ST. LOUIS — Something had to give.
The Chicago Cubs’ lack of infield options, further strained by a lack of position player trades before Tuesday’s deadline, left manager David Ross mixing and matching lineups to try to find at-bats. The Cubs didn’t suddenly gain a great deal of flexibility like they did last year, when a third of the opening day roster was moved before the trade deadline.
With seven players on the 26-man roster able to play in the infield, playing time will inherently be limited for some. The next two months should be focused on evaluating the talent that could become a regular in the lineup in 2023.
“We’re always thinking about how we can make our club better, both now and in the future, and part of that is providing opportunities for players over the course of the next few months,” general manager Carter Hawkins said Thursday. “We’re excited to get the young guys taking advantage of the innings and having consistent at-bats.”
That meant infielder David Bote was the outsider Thursday afternoon following the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of a doubleheader.
The Cubs sent Bote to Triple-A Iowa to open up 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 playing time after the trade deadline along with Nico Hoerner and Patrick Wisdom. Wisdom will likely 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 they move, might not always be ideal against the opposing pitcher, but it’s important to see where guys fit in,” Ross said Thursday morning.
Ross has yet to balance who deserves playing time, but sending Bote, 29, to Iowa sends a clear message about who the Cubs will understandably prioritize in the final 59 games with an eye toward the future.
“There’s so much game time for everyone, I guess that’s for everyone, right?” Ross said before the list move. “So you’ve seen who’s going to get the most playing time. … You just have conversations with some of the guys who might not get as much and you just talk to them about the kind of role that’s moving forward, and that’s all going to be worked out here pretty soon.”
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For Bote, this is his last minor league option. He is owed $9.52 million guaranteed over the next two years. He seems positioned to be safety, at least as the Cubs draft other young, less experienced options this season.
Madrigal needs to show that he can stay healthy and get back to his contact form. Morel has played well at second base, and McKinstry has experience there, too, presenting other options 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 seasons on the disabled list with a lumbar strain and a left groin strain forced Madrigal to miss a combined nine weeks.
Madrigal, who was activated from the IL on Tuesday, showed signs of recovery from his stroke during his last rehab assignment at Iowa. In 10 games, he went 11-for-32 (.344) with a double, three RBIs and .400 on-base percentage.
“I’ve simplified things again and really tried to focus on swinging pitches in the zone and honestly not much more 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 good, you’re taking pitches that are borderline and going your way.
“So I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, but I know when I’m doing it right is when I hit pitches in my zone and I don’t miss them.”
Madrigal wants to keep things simple for the last two months: play baseball and try not to worry about anything else, including what’s out of his control, injuries or otherwise.
“There are times when you’re almost helpless and sitting around watching the games and you just have a lot of downtime to think for yourself,” Madirgal said. “I never questioned my love for the game, but (injuries) really make you want it. You have 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.”