Weekend Cubs Notes: Souza Bunts with Blister, Maples Delivers Blistering Heat, Kimbrel Looks Like B-List Reliever

The Cubs played four games over the weekend by splitting their spring squad and sending a group to Vegas for a set with the Reds, which made for some weird coverage. The beats were spread between both locations, as were the broadcasts, with the higher-profile unit at Las Vegas Ballpark getting better coverage. That meant Sunday’s game at Sloan Park was more or less limited to those who were in attendance or following via MLB’s Gameday feature, not that the 8-1 blowout was worth the time.

There were, however, some interesting items to cull from the ashes of the three-hit loss, along with some notes from the games against Cincy in Sin City.

Souza plays center, bunts all day

Steven Souza Jr. has never been known as much of a glovesmith, even before completely destroying his knee in a freak accident at home plate last spring. He’s reportedly back to 100%, maybe even better and stronger than before, but it was still a little odd to see him penciled into the lineup in center field. For the sake of reference, the four innings he logged Sunday represent 12% of his total MLB playing time in center.

David Ross has been impressed by how well Souza is moving, the Cubs were able to experiment a little simply because it’s spring training. The stout slugger remains more of a platoon option in the corners, with several other players capable of handling center as needed.

Souza wasn’t slugging at all during his most recent game, forced by a blister on his hand  to bunt exclusively during his lone at-bat. He was moved down to the ninth spot in the order and struck out on a foul bunt before being replaced by Alfonso Rivas in the bottom of the 4th inning.

Miller making moves

One of the players who could capably man the middle of the outfield is Ian Miller, whose eight steals put him firmly in the lead among all spring training participants. The odds are long for him to make the roster, but he’s forcing the Cubs into a much more difficult position than anyone would have expected.

Hultzen debuts

Danny Hultzen has one of the best stories in Cubs camp, if not all of MLB, so it was great to see him debut Sunday. Well, not see him see him, but to observe that he was able to make what I believe was his earliest live appearance since at least 2015. In fact, the oft-injured lefty had only made a total of five spring training appearances since 2012.

He touched 95 mph and struck out the first batter he faced, then induced two groundouts with just a single to blemish his performance. Hultzen is on a minors deal and isn’t a legitimate candidate for the bullpen out of camp, but maintaining or even improving that velocity could make him an option down the road.

The only pitcher who can lay claim to a better story than Hultzen is fellow lefty Luke Hagerty, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2002 who will turn 39 on April 1 and is attempting to make yet another comeback with the team. After dominating during a brief stint at short-season Boise, Hagerty missed all of 2003 due to elbow reconstruction and then forgot how to throw strikes.

He was out of affiliated ball by 2006 and stopped playing altogether two years later to devote his time to helping young players develop their own skills. The blazing fastball never left, though, and he discovered last year that he was throwing even harder than in his younger days. A minor-league deal with the Cubs followed, but a second elbow reconstruction cut that short.

Hagerty re-upped with the Cubs this winter and is back in camp throwing bullpens as he builds back into game shape. He’s feeling no discomfort and his progress is as expected, so he will probably remain in Mesa for extended spring training before (fingers crossed) being assigned to an affiliate.

Maples looks great

Dillon Maples is not the most consistent reliever the Cubs have employed over the last few years, unless we’re talking about the pitcher the organization has most consistently hoped could figure things out. He looked rough in his debut, walking the leadoff batter, sailing a pickoff throw, and firing two fastballs that Willson Contreras couldn’t corral for some reason.

Sunday was a different story, as Good Maples came to play. He touched 98 mph and struck out two Diamondbacks while getting a third to ground out. He’s got a little of that Carl Edwards Jr. vibe in that you kind of know from the start what you’re getting within a pitch or two. When his confidence is locked in, Maples is as unhittable as they come.

Kimbrel not great

Craig Kimbrel’s velocity is ticking up slightly and he hit 96 mph Sunday, but he also gave up a home run for the second time in two spring appearances. He also allowed a double and a single and was lifted before completing an inning of work. He’s struck out four batters, which is nice, but the trend of hanging heaters over the heart of the plate is disconcerting to say the least.

I have no idea what’s going on in Kimbrel’s mind and whether this is even a mental issue at all, so maybe I’m crawling out on too thin a limb here. However, it appears as though he’s not really willing or able to accept that his fastball is no longer enough of a weapon to get him by. If that thing isn’t sitting 95-96 and touching higher, the margin for error is simply too thin for his mistakes to sneak past hitters regularly.

Jon Lester talked about pitching to quadrants rather than halves, something Kimbrel might need to consider as well if he hopes to alter his current trajectory. It’s also entirely possible that this is just a matter of getting the kinks out during a ramp-up period that has been lengthened intentionally. With six more outings targeted this spring, we should have a much better idea of who Kimbrel is by the time the Cubs break camp.

Roster projections

With just two weeks left in Mesa, the 26-man roster has yet to take shape. Second base and the bullpen remain the big question marks, though Miller and Josh Phegley present interesting cases and could be included one way or the other. Sahadev Sharma has a comprehensive breakdown ($) at The Athletic, highlighted by the tidbit that “the team is leaning toward starting the year with [Nico] Hoerner and [Jason] Kipnis on the roster.”

That runs contrary to what the Cubs have been saying at multiple levels, whether it’s farm director Matt Dorey at Cubs Convention or Theo Epstein over the weekend. No one doubts that he can contribute, but the bigger goal is “that he ends up being the best player that he possibly can be for the long haul.” If Hoerner is up, it’ll be as the primary second baseman, possibly with Kipnis as his backup.

That would of course mean parting ways with Daniel Descaslo, whose $2.5 million life preserver can’t save him if his bat continues to disappoint. While it’s somewhat odd that the Cubs haven’t already made a cost-cutting move with either José Quintana or Tyler Chatwood, eating Descalso’s salary and guaranteeing money for Kipnis seems like the kind of thing that could spur a trade to get them under the CBT.

The reluctance to move a starter is surely due to their questionable rotation depth, but Alec Mills’ performance this spring takes at least a little of the edge off. Any kind of move with the starters would open up a spot in a bullpen that has a lot of options vying for limited space.

Despite claiming he could be ready in time for the start of the regular season, Brad Wieck appears destined for the IL as the result of time off for a heart procedure. Even with a reworked curveball, Rule 5 pick Trevor Megill might be on the outside and headed back to San Diego. Duane Underwood Jr. is likewise going to have a tough time breaking through and is out of minor-league options.

Casey Sadler, Ryan Tepera, and Dan Winkler all look like solid choices at this point, pushing lefty Rex Brothers to the periphery. Brothers should be able to catch on elsewhere after what so far has been a strong spring and Underwood might fetch something in a trade, so the Cubs are actually in a really good position when it comes to the depth and value of their bullpen.

Ross and the front office will undoubtedly want to keep getting looks at all of these spots in order to ensure the best possible roster, so it may be a while yet before we get any real clarity. If nothing else, that makes for entertaining discussion.

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