Bernfield: Cubs' depth on display with recent injuries

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez has seen increased playing time due to the recent string of injuries to the starting lineup. He's a strong fielder and an aggressive hitter, but insider Jordan Bernfield says his role should wind up a more complimentary one down the line.

    Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez has seen increased playing time due to the recent string of injuries to the starting lineup. He's a strong fielder and an aggressive hitter, but insider Jordan Bernfield says his role should wind up a more complimentary one down the line. Associated Press

 
By Jordan Bernfield
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 6/26/2016 6:59 PM

There's no greater evidence of the Cubs' organizational depth than the fact that they've maintained a huge lead in the NL Central division despite the number of injuries they've sustained in recent weeks.

Leadoff man Dexter Fowler is on the 15-day disabled list with a right hamstring injury, joining Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella with their own hamstring strains. Miguel Montero has been in and out of the lineup after tweaking his right knee, and Clayton Richard was shelved with a blister issue. Anthony Rizzo skipped a few games recently with tightness in his back, and Ben Zobrist missed Saturday's contest after getting hit on the ankle on Friday.

 

The Cubs have been fortunate not to lose any of their key players to long-term injury other than Kyle Schwarber, who was already out for the season by April. But without the benefit of a trade partner, Team President Theo Epstein has relied heavily on the free-swinging youngsters from his minor league system to fill in the gaps in recent games.

Javier Baez has seen increased playing time in the infield with the outfield depth depleted. He's a wizard with the glove, making highlight-reel plays on a near daily basis. But he's also a very aggressive hitter. Through Sunday's action, he has walked just seven times in 164 plate appearances this season.

Similarly, Albert Almora Jr. is an outstanding defender while also proficient at the plate. But he has walked twice in 45 plate appearances, and posted a .325 on-base percentage in the minor leagues.

Willson Contreras swatted the first major-league pitch he saw into the center field bleachers at Wrigley Field last weekend and hasn't stopped hitting since. But in the big leagues, he's attacking pitches early in the count, and not showing as much patience as he showed as a minor-league hitter.

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All three players will be key parts of the Cubs' future and have filled in quite admirably in recent games. But they're not ready to play feature roles on a first place team with aspirations of winning the World Series. Their lack of experience is most obvious in their approach at the plate.

"Guys are learning on the fly, because we've got a lot of young guys up right now," catcher David Ross told the Mully and Hanley Show on WSCR-AM Friday morning. "They're very talented, but we're teaching them how to have professional at-bats."

The Cubs offense has still scored the second-most runs in baseball this season, but their formula for success is in driving up opponents' pitch counts and capitalizing on their mistakes. Contreras and Almora Jr. will be challenged to adjust as the league becomes more familiar with them.

All three will play complimentary roles down the stretch and should continue to receive opportunities when the match-ups allow. They will get their chances to shine as everyday players eventually. But it shouldn't be now.

• Jordan Bernfield is an anchor and co-host of "Inside The Clubhouse" on WSCR 670-AM The Score. He also works as a play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter@JordanBernfield.

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