Tommy La Stella, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler Lead Cubs-Related Storylines Around League

No one calls mid-March the “dog days of spring training,” but they might as well. It’s that time when one naturally starts looking around the league to see what else is happening. So here’s a grab-bag of different tangentially Cubs related items.

The Brewers’ chances of repeating in the NL Central would certainly benefit from a healthy return of starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson. Never a stereotypical ace or workhorse, he was turning in a career year in 2017 (3.49 ERA, 175.1 innings, 29 starts) before shoulder surgery ended it. It was an up-and-down season to be sure, but he even had a chance for 200 innings.

After missing all of last year, he’s thrown just one inning so far this spring. This comprised 22 rocky pitches in the 6th inning of Monday’s game against the White Sox during which he faced just one of the Sox’ regular hitters. That was Adam Engel, who homered on Nelson’s second pitch. Backup catcher James McCann and backup outfielder Leury Garcia singled, and Eloy Jimenez doubled.

Nelson struck out the other three hitters he faced – all minor leaguers – and Brewers manager Craig Counsell surprised no one by announcing the righty will not start the season on the major league roster. Instead, righty Nelson will start in the minors so he can build his arm strength back up naturally.

If you were a Brewers fan, it’d be hard to know what this all means for 2019. Nelson could spend a month or more in the minors, but even just providing a strong second half would be very welcome. But will he be 2017 Nelson or 2014-16 Nelson when he averaged a 4.46 ERA, 1.411 WHIP, and 91 ERA+?

I’d be nervous about that rotation if I were the Brewers. Let’s hope this doesn’t push them toward a signing of Dallas Keuchel at some point. The Milwaukee bullpen threw the second-most innings in all of baseball last year including postseason work, so the more they can overuse their relievers the better for the Cubs’ NL Central title hopes.

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Boy, the pitching staff of the rebuilding Texas Rangers is stocked with potential flippable arms for mid-year trades if any deliver strong first halves. After Opening Day starter Mike Minor, the Rangers have five veterans vying for three or maybe four rotation spots. This includes three pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery: Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, and Edinson Volquez. Throw in Lance Lynn and Jason Hammel, and the Rangers have no shortage of bounceback candidates.

This recalls how in three consecutive years the Cubs nicely flipped Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, and the above-mentioned Hammel in deadline trades for the likes of Jake Arrieta, Pedo Strop, and Addison Russell. The Rangers are just tripling down on this strategy in a single season to improve their chances to net a nice mid-year prospect return.

Speaking of Smyly, he’s posted a 1.69 ERA with just three hits and seven strikeouts in three starts this spring.  And Hammel’s spring is going even better with a 1.09 ERA and 10 Ks in 8.1 innings

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A change of scenery for former Cubs utilityman Tommy La Stella hasn’t exactly increased his chances for playing time. Traded to Anaheim in November for Iowa Shuttle arm Conor Lillis-White, La Stella is battling for a roster spot in a crowded Angels infield. Returning from injury, 2017 All-Star Zack Cozart is considered a lock for either third or second. Super-versatile David Fletcher is also a lock for at least a backup spot coming off a solid debut last year.

Justin Bour and Albert Pujols splitting time at first base/DH leaves La Stella fighting with three other Angels prospects and non-roster invitees for the last backup infield position. But since Shohei Ohtani is not expected back until May to DH, there could be an extra roster spot, at least early in the year.

Unfortunately, La Stella is hitting just .188 so far this spring and his $1.35 million salary would be by far the most expensive of the Angels’ four bench bats. And his pinch-hitting abilities won’t be as numerous as in the NL when with the Cubs.

If the Angels cut La Stella before Opening Day, they’ll owe him a fraction of his contract amount and another team can sign him for about $350,000. A trade for is possible, but my guess is Anaheim cuts him and an NL team picks him up cheap for the end of their bench. This seems most probable since, short of an injury to an Anaheim infield starter, it’s unlikely La Stella gets enough many regular-season at-bats to improve his trade value before Ohtani’s return.

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Jorge Soler is entering the second-to-last season of the nine-year, $30 million contract he signed with the Cubs out of Cuba. The oft-injured outfielder had trouble staying on the field for Chicago and has played just 96 games since the Cubs traded him to Kansas City for Wade Davis before the 2017 season. After starting 2018 hot, he tripped coming out of the batting box and fractured a toe.

Spring training this year did not start auspiciously for the hulking slugger, but he’s picked things up. Since the Royals scratched him for their first spring training game, he’s handled a normal playing load and has launched four homers with an OPS over 1.000.

Soler is owed $9.3 million this year and next and he could be pretty good if he can stay healthy and play a full season for the first time in his career. This said, the Cubs trading him for one year of Davis still seems to have been pretty prudent.

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Also from the former Cubs prospect files: Eloy Jimenez was optioned to the White Sox minor league camp. But unlike Toronto’s Vlad Guerrero Jr., whose future is now being dictated by an oblique injury, any service-time controversies surrounding Jimenez were somewhat mitigated by his .154 average this spring.

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White Sox prospect watchers expect Dylan Cease in Chicago later this year. This spring, however, the Sox handled him with kid gloves, allowing him just 2.2 innings in the big league camp before assigning him officially to Triple-A Charlotte two days ago.

With just 10 games thrown above A-ball and rotation durability always an open question with Cease, his potential remains a wild card. With his high walk and strikeout rates, he still profiles as a bullpen piece long-term.

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The Yankees’ Gleyber Torres started the spring strong with a .304 average in nine games, but has since cooled off to .276. He is looking to show his injury-shortened rookie year was both fluke/no fluke. An AL All-Star selection in 2018 for a strong first half, he literally limped to a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. This included a DL stint in July for a strained right hip and then continuing hip and groin issues the rest of the year that slowed him.

He previously missed half of his 2017 season to Tommy John surgery after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left (non-throwing) elbow. For position players, this is typically an injury related to over-stressing ligaments from excessive weight training, which was long the concern with Soler as well. And like Soler, Torres will only be as good as his sketchy health allows.

But it’s always challenging for young players to change their fitness regimen when that was such a large part of getting them to the bigs in the first place.

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From tracking St. Louis coverage, it appears Cardinals fans have finally entered the acceptance stage of grief over the long-term contract they gave Dexter Fowler. I’ve seen more than a few references to what a great person Fowler is off the field and that all Cardinals fans should do is hope for the best from him.

That said, his spring training has started slow with just a La Stella-like.188 average. Not shocking as far as spring lines go, but not ideal for a guy who hit only .180 last year and got sucked into the storyline behind the firing of the team’s manager. But nothing like being owed just under $50 million for the next three years to leave you unconcerned about your roster spot.


Ed. note: Torres actually injured his elbow on a slide in June 2017 while playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It was a headfirst slide, not unlike the one in which Kris Bryant banged up his shoulder. That’s not to say there was not previous damage to the elbow, just adding context.

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