Something had to give.
The Chicago Cubs’ deficiency of infield options, further strained by the lack of position-player trades leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, left manager David Ross mixing and matching lineups to try to find at-bats. The Cubs didn’t suddenly gain a bounty of flexibility like last year, when one-third of the opening-day roster was moved before the trade deadline.
With seven players on the 26-man roster who can play the infield, playing time inherently will be limited for some. The next two months should focus on evaluating talent who could become lineup regulars in 2023.
“We’re always thinking about how can make our club better, both for the current and for the future, and part of that is giving opportunities for players over the course of the next couple of months,” general manager Carter Hawkins said Thursday. “We’re excited about getting the young guys leverage innings and getting them consistent at-bats.”
That meant infielder David Bote was the odd man out Thursday afternoon following the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of a doubleheader.
The Cubs optioned Bote to Triple-A Iowa to open a roster spot for left-hander Sean Newcomb, who was recalled and started Game 2. Christopher Morel, Nick Madrigal and Zach McKinstry are expected to get more post-trade-deadline playing time alongside Nico Hoerner and Patrick Wisdom. Wisdom likely will see more time at first base down the stretch, while Ross indicated Morel could get more time on the left side of the infield.
“Just the versatility and seeing everybody, how it moves around, it may not always be ideal against the opposing pitcher, but seeing where guys fit in is important,” Ross said Thursday morning.
Ross must still balance who deserves playing time, but sending Bote, 29, to Iowa sends a clear message about whom the Cubs understandably will prioritize over the final 59 games with an eye on the future.
“There’s only so much playing time to go around, I think that’s for everybody, right?” Ross said before the roster move. “So you’ve seen who’s going to get the bulk of the playing time. ... You just have conversations to some of the guys that might not get as much and just talk to them about here’s kind of the role moving forward, and all that stuff will work itself out here real soon.”
For Bote, this is his last minor-league option. He is owed $9.52 million guaranteed over the next two years. He appears positioned to be depth, at least while the Cubs sort through other young, less experienced options this season.
Madrigal needs to show he can stay healthy and return to his contact-hitting form. Morel has played well at second base, and McKinstry is experienced there, too, which presents other choices if Madrigal can’t stay on the field or be the type of hitter that made him the fourth pick in the 2018 draft. Two stints on the injured list because of a low back strain and left groin strain forced Madrigal to miss a combined nine weeks.
Madrigal, who was activated from the IL on Tuesday, showed signs of regaining his stroke while on his latest rehab assignment at Iowa. In 10 games, he went 11-for-32 (.344) with a double, three RBIs and a .400 on-base percentage.
“I just got back to simplifying things and just really trying to focus on swinging at pitches in the zone and honestly not much else than that,” Madrigal told the Tribune. “Usually when you’re in a groove you feel like you’re comfortable in the box, you’re seeing pitches well, you’re taking pitches that are borderline and they’re going your way.
“So I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, but I do know when I’m going well is when I’m hitting pitches in my zone and not missing them.”
Madrigal wants to keep it simple over the final two months: play baseball and try not to worry about anything else including what is out of his control, injuries or otherwise.
“There are times when you’re just almost helpless and sitting watching the games and just a lot of downtime to think to yourself,” Madirgal said. “I’ve never questioned my love for the game, but (injuries) really make you want it. You’ve got to do all the little things at the end of the day to get back on the field. But I feel stronger for it, honestly.”