For the first time since Spring Training began, the Chicago Cubs do not have a baseball game today.
It’s one of only two off-days built into the schedule (the next one is a week from today), though play will continue again tomorrow against the Giants. So with this little break, I thought we might look back on some of the best and worst performances of the spring so far, just for a little added baseball fun. Hitters first.
Obligatory note: yes, Spring Training stats remain untrustworthy for all sorts of reasons … for example, (1) the extremely small sample sizes, (2) the hitter-friendly environment of the Cactus League, (3) the presence of minor leaguers in big league camp, and (4) the fact that some guys – pitchers and hitters, alike – are often working on things not always in service of maxing out production in these exhibition games.
That said, it’s not like there aren’t still position battles to be won, rotations to fill out, and mechanics to test. And most of all, I just want to see everything in one place. So let’s see what’s going on with some of the more notable spring performances (in either direction!), even if you tell yourself it’s entirely meaningless. Because it might be!
The Hitters (Min. 15 PAs)
Victor Caratini: .438/.526/.813 (1.339 OPS)
The Cubs’ 26-year-old, pre-arb, switch-hitting backup catcher broke out with the bat last season (108 wRC+), launching 11 homers in just 95 games to go along with a 10.4% walk rate and 21.1% strikeout rate. Despite being forced into a bigger role for an injured Willson Contreras and becoming something of Yu Darvish’s personal catcher, Caratini succeeded. With another season of expectedly heavy involvement ahead, it’s nice to see him rake this spring. On top of a team-leading 1.339 OPS, he’s got more walks (2) than strikeouts (1), added a home run, and has drawn praise from teammates and his manager.
Again, he’s the BACKUP to a 27-year-old, two-time All-Star. The Cubs catching situation is good.
Ian Happ: .478/.500/.826 (1.326 OPS)
Happ ranks second on the Cubs in terms of spring OPS, but he’s got 7 more plate appearances than Caratini. He’s also launched two homers while keeping his walks (2) and strikeouts (3) in line. Given the way he adjusted his entire approach in the minors last year and came back strong in the second half (127 wRC+) – winning NL Player of the Week to wrap things up – I’m especially encouraged by his performance. Certainly, he’s delivered big springs before hitting a wall in the regular season (2018), but that was his first full season in MLB. A lot has changed since then, and I expect a more even performance in 2020. Happ appears to be the most-of-the-time starting center fielder for 2020 as of now.
Albert Almora Jr.: .296/.345/.556 (.900 OPS)
Almora Jr. got off to a monster start this spring, but has actually hit a wall here lately, going 0 for his last 12 with seven strikeouts and no walks in the Cactus League. Indeed, in March he’s 2-18 overall with a HR. After being the early-spring darling – swing changes! – I think it’s safe to say what we learned about him over the past two seasons (quality center field defense, weak bat, PAs should be limited against tough righties) must continue to drive the playing-time decisions for now.
Ian Miller: .375/.459/.469 (.928 OPS)
Miller might not be smacking the cover off the ball (in terms of power) – he has also struck out a concerning 13 times, and has not had offensive success in the upper minors – but he has stolen eight bases against just two caught stealing, which could be enough to keep him on a team with a newly expanded 26-man roster.
Here’s David Ross on the 26th man just the other day: “I just want someone that complements the rest of the team. Maybe something different. I don’t want to have six utility guys. Maybe we have a power bat on the bench or a speed guy or a backup catcher, a third catcher. We’re still looking at all those options.”
Miller could be a weapon off the bench deployed mostly – if not only – the way guys like him are deployed in September and October. It’s a whole new world for guys like Miller. He could have new life in the majors.
Nico Hoerner: .259/.375/.370 (.745 OPS)
Relatively speaking, Nico Hoerner has gotten a ton of chances this spring (t-4th in PAs), but you’re seeing a fair bit to suggest that Triple-A is the right 2020 starting spot for him: plenty of contact, good on-base skills, equal number of walks (4) and strikeouts (4), but not much power. Certainly, power production from Hoerner isn’t desperately needed in a lineup alongside Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, et al. It’s just that power is a necessary long-term component of offensive success (driving the ball consistently hard enough to keep the batting average high as a contact guy, for example, or drawing more walks as a byproduct of pitchers avoiding meatballs, etc.).
Let’s just say Hoerner hasn’t done anything (yet) this spring to dissuade the prevailing wisdom on his timeline. He will be the Cubs starting second baseman soon, but he’s still a little bit away, as Brett recently highlighted in Hoerner’s lack of minor league experience. And remember, he was forced into the big leagues well-ahead of schedule last season because of injuries. He hasn’t even played in Iowa yet. I don’t think some more seasoning is out of the question.