At the start of the 2013 season, Chicago Cubs prospect Daniel Vogelbach was stuck behind first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was expected to man the position for years.
Team President Theo Epstein was asked if the Cubs might try the heavyset Vogelbach in the outfield in the minors despite his glaring lack of mobility.
“No, he’s first base,” Epstein said. “Rules can change. Maybe we’ll get the DH in the NL right around the time he’s ready to break through. Things happen. You never know.”
Vogelbach was dealt to the Seattle Mariners in 2016 before he got a chance to DH for the Cubs, but MLB finally adopted the universal DH rule this season after experimenting with it in the National League during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
And now the Cubs have a true DH in Franmil Reyes, who, like Vogelbach, looks the role. Reyes, an Aug. 8 waiver claim from the Cleveland Guardians, was back in the DH spot Friday for the opener of the three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s a small sample size, but Reyes has notched hits in 17 of his first 22 games, posting an .822 OPS.
Manager David Ross has used 11 designated hitters this season, primarily giving Willson Contreras the spot to give him rest from his catching duties. Cubs DHs entered Friday ranked fourth in RBIs (102) and fifth in home runs (33), with a combined .751 OPS that was 10th.
Contreras remained out of the starting lineup Friday with left ankle soreness but was “moving better,” Ross said before the game.
Obviously if the Cubs are looking ahead to 2023, they have to get a look at how or if Reyes fits in to their plans. He’s their property, but the Cubs could non-tender him if they decide to sign a DH as free agent or rotate players in the spot again.
It doesn’t seem likely they’ll have both Contreras and Reyes on the 2023 roster, but with Contreras expected to sign elsewhere, it could give Reyes the spot.
Ross has not given Reyes any time in right field — he’s a below average defender. Seiya Suzuki has that spot sealed for the near future, and Ross doesn’t need to see what Reyes can do.
“He’s got enough big-league time in the outfield where we know where he is at defensively,” Ross said. “We don’t have a shortage of outfielders.”
So if Reyes returns in ‘23, would Ross be comfortable with him as the full-time DH?
“You deal with the DH spot with how your roster shapes up,” Ross said, adding: “If you have a true DH that you feel like he’s probably not as good in the outfield defensively as some other guys you can put out there, and you love their bat in there, you keep slotting him in there.
“It lets everybody fill a role. If he needs a day off, it’s easy to slot some guy in there. I played with a guy like David Ortiz (in Boston) where it’s nice to have that bat in there consistently, and I’ve been on teams that rotated. I did that with (Victor) Caratini and Willson my first year (managing) in 2020.”
Another factor for the Cubs to consider is having Reyes and Patrick Wisdom in the same lineup over the course of a full season. Of major-leaguers with 300 or more plate appearances, Reyes has the fourth highest strikeout percentage (33.4 %) and Wisdom is sixth (33.5%). Rookie Christopher Morel is not far behind at 11th (31.3%).
That’s a lot of swing-and-miss in the lineup and probably not enough power to compensate for all those strikeouts, even with high-contact hitters such as Nico Hoerner (11.3 % strikeout rate) and Nick Madrigal (11.7 %) balancing things out.
The Cubs have plenty of time to ponder where Reyes, Wisdom and Morel, fit in next year, which is why the final month of 2022 remains worth watching. Ross has left some clues, such as using Wisdom at first base more often before his injured list stint and giving Morel a shot at third.
Morel has said third is his favorite position, and though he has shown great range, there are still questions about the accuracy of his throws. Ross said playing Morel at third was a “priority” to see what he could do.
“To me, the strongest spots for him are up the middle — second and short,” Ross said. “He seems to stand out with his movements. He used to charge everything at third. Now he’s starting to get that first step in his read. He’s gotten better. He had to hurry a couple balls in Toronto, really showed off the arm. I still think he’s serviceable in center field and continues to get better in his first step out there.
“He could be that one-man bench piece that you can fill a lot of holes with.”
How they perform in the final month could change how the Cubs approach free agency. They already know Hoerner can play second, but Madrigal also has had a strong month since returning from the IL.
“Versatility is nice to have because there are only so many free agents out there,” Ross said.
It’ll be up to team President Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins to decide who fits where. Hoyer has said the Cubs intend to be aggressive this offseason and add some power, but that means some of the current players will be odd men out.
“That’ll be their big puzzle,” Ross said. “But the main thing is getting a look at these guys in different spots and (seeing) how much confidence you have in them and discussing that stuff internally.”