Javier Baez was back at second base last night for the Iowa Cubs after a one-game sojourn at shortstop. I phrase it that way because his manager, Marty Pevey tells Tommy Birch that Baez is set to play at second base “the majority of the time” the rest of the way this year.
We’ve already discussed the implications of the transition, in terms of a possible call-up this year, but I think it’s worth stating separately that, if Baez does play at second “the majority of the time” the rest of the minor league season (through the end of August), the Cubs are clearly making their plans for incorporating Baez into the big league mix next year: if all goes well, Baez will be at second base on the big league team (probably after April).
That suggests there are no plans currently for Starlin Castro to move off of short, and it also suggests that the Cubs remain committed to trying to have Kris Bryant stick at third base (rather than moving Baez or Castro there). As Addison Russell progresses, the infield question will be called further, but, for now, I think it’s pretty clear that the plan – again, if all goes well – is to make Baez the second baseman of the future.
A positional question much further away, but no less interesting, centers on the Cubs’ top pick this year, Kyle Schwarber, a bat-first player who’s been raking ever since his pro debut. In college, Schwarber was primarily a catcher, but one who also played in the outfield and at first base. Most believed his professional future lay at one of those latter positions, in part because of questionable projections long-term behind the plate, and in part because of how good the bat is.
The rub with excellent hitting catchers is that, to maximize the development of the bat, a guy has to progress through the minors at a certain pace. But that pace is usually much too quick for the catching skills, which can take a long time, to develop properly. So, with excellent hitting catchers, teams are left with a choice: risk limiting the bat for a chance at keeping the player behind the plate (which his value could be enormous), or move the player to another position so the bat can be maximized (but lose the chance at huge value behind the plate).
Sahadev Sharma writes at length for ESPN on this very issue, explaining that the question has become complicated by the fact that Schwarber is looking better behind the plate than many expected. While sticking behind the plate remains unlikely, it’s still under consideration. As the Cubs have said, once the season is over, they’ll regroup in the Fall and make a decision about Schwarber’s positional future: full-time to the outfield, or a serious focus on developing as a catcher?
You’re going to want to read Sharma’s piece for great quotes from talent evaluators (spoiler alert: they dig Schwarber) and from Schwarber, himself (spoiler alert: he sounds like he really understands hitting).
Interestingly, if the Cubs’ position prospect contingent keeps dominating and climbing, there’s an argument that – if it won’t totally stunt his bat – the Cubs can afford to take their time with Schwarber and really give him a shot to stick behind the plate. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, through a combination of free agent acquisitions (Rusney Castillo? Yasmani Tomas? Colby Rasmus?) and prospect promotions (Kris Bryant? Jorge Soler?) and maybe even a trade, the Cubs have a full outfield within 12 to 18 months. In that scenario, not only are the Cubs figuring out what to do with guys like Albert Almora and Billy McKinney (hopefully), but they may not have an obvious starting spot available in the outfield for Schwarber. Maybe then it would have been nice to have kept him behind the plate.
You can’t plan on having a full outfield in a couple years, of course. And, as I said, the development of Schwarber’s bat has to be the priority. But, given the system setup and this new possibility that Schwarber could be a decent long-term catcher? It really gives you pause when you consider how valuable a bat like Schwarber’s would be behind the plate.