Versatility might be the one word that most aptly defines each of Ben Zobrist, Javy Baez, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
In 2016, for example, Ben Zobrist fielded five different positions (left field, right field, first base, second base, and shortstop) around the diamond, as did Javy Baez (first, second, and third base, shortstop, and left field).
Meanwhile, Joe Maddon was the crazy conductor, orchestrating the chaos into a usable and productive everyday lineup. And there’s no reason to expect 2017 will be any different.
At CSN Chicago, Patrick Mooney discusses how the Cubs plan to move forward with both Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez deserving of everyday playing time, and it’s an informative read.
Although the Cubs have alleviated some of the outfield logjam by replacing outfielder Jorge Soler with closer Wade Davis, there are still at least four starter-quality outfield options (Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., and Jon Jay) in addition to Zobrist, and four star-quality infield options (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist, and Anthony Rizzo) in addition to Baez. In other words, there are more options than spots – and that’s after moving Jorge Soler and not counting Kris Bryant into the outfield situation at all, despite the fact that he played 453.1 excellent innings in the outfield last season.
But if you thought the Cubs were just going to award certain spots to certain players and stick with it all season long, well, you must not know Joe Maddon or President Theo Epstein too well.
“We’re going to continue to lean on the versatility of all the players involved,” Epstein told CSN, “and (use) that to get some rest for guys and continue to put a good lineup out there every day and try to tailor the offense for that day’s opposing starting pitcher, as well as the defense for our starting pitcher.”
So, even if Albert Almora Jr. locked down the center field job, Kyle Schwarber improved in left (while leading off), and Jason Heyward’s offense was reignited in right, the Cubs would still figure out a way to work in both Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez regularly. Not being married to any one lineup or defensive alignment can give them an advantage every single day, as well as keep players fresh down the stretch.
Consider, in 2016 (an inarguably dominant year for the Cubs), Chicago used two players in right field for at least 100 innings each, three players in center for at least 100 innings, and six players in left for at least 100 innings*. At the same time, two players covered second for more than 375 innings apiece, and three covered third more more than 200 innings. I can go on, but the point is that – in a vacuum – that much fluidity would seem to indicate instability, but in actuality, it was all by design.
And it worked. Really, really well.
As Mooney puts it, “Winning 103 games only reinforced the importance of depth and flexibility, how a Cubs team stocked with interchangeable parts could withstand a marathon that lasted more than eight months and still peak at the right time.” But if the Cubs are going to win as much as they did last year, they’re going to have to find a way to fit both Baez and Zobrist into the equation.
Then again, if anyone can do it, it’s Joe Maddon.
*(Random mid-post quiz and fun from Brett: can you name the six players without looking it up? And what do you think the order is for their usage? Don’t scroll until you’re ready …
Jorge Soler at 371.0 innings, Kris Bryant at 353.1, Matt Szczur at 200.2, Willson Contreras at 180.2, Chris Coghlan at 173.0, and Ben Zobrist at 127.2. Also netting innings in left for the Cubs this past year: Albert Almora Jr. (26.0), Ryan Kalish (11.0), Kyle Schwarber (7.2 (sad face emoji)), Javy Baez (2.1), and the Pitchers – Travis Wood (5.0), Pedro Strop (1.0), and Spencer Patton (0.1).)