost identical to Rizzo’s, that kept him out of the last week.
There is almost no doubt that one or more of the “core” players from the 2015-19 unit will be traded. KB could be one of them. I’d be okay with that, as long as he brought back controllable starting pitching AND the Cubs signed a top free agent to replace him at third base.
Willson Contreras: B
Once again, Contreras suffered a hamstring injury that ruined a good chunk of his season. He was on pace to hit 30+ home runs before that. Instead, he missed more than 35 games.
You know, this needs to be said at some point, and this is as good a place as any. Last January, the Cubs created the position of “Director of High Performance.” They hired Adam Beard for this role and had the training staff report to him. Beard’s previous position was with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and before that he worked for the Welsh Rugby Union.
It seems to me that putting someone with that background in a position like that, and perhaps instituting training procedures that are more suited to football than baseball, could have been the cause of some of the team’s injuries this year.
Kyle Schwarber: B
Schwarber’s defense wasn’t as good as it was in 2018 — but perhaps that was because teams didn’t run on him. Kyle had 11 outfield assists in 2018, just seven this year.
But the hitting — man, finally, we saw in the second half what we hoped Schwarber would be in his big-league career. After the All-Star break: .280/.366/.631 (63-for-225) with 15 doubles and 20 home runs. That’s the Schwarber Theo & Co. thought they were getting when they selected him in the first round in 2014.
He’ll be 27 in March, and he won’t ever be more than an adequate outfielder. But that bat plays anywhere in a lineup.
Jason Heyward: C+
If only the Cubs had a real leadoff hitter, J-Hey might have finally put up the numbers the Cubs hoped they were getting when they signed him before the 2016 season.
Heyward hitting leadoff: 32 games, .150/.255/.302 (19-for-127)
Heyward, all other PA: .285/.372/.408 (110-for-386)
That’s a solid everyday player outside of leadoff, DFA candidate performance batting first.
For whatever reason, Heyward wasn’t suited to hitting leadoff, which hurt both him and the team. He had a couple of stretches of very good hitting, especially when he went to the opposite field. He moved to center field to accommodate Nicholas Castellanos, and though it’s not his best position he played it reasonably well.
Nicholas Castellanos: A+
Sign this man.
Addison Russell: D-
Beyond the off-field issues, Russell’s on-field performance was mediocre and he admitted not focusing on a key play that could have cost the Cubs a game.
I understand the reasons why Theo Epstein didn’t simply want to cut him last winter. But now, he really has no future on this team, especially with the emergence of Nico Hoerner. Both the Cubs and the player would likely benefit from giving him a new start elsewhere.
They’ll surely try to trade him; if they can’t, I think it’s time for a non-tender.
Albert Almora Jr.: D-
You know, I think Almora was never really the same after his foul ball hit that little girl in Houston in May.
After getting off to a horrendous start, Almora hit .313/.340/.606 (31-for-99) with eight doubles and seven home runs in the 26 games just prior to that incident.
After that game? .215/.242/.328 (38-for-177).
He was reduced to being a defensive replacement, and then in the one game where his defense might have really made a difference, Sunday, September 22 at Wrigley, he couldn’t catch Jose Martinez’ triple.
I’m guessing the Cubs will move on from Almora this offseason. Despite the rough year, he has trade value and hopefully they can get some young controllable pitching in return.
David Bote: C
Bote’s numbers were actually pretty good this season, and he filled in at three infield positions as well as playing a couple innings in the outfield. His .362 OBP and .422 SLG are solid.
Why the mediocre grade? Bote’s defense let the Cubs down on a couple of key occasions, and the strikeouts are still too many.
The Cubs made a big bet on him last spring by signing him to a five-year contract extension (which begins in 2020) with two option years after that. Hopefully, he’ll make it worth their while.
Victor Caratini: A-
Caratini had to take on a bigger workload behind the plate when Contreras went down with the hamstring injury. He was solid there, and also filled in well at first base for Rizzo and played a few games at third base as well.
Victor could be the starting catcher for a lot of teams. The Cubs are lucky to have him.
All the style points in the world for that one, Victor.
Ben Zobrist: C+
Zobrist’s departure for personal reasons and return have been done to death here, and I won’t belabor them.
I will say that he looked pretty good after his return in September, batting .274/.377/.388 (19-for-67), and depending on what direction the Cubs want to take going forward, I wouldn’t mind having him back for another year, even at age 39.
Ian Happ: C+
I have no idea what this FO wants to do with Ian, and likely, neither do you. What is he? An outfielder? A second baseman? A third baseman? No one seems to have any idea, and this likely hurts his hitting, not really knowing his role. Could he be another Zobrist? Maybe, but he’ll have to improve defensively. He did have a great final 12 games, hitting .452/.469/1.065 (14-for-31) with four doubles and five home runs, bringing his season totals to .264/.333/.564 with 11 home runs in just 140 at-bats. He was named N.L. Player of the Week for the final week of 2019.
I could see Happ being trade bait — or a key part of the 2020 team.
Daniel Descalso: F
Is there a letter grade I could give him lower than “F”? “Z”, maybe?
Yes, I thought this deal would work out OK. Obviously, I was wrong, though I don’t think any of the naysayers could have imagined he’d be THIS bad. In June and also in July, I said the Cubs should have moved on from him and just eaten his contract.
When he finally went on the injured list in late July and admitted he’d been nursing a bad ankle since May, that was more an indictment of the front office for letting that happen than on Descalso for poor play while injured.
Nevertheless, he hit .173/.271/.250 overall, and that was after a good first three weeks. From April 19 to the end of the season: .105/.217/.150 (13-for-124) with 47 strikeouts. Want worse? From June 2 to season’s end: .079/.222/.079 (3-for-38) with 18 strikeouts. He played in just nine games after being activated September 1, all either in blowouts or because the team ran out of other position players in extra innings.
Descalso is owed $3.5 million beyond 2019 ($2.5 million for 2020 and a $1 million buyout for 2021). Theo Epstein lauded him for his clubhouse presence at his year-end news conference. It’s great to have guys who are good in the clubhouse, but they also have to produce. I am sure that Descalso is a fine human being, a good teammate, loves puppies and is kind to his mother. But he simply cannot play major league baseball anymore. The Cubs should just admit the mistake, pay him, and let him go. He should not be on the 2020 roster. Theo suggested major changes at the news conference. This should be one of them.
In the end, the Cubs should have just kept Tommy La Stella.
Tony Kemp: D+
Kemp wasn’t a great fielder and didn’t hit well.
If the bullpen had done its job that afternoon, Kemp’s home run would have been a big deal and maybe you’re not reading this today, as perhaps the Cubs might have gone on a winning streak.
But they didn’t.
Kemp is still a pre-arb player for 2020. He had a decent year as a backup infielder with the Astros in 2018 (.263/.351/.392, six home runs in 97 games, 0.7 bWAR). It’s not impossible for him to get back to that level, and he won’t be expensive. I suspect he’s back, or maybe the Cubs can include him in a trade.
Taylor Davis: C-
Davis didn’t hit much or field all that well, but he did provide useful backup for a few games, and he will always have this magic moment [VIDEO].
That’s not only a career highlight for Davis, it’s one of the best Cubs moments of 2019. Davis was outrighted off the 40-man roster in September and he’ll turn 30 next month. If his playing career is done, I hope the Cubs keep him in the organization as a minor-league coach or manager. He’s well-liked by everyone and seems to have the skills and mental makeup that a coach/manager would need.
Nico Hoerner: B
Nico acquitted himself very well in the heat of a pennant race, after having missed time at Double-A this year and never playing in a single Triple-A game. He had a memorable debut game with two singles, a triple and four RBI and hit as many home runs in 20 major-league games as he had in 79 minor-league games this year. Also, he rarely struck out (11 times in 78 at-bats), a good sign that he’s not overmatched by big-league pitching.
I don’t know what to think here. This front office has been big on “checking the boxes” and not promoting players until they have a certain amount of experience at all levels. But they seemed confident Nico could handle things in Chicago in September and he proved them right.
You can probably pencil him in as the Cubs’ starting second baseman in 2020, although many things can change between now and then.
Robel Garcia: D+
Garcia also had a splash in his first big-league start, going 3-for-5 with a homer.
He hit well for his first 11 games and then ... stopped. As I was afraid of when he was first called up, the strikeouts were too much to overcome. Numbers after those first 11 games: .133/.220/.267 (6-for-45) with 23 strikeouts.
Beyond the strikeouts, Garcia is only adequate defensively. He hit a ton in the minor leagues, but hasn’t quite solved big-league pitching. He might get another chance in 2020, but a lot depends on other moves the FO might make.
Jonathan Lucroy: D
Summation of Lucroy’s time with the Cubs: He hit his only home run in blue pinstripes with one out in the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 15-6 at the time.
Kyle Hendricks: B+
I would have loved to give Kyle a better grade, but he had some really bad starts interspersed with the good ones, and his home/road splits were bizarre:
Home: 14 starts, 2.04 ERA, 0.874 WHIP, six HR in 92⅔ innings
Road: 16 starts, 5.02 ERA, 1.411 WHIP, 13 HR in 84⅓ innings
If you understand why this happened, let management know. Kyle wasn’t like this in 2018; his numbers were roughly equal home/road last year.
He’s under contract for the next four years at reasonable rates, and he could wind up as one of the best starters in Cubs history.
But please, let’s fix that road problem next year.
Yu Darvish: B
Darvish, post All-Star break, 2019: 13 starts, 81⅔ innings, 2.76 ERA, 0.808 WHIP, 13 walks and 118 (!) strikeouts.
Those are ace numbers. Beyond that, the number of walks and strikeouts is just amazing. He’s become the pitcher Theo & Co. thought they were getting when they signed him.
Look at these pitches!
Yu Darvish, 4 Pitch Overlay (synced at release).— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 23, 2019
All Swinging Strikes.
Just wanted to see how much space that would cover. pic.twitter.com/1iiwWO7ngK
Look at the movement on these pitches!
Yu Darvish, 12Ks in 26 Seconds. pic.twitter.com/IuypXgLJNZ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 22, 2019
Here’s hoping for a 2020 season that’s a full year of what Yu did in the second half of 2019.
Jose Quintana: D+
He had some good starts, but they were outweighed by the bad ones. He’s been a markedly worse pitcher with the Cubs than he was with the White Sox, and I think a lot of it is because of his home park. He just doesn’t pitch well at Wrigley.
The best thing the Cubs could do with him is exercise his option for 2020, which calls for him to be paid $11.5 million, and then trade him. As a mid-rotation inning-eater, that contract is pretty reasonable. Sure, they could pay him his $1 million buyout and make him a free agent, but then they get nothing in return, not even a draft pick, since they wouldn’t make him a qualifying offer. A trade at least brings back a prospect or two.
Cole Hamels: C
Hamels, first 29 Cubs starts: 2.71 ERA, 1.159 WHIP, 58 BB, 171 K, 15 HR in 176 IP
Hamels, last 10 Cubs starts: 5.79 ERA, 1.833 WHIP, 21 BB, 46 K, 8 HR in 42 IP
I think Hamels came back too soon from his oblique injury, just as he did in 2017 with the Rangers. I can understand a competitor’s desire to get out there, but this did not help the team. There were flashes of the old Hamels in his final outing Saturday in St. Louis.
I don’t think Hamels is too old to continue. He’ll probably help another team in 2020; I don’t think the Cubs should offer him a contract unless it’s for a lot less money than the $20 million he made in 2019.
I thank him for the first 29 starts — they were excellent, and he seemed like a great teammate. The injury was just too much to overcome.
Jon Lester: D+
Thanks also to Jon for several great years in a Cubs uniform. He’s one of the best free-agent signings in Cubs history.
But this year was his worst since 2012. He was injured and never seemed 100 percent, even when he had a five-start run with an 0.34 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in April and early May.
He’s got one more year left on his deal, and hopefully he can get back to 100 percent and at least have a decent farewell season. There’s a vesting option on his contract for 2021, but he’d have to throw 200 innings in 2020 to get there, which seems unlikely.
Craig Kimbrel: D-
What happened isn’t entirely Kimbrel’s fault. When the Cubs were rumored to be interested in him in early June, I thought, “If they sign him, they should not let him on a big-league mound until after the All-Star break.”
Instead, he signed June 7 and was pitching at Wrigley Field 20 days later. This was a really, really bad idea. The Cubs should have learned from the Cardinals’ signing of Greg Holland in 2018. St. Louis put him on a big-league mound 10 days after he was signed, with predictable results. He was awful in St. Louis and didn’t seem to get a hold on everything until after he was released and signed by the Nationals in August 2018.
Back to Kimbrel: The too-quick return to the majors took its toll on Craig. His velocity was down a tick and he never seemed comfortable. The home runs allowed were ... well, there are words here but I won’t use them. Too many, to be sure: Nine, a career high, in just 20⅔ innings.
We can only hope that a winter’s rest and a full spring training routine will return him to form in 2020.
Pedro Strop: C-
You might think this grade too generous for Pedro, but I give it in salute to his six great years in a Cub uniform from 2013-18, and the fact that he pitched most of 2019 with a hamstring injury. He should probably have taken more time off, but the Cubs needed him, or to be more accurate, needed the best version of him. With the injury, they weren’t going to get it.
Pedro is a free agent and will turn 35 next June. With a winter of rest it’s possible he could give one more good year to this team. I wouldn’t be opposed to re-signing him, if it’s at a lower price than the $6 million he made in 2019. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best reliever in Cubs history, even after his bad season this year.
Kyle Ryan: B
Ryan did a fine job as one of the workhorses out of the pen (73 appearances) and did a decent job getting RH hitters (.736 OPS) out as well as LH hitters (.571 OPS). He will be one of the key relievers for the 2020 Cubs.
Brandon Kintzler: B+
Kintzler recovered nicely from his horrendous 2018 with the Cubs to have a 1.6 bWAR season. He was solid nearly all year. It’s too bad that “nearly” had to be put in there, because the Cubs could have used a healthy Kintzler in September, when he pitched in only six games and missed the entire last homestand.
Kintzler is 35 and a free agent and I don’t see any reason he’ll be on the 2020 Cubs.
Steve Cishek: C+
Cishek, at times, was lights-out, as he was in 2018. But there were also times when he couldn’t throw strikes, and he spent time on the injured list in August, again, at times the Cubs could have really used a healthy Cishek around then.
Cishek is 33 and a free agent and I don’t see any reason he’ll be on the 2020 Cubs.
Tyler Chatwood: B-
That’s a grade I never, ever thought I’d be able to give to Chatwood. At times this season he was outstanding, in particular September 18 against the Reds when he struck out the side in an important game that was tied at the time (which the Cubs eventually lost, the first of the eight-game losing streak that killed their playoff chances).
He reduced his walk rate to 4.3 per nine innings, half of last year’s and below his career average. Truth be told, the Cubs probably should have tried him at closer.
He’s under contract for $13 million in 2020 so he’s likely around. There are several places he might be useful after a season like the one he had this year.
Rowan Wick: B+
Wick has generally been excellent in 31 appearances this season, including quite a few in high-leverage situations. He throws 95+, something the Cubs have been seeking, and he’ll turn 27 in November, perhaps just the right age to be put into a key setup role in 2020.
This is one of Theo & Co.’s better deals, as they acquired him from the Padres for minor leaguer Jason Vosler, who has yet to play in a major-league game.
Brad Wieck: B+
You can see the “Wick and Wieck” promotional opportunities now, can’t you?
Here’s another very good under-the-radar trade acquisition. Carl Edwards Jr. needed a change of scenery, I think, and in return the Cubs got this big lefthander who will turn 28 in a couple of weeks.
Look at this curveball!
Brad Wieck, Soul Stealing 74mph Curveball.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2019
[H/T pretty much every cubs fan] pic.twitter.com/Sb0agGivOQ
If he can master that pitch, and throw strikes, he will be a key part of the 2020 bullpen.
At 6-9 Wieck is the tallest player in Cubs history (previously the 6-8 Chris Volstad).
Alec Mills: B+
Mills is kind of a poor man’s Kyle Hendricks. He doesn’t throw with great velocity; his fastball tops out at about 90. But he has four pitches he can throw for strikes, and if he can learn to locate like Hendricks (no easy task!) he could be a strong candidate for the fifth-starter role in the 2020 rotation.
David Phelps: B-
Phelps had his moments as a Cub, but he turns 33 next week. Ordinarily I’d say he’d be on next year’s team, but he pitched in 41 games this year combined between the Blue Jays and Cubs, which increases his original $1 million option for 2020 to $5 million. I think the Cubs can better spend that $5 million elsewhere.
Derek Holland: D-
Dillon Maples: D+
I admit to having an irrational like for Maples. His fastball can touch 98, and this slider is awesome:
Adam Jones on a Dillon Maples Middle/Middle 90mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/HTs11S2tKV— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 27, 2019
A slider at 90? With that kind of movement? That says “future closer” all over it — except that Maples can’t throw strikes. He had a 7.7 per nine innings walk rate in 2019, which is pretty much horrific for a one-inning reliever.
Maples will be 28 next year. It’s getting to the point where he really has to figure things out right now to become a good high-leverage reliever. I hope so, because the Cubs could use some of those.
Duane Underwood Jr.: C+
Underwood, one of the few pitchers drafted by Theo & Co. who have made the big leagues with the Cubs, had 12 mostly good relief appearances for the team this year, including his season debut August 6 vs. the Athletics where he struck out all six batters he faced [VIDEO].
The numbers were better before his last two outings, both of which were bad. The talent is there, and Underwood is just 25. He’ll get a full shot at a bullpen role in 2020.
James Norwood: C
Norwood is a talent similar in age (25) to Underwood and Maples. He can dial up his fastball to 98. The issue: an identical walk rate to Maples, 7.7 per nine innings this season. That’s one thing all these young pitchers ought to work on this offseason, control and command. If they can get it, the Cubs can have a bullpen like many other teams do, filled with 95+ throwing young guys.
Danny Hultzen: B
You are likely familiar with Hultzen’s story. If not: He was chosen in the first round by the Mariners... in 2011, second overall, seven picks before Javier Baez. Poor performances and shoulder surgeries had him out of baseball for all but five games between 2014 and 2017.
The Cubs gave him a chance this year. He threw well at Triple-A Iowa and has made six mostly good MLB appearances.
Hultzen turns 30 in November. But he can still throw 95+, and lefthanders are always in demand. He’ll certainly get a chance to be in the 2020 bullpen.
Adbert Alzolay: C-
The third one, July 1 at Pittsburgh? Not so much.
Alzolay has talent and will be in the mix for the rotation in 2020.
Brandon Morrow: Incomplete
I’m listing Morrow here because someone suggested here Monday that he be offered a minor-league deal and invited to spring training.
Again, I’ll cite Theo’s statement that major changes are coming and he doesn’t want to look backward, but forward. By the time spring training begins, Morrow will not have thrown a baseball in a game — at all — in 19 months. He’ll be 36 in July.
Carlos Gonzalez, Mark Zagunis, Jim Adduci, Martin Maldonado, Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, Randy Rosario, Xavier Cedeno, Carl Edwards Jr., Allen Webster, Tony Barnette and Tim Collins also played in at least one game for the 2019 Cubs. I trust you don’t need me to tell you any more about these 12 players, most of whom are no longer in the organization, and those who are will probably not be for much longer.