These Ribs Aren’t for Dinner, Alas: Bellinger, Casas Both Suffer Fractures

Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Ribs have been in the headlines this week, but sadly, not as part of a review of exciting new ballpark barbecue offerings. On Monday, Triston Casas was diagnosed with a fractured rib on his left side, an injury that will result in a prolonged absence and comes at a time when the Red Sox infield has already been depleted. On Wednesday, the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger was diagnosed with fractured ribs on his right side, interrupting his rebound from a slow start.

The 24-year-old Casas left Saturday’s game against the Pirates after injuring himself while fouling off a Mitch Keller pitch. He was initially diagnosed with a strain in his left rib cage and was placed on the injured list on Sunday. An MRI taken on Monday revealed a fracture as well, and the presumption is that his absence will be a long one given that the damage involves muscle and cartilage as well as bone. “Timetable, there’s none. It has to heal on its own. We’ve just got to be patient,” said manager Alex Cora. That sounds like a trip to the 60-day IL could be in order.

Casas was off to a solid start this season, hitting .244/.344/.513 (138 wRC+) with six homers. He hit .263/.367/.490 with 24 homers as a rookie last year, digging himself out of a sizable early-season hole and finishing seventh in the American League in wRC+ with a 129 mark thanks to his combination of power and plate discipline. He had not been hitting the ball as hard this year, with his xSLG dropping from .500 to .420, but he had homered five times in his last 10 games before Saturday’s injury, which took place in his first plate appearance.

Casas’ injury comes at a time when Boston’s infield is already down two of its projected starters. Shortstop Trevor Story may be out for the season after dislocating his left shoulder while trying to make a diving stop, suffering a fracture of the glenoid rim and requiring surgery. Second baseman Vaughn Grissom has yet to appear in a major league game due to a left hamstring strain, though he’s on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Worcester. Meanwhile, starter Brayan Bello joined Lucas Giolito, Nick Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock on the IL due to lat tightness; he’s not expected to be out long, but that’s a lot to withstand for the Red Sox, who are nonetheless off to a 14-11 start.

For the moment, Cora plans to replace Casas with 28-year-old Bobby Dalbec, a player who has yielded diminishing returns since homering eight times in his 23-game cup of coffee in 2020. Last year, Dalbec hit .204/.264/.306 and struck out 52.8% of the time (!) in 53 plate appearances, and he’s somehow been worse this year, hitting .054/.125/.081 (-47 wRC+) with a 47.5% strikeout rate; that’s 2-for-37 with a trio of walks and 19 strikeouts.

Better options exist, though the internal ones appear to be a stretch. Utilityman Rob Refsnyder, a 33-year-old righty, has a smattering of experience at first, albeit not since 2020; he just returned from a fractured left toe and has gone 7-for-16 in five games including four starts in a row in right field. The Red Sox could take a look at Niko Kavadas, a 25-year-old lefty whom Eric Longenhagen evaluated last year as a 35+ FV slugger with 70-grade raw power but “a frame more suitable for beer league softball… and a fringe defender at first base.” He’s off to a .267/.443/.600 (165 wRC+) start at Worcester but has struck out 29.5% of the time — an improvement from last year’s 35.8% rate while hitting .206/.377/.428 (118 wRC+) at Double- and Triple-A.

From outside the organization, the team could look to deal for Garrett Cooper, who was designated for assignment by the Cubs on Tuesday just before Bellinger’s injury, and who almost signed with Boston in late February before choosing Chicago. The 33-year-old righty has hit a respectable .270/.341/.432 in 41 PA this year after batting .251/.304/.419 (96 wRC+) for the Marlins and Padres with career-worst walk and strikeout rates (6.8% and 28.9%) last year. The Red Sox have reportedly talked to 34-year-old righty C.J. Cron, who opted out of a minor league deal with the team in late March but remains unsigned; he’s coming off a dismal .248/.295/.434 (82 WRC+) showing in part-time duty with the Rockies and Angels. A move that could yield higher upside but take longer to come to fruition would be to sign 36-year-old lefty Brandon Belt, who remains a free agent after hitting .221/.331/.398 (102 wRC+) with the Blue Jays last year.

As for Bellinger, the 28-year-old center fielder injured himself in Tuesday night’s game against the Astros. After clubbing his fifth home run of the year in the first inning — a towering blast with a projected distance of 428 feet — he literally hit the bricks in the fourth, crashing into Wrigley Field’s outfield wall in pursuit of a Yainer Diaz fly ball that he gloved but couldn’t control; it bounced off the wall for an RBI double.

Bellinger remained in the game, batting again in the fifth (he popped out) but departing at the end of the sixth, with Mike Tauchman shifting from right field to center and Alexander Canario entering the game, which the Cubs won 6-2. In the dugout, Bellinger could be seen grimacing while rubbing his right side and talking with Cubs coaches:

Initial x-rays were negative, with the Cubs announcing that Bellinger had suffered a right rib contusion, but a CT scan taken on Wednesday revealed not one but two fractures. He’s been placed on the IL, and the Cubs have yet to announce a timetable for his return. In 2021 while with the Dodgers, he suffered a nondisplaced fracture of a rib on his left side after colliding with Gavin Lux in the outfield. He played three games before residual soreness led the Dodgers to place him on the IL, though he was back in 10 days and even experienced a slight uptick in his offensive performance during an otherwise abysmal season.

After signing a three-year, $80 million contract to return to the Cubs — one that contains opt-outs after the first two years of the deal — Bellinger had started this season in a funk before heating up in recent days. Though he hit an RBI double off the Rangers’ Nathan Eovaldi on Opening Day, he batted just .167/.270/.296 (51 wRC+) with two homers in 63 plate appearances over his first 14 games. However, Tuesday’s home run extended his current hitting streak to eight games and was his third bash in that span, lifting his line to .226/.320/.440 (103 wRC+).

Superficially, that’s still a far cry from last year’s .307/.356/.525 (134 wRC+) performance, which marked a return to stardom for Bellinger after two injury-wracked seasons with the Dodgers that led to his November 2022 non-tendering. However, under the surface, Bellinger’s 2023 and ’24 performances — small-sample though the latter one is — aren’t as far apart as they look. His 88.7 mph average exit velocity, 10% barrel rate, and 37.1% hard-hit rate all represent improvements upon last year’s numbers. His .464 xSLG is actually 30 points ahead of last year’s xSLG, and his .329 xwOBA is two points ahead. Though his 15.5% strikeout rate is an eyelash below last year’s mark, he’s fallen off notably in his two-strike performance; last year, he hit an impressive .281/.315/.411 (96 wRC+) in 289 PA in that context, but this year, he’s at .171/.171/.268 (20 wRC+) through 41 PA, well below the .183/.256/.317 (57 wRC+) he hit with two strikes during his Dodgers days.

The Cubs, who are also without right fielder Seiya Suzuki for the next few weeks due to an oblique strain, have recalled 22-year-old center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, the 20th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 list. A 2020 first-round pick acquired from the Mets in the Javier Báez trade at the ’21 deadline, Crow-Armstrong is considered an elite center fielder who’s fearless on the basepaths and should produce at least average power, albeit with a ton of strikeouts; he could be a five-tool star if he could learn to handle pitches at the top of the strike zone.

Crow-Armstrong hit a combined .283/.365/.511 (127 wRC+) in 73 games at Double-A Tennessee and 34 games at Triple-A Iowa last year, but went 0-for-14 with three walks and two sacrifice hits in a 13-game stint with the Cubs that mainly involved coming off the bench. He was scuffling at Iowa this year, hitting .203/.241/.392 (54 wRC+) with a 28.9% strikeout rate and just a 3.6% walk rate, but five stolen bases. “The results have not been great,” manager Craig Counsell said of Crow-Armstrong’s time in Iowa. In Bellinger’s absence, Counsell is likely to mix and match the rookie and the veteran Tauchman, both of whom are lefties, with the righty-swinging Canario also in the mix. “This is a spot where Pete can do things to help you win baseball games, and that’s not just hitting. That’s what we’re going to look at,” said Counsell.

Particularly with Michael Busch off to a hot start while playing first base, it doesn’t sound as though Crow-Armstrong is auditioning for a role that could push Bellinger to first, but that probably depends upon how soon the latter returns. Meanwhile, Suzuki has begun light baseball activity but isn’t expected back until mid-May. Until then, the Cubs will have to try to maintain their 15-9 start without two of their top sluggers.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 months ago

Belt hit for a 138 WRC+ last year; he’s projected for a 102 this year.