We are about to reach the halfway point of the 2017 season. Overall, it’s been a disappointing first half for the Chicago Cubs, though they are still in contention for the NL Central title thanks to a weak division. How have the individual position players fared? Let’s hand out midseason grades. (Pitchers will be in a separate article.)
Tommy La Stella: C. It’s hard to make a definitive judgment since he’s been back and forth between the majors and minors, though we should be glad that his demotions have gone much smoother off the field than they did last year. He’s a decent hitter, but he just hasn’t been able to take that next step forward in his career. At this point, I don’t see him developing into much more than a serviceable bench player.
Miguel Montero: F. He gets an automatic failing grade after publicly blaming Jake Arrieta for not holding runners on base – this in spite of the fact that he’s only thrown out one base runner all year. I think many of his fans and teammates were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he complained about his lack of playing time last year, but the team almost immediately designated him for assignment after this latest blunder. Some aging veterans are able to handle their diminished roles gracefully; Montero clearly has not. It’s too bad, since he still has a lot of value at this point of his career, particularly on offense. At least we’ll always have his Game 7 hit.
Ian Happ: B+. At first, I thought the team brought him up to the majors too soon, but give him tons of credit. After slumping following a hot start, he appears to have made the adjustments to not only hang around but to be a solid run producer right in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup. Besides that, he’s shown the ability to play several different positions well. It would be nice to see him work the count a little more, but hopefully that will come with time.
Jon Jay: A-. He has yet to hit a home run, but lack of power aside, we can’t ask for much more from a part-time outfielder than what Jay has given the Cubs. He seems to give the team a good, professional at-bat almost every time – as his .305 average and .389 on-base percentage, both of which would be career highs, reflect – and can play all three outfield positions capably. He somehow always managed to find playing time when he was with the Cardinals, and now we can see why.
Ben Zobrist: D. Before his injury, he continued to show the ability to have good at-bats, but the results just haven’t been there. His current .223 batting average and .324 on-base percentage would both be career lows (excluding his partial 2006 and 2007 seasons at the beginning of his career), while his .394 slugging percentage would be the second-worst mark of his career. He at least has continued to be versatile in the field and to be a good veteran presence.
Kyle Schwarber: F. It’s easy to forget, but Schwarber still has yet to play a full season in the majors, and he did not get a lot of seasoning in the minors before his call-up in 2015 either. Still, after his miraculous comeback and strong performance in last year’s World Series, there was optimism that he would develop into a good all-around hitter at the major league level. It’s far too early to say that he’s been a bust – in fact, I suspect he’ll eventually come back and find his stroke – but there’s no sugar-coating the fact that, the occasional mammoth home run aside, he’s looked completely lost at the plate all year. Think of it this way: Remember how much was made of Jason Heyward’s struggles last year? Schwarber is hitting 59 points lower than Heyward did in 2016. Sending Schwarber to the minors was a tough one to swallow, but the front office finally came to their senses and did it, though it was about six weeks too late.
Albert Almora: B-. As a hitter, Almora reminds me a lot of Matt Murton from about ten years ago – a decent hitter who just doesn’t have enough thump in his bat to be an impact run producer. Still, Almora will get his share of hits at the plate and has played solid defense as a part-time outfielder. I’m curious to see where his career goes. He won’t be a superstar, but I think he will be a useful major league player.
Jason Heyward: B-. I think we’ve already come to terms with the fact that Heyward will never live up to his massive contract, but we should be encouraged by the fact that, coming off his worst offensive season, he had shown improvement at the plate while continuing to play strong defense before his injury. We’d still like to see him be more of a run producer, but I think overall the team is pleased with the progress he’s made this year while he continues to be a great teammate.
Willson Contreras: B. Contreras hasn’t been bad on offense, but his AVG/OBP/SLG slash line of .252/.319/.444 is down across the board from the .282/.357/.488 line he posted when he first came up to the majors for the second half last year. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect him to sustain that kind of success throughout his first full season. He has been driving in runs, already passing last year’s RBI total, and as a result continues to find himself towards the top of the batting order. In addition, he has proven to be a dynamic player behind the plate, throwing out a solid 33% of base stealers and picking off six runners while posting a 0.9 defensive WAR. At the same time, one wonders if his inexperience in calling games at the major league level is at least one of the reasons why the starting pitching has been so much worse than it was last year. I still think Contreras has a lot of potential and that he will eventually become an All-Star at catcher.
Javier Baez: B. The story for Baez continues to be his defense, as he seems to be a regular on the highlight reels. It looks like long-term, should the Cubs decide to hold onto him (as opposed to trading him, as some have suggested), he will settle into second base, though his willingness to play some short to spell Addison Russell and even a little corner infield has helped the club. On offense, he’s become a solid contributor and should pass last year’s totals in home runs (14 in 2016, 10 this year), doubles (19 vs. 12) and RBIs (59 vs. 32). However, on-base percentage continues to be a concern, as it has fallen to .291 from .314 last year. He still has not learned to be selective enough to take that next big step forward in his career.
Addison Russell: C-. Much has been made of his off-the-field problems, but however much that’s affected him, the fact is he’s taken a step backward at the plate in his third season. Last year, he batted .251 with runners in scoring position; this year, that number has fallen to .209, which largely explains why at just 29 RBIs he’s on pace to fall far short of last year’s incredible total of 95. Lack of patience is also a problem, as his on-base percentage has fallen from .321 to .298. He has shown some signs of life recently; after batting .162 with one home run in May, he’s batting .271 with four home runs in June, so hopefully he is trending back up. Defense continues to be solid, with a 1.5 defensive WAR.
Kris Bryant: C-. After a meteoric rise in two years, Bryant has hit a bump in the road in his third season. He has been taking his walks, as he leads the league with 53 and figures to fly by last year’s total of 75. And he’s still hitting his share of home runs, with 16 on the year. But the biggest difference from last year is clutch hitting. Last year, his AVG/OBP/SLG line with runners in scoring position was .263/.366/.474. This year: .196/333/.411. And his slash line in high leverage situations, according to Baseball Reference? .152/.322/.261. That’s just not gonna cut it. Amazingly, he only has 12 RBIs that are not the result of a home run. Hopefully he recovers from his injury and returns to MVP form in the second half.
Anthony Rizzo: B. Rizzo has become a model of consistency at the plate. Check out his home run totals over the past three years (32, 31, 32) along with his on-base percentages (.386, .387, .385). He’s right on track to post similar numbers again this year, with 18 home runs and a .387 on-base percentage, while at 50 RBIs he’s in good position to reach 100 for the third straight year. This is all the more impressive when we consider that he hasn’t had Dexter Fowler at the top of the order or the help from Kris Bryant and others that he got last year. Perhaps because of this, he’s on pace for a career high in walks. Yet not all the numbers are positive. For example, after hitting 43 doubles last year, he’s only hit 14 in the first half this year, which helps explain why his .505 slugging percentage is his lowest since 2013. His .258 batting average would also be his lowest in four years. Rizzo is still a solid run producer, but after showing himself to be a well-rounded hitter over the past couple of years, he seems to have regressed a little in that regard.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.