All Spring Training it looked like the Cubs were going to carry four bench players: Miguel Montero, Javier Baez, Jon Jay and either Matt Szczur or Tommy La Stella. However, an injury to reliever Brian Duensing forced Joe Maddon to carry all five, meaning the Cubs will start the season with multiple backups in the IF and OF. However, being that we’ve already discussed Baez extensively, here we’re only focusing on the other four, and this year the bench is poised to be even better than last year.
Last year’s bench was an inconsistent affair, with Jorge Soler, David Ross, Chris Coghlan and the aforementioned La Stella, Szczur and Albert Almora Jr. rounding it out. However, with the first three gone via trade, retirement and free agency respectively, this year’s squad is primed to be more consistent, both in appearances and performance. The good thing about a bench is that they don’t necessarily have to play at a high rate in order to be effective, but this year’s addition is the exception. Out of the previously mentioned four, Montero and Jay are everyday big leaguers while Szczur and La Stella are fringe starters – that’s depth that any team wishes they had, and it in turn gives Maddon the luxury of subbing out regulars when they need rest and rarely missing a beat with the fill-ins.
While Jay will be in a platoon in CF with Almora, the latter looks to get more starts so we’ll discuss Jay’s upcoming season a bit here. One of the best defensive OF in the league, Jay’s compiled a .995 fielding percentage in the OF since 2010, tied for the highest in the league over that span. There may not be any questons with his defense, but his offense has a few. While his average and OBP are a respectable .291 and .339, his walk rate and strikeout rate were both the lowest and highest of his career last year. His .371 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is bound to regress, so it’s imperative that he cut down his strikeouts while also taking more walks if he wants success in the lineup.
Montero took his spot on the bench with grace, though it wasn’t always like that. The veteran catcher expressed discontent over his usage throughout last season, and though it seems he and Maddon have buried the hatchet, Montero’s a proud player who wants to impact the team. However, Maddon had his reasons as to why Montero received 119 less plate appearances last season compared to 2015. A mixture of dwindling offensive performance combined with Willson Contreras’ emergence made Montero the odd man out, though he can still help the team in 2017.
While Montero declines offensively, his pitch framing behind the plate remains elite-tier. Check out the stats, courtesy of StatCorner:
As you can see, Montero ranked in the top five in all the important framing statistics, while ranking No.1 in the league in balls called for strikes rate and calls/game. He’s an invaluable piece to the pitching staff, though his paltry offensive numbers – .216/.327/.357 with only eight HR – may keep him out of the lineup more than he’d like, especially if Contreras takes the next step into becoming an everyday catcher.
Szczur and La Stella were supposed to be battling it out for the final roster spot, but as previously mentioned, an injury landed both a spot on the opening day roster. La Stella holds the advantage in most categories you want a reserve to excel at (BA, BB%, BABIP), though Szczur is the more versatile player, able to play every OF spot. However, La Stella is the more advanced hitter, as showen via his contact rate:
La Stella squares up the ball more while limiting soft contact, whereas Szczur hits the ball softly more than 1/4th of the time. While Szczur is an excellent defender, defense off the bench will likely come from Ben Zobrist or Kris Bryant, who’ll move to the OF to accommodate Baez at 2nd or 3rd. Furthermore, Szczur’s name has come up in trade rumors, with the Braves lurking as a potential candidate. Whatever happens with Szczur, both he and La Stella are fine players off the bench who should be extremely helpful to the Cubs this season.
You know you have a loaded team when your bench is among the very best in baseball. It’s filled with capable, dependable players, each allowing Maddon the enviable advantage of having (for now) 13 guys who are versatile enough to accommodate any injury. That’s the textbook definition of a good bench.
Our 2017 season predictions (combined) – 17 HR, 70 RBI, 70 runs
*Photo via Julie Fennell