From would-be starting second baseman to clubhouse leader emeritus, Daniel William Descalso’s Cubs tenure will be memorable only in that he got the largest free-agent contract they signed during either of the past two winters — probably three the way things are looking — and quite literally stumbled to -0.8 fWAR in just 194 plate appearances. The two-year, $5 million deal Descalso signed prior to the 2019 season is actually richer than the other three guaranteed deals the Cubs agreed to that offseason and last, though that ignores Craig Kimbrel’s $43 million off-cycle deal.
Nothing official there yet, but don't expect a surprise there. They'll pick up Rizzo's option and decline Descalso's. https://t.co/26lPajdwgg
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) October 30, 2020
The Cubs had the opportunity to bring Descalso back for $3.5 million in the hopes that he could try to recapture some of his Cardinals and D-backs glory, but he’ll receive a $1 million parting gift instead. Though it wasn’t as costly as some other moves, this will surely go down as one of Theo Epstein’s biggest blunders. Not that it was particularly unique, though, since we’ve seen the Cubs’ affinity for low-cost bounceback candidates who were believed to possess greater intrinsic value as gritty glue guys.
Well, folks, the Philadelphia Flyers mascot Descalso was not. Sure, he seemed to be a good dude who everyone liked having around, but he was essentially relegated to cheerleader status by an ankle injury in early May of 2019 that tanked his career.
And therein lies one of the truly damning facets of not just Descalso’s time in Chicago, but of the organization’s decisions when it comes to injuries. Though he hurt the ankle on May 4, he was not placed on the IL until July 27, during which time he slashed .114/.228/.139 with a .182 wOBA and a wRC+ of 6 (that’s 94% worse than the average hitter) over 93 plate appearances. It was obvious that the man was hobbled and he admitted later that playing through the injury derailed his season, yet the Cubs seemed content to cross their fingers and hope things would get better.
They didn’t. Get better, that is.
It’s impossible to say whether Descalso would have been a contributor had he been shelved right away and allowed to heal properly and it’s unfair to the Cubs to lay blame solely at their feet. At the same time, it’s unfair to Descalso to not acknowledge the facts of the matter. He was hitting .253/.340/.386 with a .316 wOBA, a 94 wRC+, and seven extra-base hits (5 doubles, 2 homers) over 92 PAs prior to the injury, pretty solid for a utilityman.
While this is all water under the bridge now, it does raise questions about what the Cubs will be looking for in the offseason, both in terms of cost and makeup. That’s why Tommy La Stella keeps popping up, though his projected price ($7-9 million AAV) may have to come down a little to fit the Cubs’ budget. A beloved figure in the clubhouse, La Stella also provides the type of contact bat to complement a lineup that featured way to much swing-and-miss the last two seasons and even beyond.
Whatever they end up doing, the Cubs are almost certain to have zero margin for error in their pickups. Of the four contracts mentioned earlier, only Jeremy Jeffress ended up completing a full season on the North Side. The others — Descalso, Brad Brach, and Steven Souza Jr. — were either hurt, traded, or released unceremoniously. Batting .250 would be okay if it meant hitting a bunch of homers, but going 1-for-4 on players whose ceilings were pretty limited to begin with isn’t going to work over the long haul.
So unless the Cubs get way splashier than we believe they will, which has an incredibly thin sliver of possibility if indeed the market collapses entirely, they literally can’t afford to swing and miss again like they did with Descalso. Pretty fun thought, huh?