Sometimes if I give myself a day to step back from something that seemed initially to make very little sense, I can start to sort it out. I have been trying to do that with yesterday’s decision to designate Clint Frazier for assignment, and I gotta tell you, I’m still struggling. I want to try to talk my way through it.
I understand that Frazier was unlikely to break back out. There’s a reason he was let go by the Yankees, and a reason he was available this offseason to the Cubs on such a modest, one-year deal. I also understand that there were serious health concerns for him going forward, and I understand that the defense has always been a big question mark.
So this isn’t about me trying to convince you that Frazier was DEFINITELY going to be a long-term piece for the Cubs if only they’d given him a chance.
Instead, my position on Frazier has always been something like this: he is just 27, he has shown huge potential in the past (and some big league success), and he can be under team control for two more seasons. That is the type of guy that you want to give a serious look in a season like this, even if the chances he actually becomes a regular are pretty low.
It’s really a more general point about how the Cubs should be using their roster and their playing time this year, and what the Cubs elected to do with Frazier – and how they explained it – just don’t make much sense.
That’s why yesterday, with Frazier as the example, was so frustrating. The Cubs, who ostensibly brought in Frazier to give him that kind of look – and then didn’t – punted Frazier simply to open up his 40-man roster spot. That allowed the Cubs to bring reliever Chris Martin back from the restricted list … and allowed them to retain other guys like Jason Heyward, who had consistently been starting over Frazier.
The explanation for the DFA was pretty much exactly what you did not want to hear.
“We think a lot of Clint and his ability,” manager David Ross said, per NBC. “It was just one of those tough decisions …. His ability to show what he’s capable of hasn’t panned out. Not seeing how that is right now with how our roster is constructed, it’s been really tough to find him a spot. I think we still all believe that Clint Frazier has got a lot of really good baseball still and his ability. Him getting the opportunity to go out there and prove it is the hard part right now.”
Except it shouldn’t have been hard, at least not while Seiya Suzuki was out. Frazier should’ve been playing every day, especially if the Cubs “all believe that Clint Frazier has got a lot of really good baseball still and his ability.” How exactly was Frazier supposed to “show what he’s capable of” when he was getting almost no starts? And the one time he did was tasked with starting multiple games in a row – that very brief stretch of five games from May 30 through June 3 – he hit .400/.600/.500/219 wRC+. The sample is too small to draw conclusions, obviously, but it does make you want to scream: just give the guy a chance to get into a rhythm!
But no. Playing Jason Heyward was more important.
Ross was straight up asked whether Frazier could’ve been playing instead of Heyward, and Ross dismissed the idea: “No. J-Hey will get the right-handed at-bats.”
That was about Heyward vis a vis Frazier, though it still reads a bit ominously.
Naturally, Heyward had his best game of the year last night after the Frazier stuff, which is assuredly a coincidence, but will probably be held up as further evidence that he deserves more of a chance to stick around … ignoring the fact that both the homer and the double were not exactly rockets, and there is now a year-and-half worth of recent data that indicates Heyward can no longer hit at anything close to a league-average level (and the defense is slipping, too).
It’s not like I want to rip on Heyward all the time, mind you, it’s just that I don’t see how his presence helps the Cubs get to “the next great Cubs team” or however the Cubs want to talk about this process. Maybe he somehow really, really, really helps behind the scenes with the player development at the big league level. I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws to explain what happened yesterday, and what I fear is going to happen for the rest of this season.
If not longer …
I am still of the mind that any player who isn’t (1) a possible active-roster player for 2023, or (2) a possible trade piece this year, offers absolutely no reason for the Cubs to have that player on the roster right now. Apparently the Cubs would respond that they aren’t ready to say Heyward can’t be a useful player in 2023, the final year of his contract. I am, however, very ready to say that, and the idea that the Cubs would use a 40-man spot on Heyward all season and then all offseason – when there’s such a crunch coming – is too galling for me to even let myself think about it today.
As for Frazier, it’s not like there aren’t serious hurdles to his playing time that have nothing to do with Heyward, and it would be unfair for me not to acknowledge them. He is very limited defensively, able to play left and right field only, and even then not very well. The Cubs do have other outfielders that need and are justified in getting regular starts out there, including Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki, Rafael Ortega, and Christopher Morel (maybe Michael Hermosillo, too, if and when he gets healthy). At DH, the Cubs had been splitting time between Frank Schwindel and Willson Contreras, which has been pretty hard to argue against. Going forward, I do agree that it was going to be tough to get him regular playing time at the big league level. And with Nelson Velazquez coming on strong as another corner outfielder that the Cubs are going to want to give looks soon, I suppose there’s a way to talk about moving on from Frazier, specifically, that I can wrap my head around.
None of that explains why Frazier wasn’t starting the last couple weeks with Suzuki out, however. It doesn’t explain why the Cubs didn’t even consider optioning Frazier to Iowa to get regular starts for now. It doesn’t explain why the Cubs never really gave him a chance to start from the beginning of the season. It doesn’t explain the dogged commitment to starting Heyward all the time. (When Suzuki returns, what happens? Does Heyward now push Ortega – who is hitting well and could be a trade piece – to the bench?)
A lot of this is just me venting, I suppose. I should end where I started: I’m not saying Frazier was gonna be a star. Odds are good that he latches on with a new organization from here, and if he gets an opportunity, he’ll probably hit at an above-average level, but just right there on the border of where it’s debatable whether the bat is worth the defensive limitations. And maybe he doesn’t even hit at all.
But it feels like the Cubs never even gave Frazier or themselves a chance to find out if he could still be more. And in a season like 2022, where the Cubs are playing almost entirely to set the team up for next year and beyond, I just don’t understand how this all played out.