September has been a cruel month when it comes to contending teams losing key players. On Tuesday alone, the Twins placed Byron Buxton on the injured list with a left shoulder subluxation for which he subsequently underwent season-ending surgery, and the Brewers lost Christian Yelich for the duration due to a fractured right kneecap. The day before that, the Cubs found out that Javier Báez would not return before the end of the regular season due to the severity of the fractured left thumb he suffered on September 1, though at least the door is open for him to return at some point in the postseason. Each of those losses compound other injury woes — at this time of year, everybody hurts — but for the Cubs the loss of Báez is particularly acute, as the team has slid from first place into a tie for the second NL Wild Card spot in the span of five weeks.
On August 8, the Cubs’ season reached its high-water mark in terms of both their division lead (3 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals) and playoff odds (90.8%). Since then, they’ve stumbled to a 14-16 record, and at 77-68, find themselves tied with the Brewers with 17 games remaining. Here’s the graph of the NL Central teams’ playoff odds over the course of the season, with the aforementioned date highlighted:
The 26-year-old Báez initially injured his thumb while sliding into second base in the third inning following a pickoff attempt by the Brewers’ Gio Gonzalez. Though visibly shaken up on the play, he did not depart until the seventh inning:
Initial x-rays on the thumb came back negative, but after continued discomfort kept him out of the lineup, Báez underwent an MRI on Saturday, which revealed a hairline fracture. He then consulted with a team hand specialist on Monday, and the news wasn’t good, but though it wasn’t a worst-case scenario. Per the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales.
An examination Monday by a team hand specialist confirmed that Báez has a hairline avulsion fracture in his left thumb, which makes him unlikely to return for the remainder of the regular season.
The ulnar collateral ligament of Báez’s thumb, however, remains intact and will allow him to embark on a rehab program this month with the hope of returning in October if the Cubs advance to the National League playoffs.
Addison Russell, who lost his shortstop job to Báez during his 40-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy, temporarily reclaimed his spot due to Báez’s injury, but he himself was sidelined after suffering a concussion on Sunday after a beaning by the Brewers’ Adrian Houser. The silver lining to the two injuries — so far, at least — has come in the form of 2018 first-round pick Nico Hoerner’s arrival. Called up from what was supposed to be a break between the end of his minor league season at Double-A Tennessee and an upcoming stint in the Arizona Fall League, the 22-year-old rookie enjoyed a rousing major league debut on Monday night, going 3-for-5 with a triple and four RBI while flashing the leather in impressive fashion during a 10-2 rout of the Padres:
Since then, Hoerner’s gotten on base a total of three times in two games, both losses to the Padres.
It’s a tall order for the rookie or any other Cub to replace Báez. On the heels of a season in which he finished second in the NL MVP voting behind Yelich, and set career bests in slash stats (.290/.326/.554), homers (34), stolen bases, wRC+ (131) and WAR (5.4), Báez spent the first two full months of the season replicating that performance (.303/.349/.566, 13 HR, 131 wRC+ through the end of May), but had scuffled since (.265/.292/.508, 16 HR, 100 wRC+). He was his usual free-swinging, bad ball-hitting, outlier self; his overall numbers (.281/.316/.532 with 29 homers, 11 steals, a 113 wRC+ and 4.3 WAR, the last of which is second on the team) represent a slight step backwards offensively, though his walk rate did rise a bit (from 4.5% to 5.0%), as did his strikeout rate (from 25.9% to 27.7%). Whatever slippage he experienced at the plate, however, was offset by exceptional play in his first season as a full-time shortstop; in 129 games, he posted a 9.7 UZR (virtually tied for the major league lead with Paul DeJong) and 15 DRS (third).
The falloff from Báez to a healthy Russell — which for the moment at least is an abstract notion, as he’s still in the concussion protocol and presumably won’t play for at least a few more days — is more noticeable on the offensive side than the defensive one. In 229 PA, the 25-year-old shortstop-turned-second-baseman has hit just .227/.303/.389 for a 78 wRC+, his third straight season at 85 or lower. Defensively, he was above average at shortstop in each of his four seasons there (2015-18), albeit with somewhat diminishing returns (2.0 UZR last year, but 13 DRS). Hoerner, for as impressively as his major league career has begun, hit a modest, contact-centric .284/.344/.399 with three homers in 294 PA at Tennessee, his first stint above A-ball. David Bote, who’s played a total of 36.1 innings at shortstop over the past two seasons but has started there just twice, offers a bigger bat than either (.264/.363/.440, 109 wRC+), but presumably a steeper falloff defensively.
Bote and Russell have both figured in the team’s second base situation — which has been a revolving door all season long, with seven players making at least eight starts there — as well. Lately, both have taken a back seat to Ben Zobrist, who started six of the team’s first seven games at the keystone upon returning from a nearly four-month leave of absence related to his divorce. The 38-year-old utiliytman was hitting just .241/.343/.253 in 99 PA before taking leave in early May; since returning, he’s hit .304/.385/.348 in 26 PA. He had two rough nights in a row defensively, featuring nearly identical errors in which his attempts to start double plays by throwing to Hoerner at second base sailed towards the outfield side and allowed runs to score. Here’s Monday night’s fourth-inning error, which let in one run:
And here’s Tuesday night’s second inning error, which allowed all three runners to score and cost the Cubs the lead:
It’s déjà vu all over again! Two innings later, Zobrist fouled a pitch off his right leg and departed the game. Thankfully, the injury wasn’t as severe as that of Yelich. On the subject of self-inflicted foul ball injuries, on Saturday, Kris Bryant, who has lately been hampered by right knee soreness to the point of receiving a cortisone shot, fouled a pitch off his right leg, though his two homers on Tuesday night suggested his overall situation had improved.
On the pitching side, the Cubs are at least comparatively healthy as they head into the season’s final leg, with their five-man rotation intact if not equally effective (Cole Hamels has been lit for a 6.49 ERA and 5.80 FIP since the All-Star break, with Jon Lester at 5.72 and 4.61). The bullpen is another matter, at least when it comes to closer Craig Kimbrel, who has been sidelined since September 2 due to elbow inflammation; both his ERA and FIP (5.68 and 6.63, respectively) are swollen as well. While he has enjoyed stretches of effectiveness — one run allowed in an eight-appearance, 7.2-inning span that was interrupted by a two-week stay on the IL due to right knee inflammation — he’s fallen far short of expectations thus far, though the Cubs’ bullpen has improved from the first half to the second.
With two and a half weeks remaining in the regular season, our playoff odds give the Cubs a better chance of making the playoffs than the Brewers (49.9% to 33.4%) despite having the more difficult schedule (.502 to .480 in terms of opponents’ weighted winning percentage). Not specifically accounted for in those odds are the team’s ongoing road woes; the Cubs are 30-44 away from Wrigley Field, and their .405 winning percentage would edge the 2015 Astros (.407) for the lowest of the post-1994 strike era. The good news is that only seven of their remaining 17 games are on the road; the bad news is that their final six are, namely three in Pittsburgh and three in (gulp) St. Louis. With or without Báez, it could be a very bumpy ride.
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