Last week, we discussed Javy Baez’s need to stay flexible (positionally) in 2017. And he’s open to it, because even after emerging as a starter during the 2016 postseason, Baez knows as well as anybody how crowded the Cubs positional group is right now.
Fortunately, the man he’s expected to share the most time with next season, Ben Zobrist, should offer plenty of opportunities to get into the game.
More specifically, it’s no secret that Zobrist is going to turn 36 years old this season and is coming off back-to-back lengthy years (winning the World Series with both the Cubs and Royals over the past two seasons). Time off is expected, and necessary to keep his performance up. And when that rest is combined with his usual positional flexibility, opportunities (for Baez) will naturally arise.
Ben Zobrist, Javy Baez, and Joe Maddon each addressed this topic recently, and you can read their full thoughts at CSN Chicago (Patrick Mooney), The Athletic (Sahadev Sharma), and Cubs.com (Carrie Muskat). Let’s discuss some of what’s been said and look ahead to 2017.
First, and perhaps most importantly, we should note that Ben Zobrist is not just aware of his physical capabilities and limitations at age 35, he’s aware of his role on the team. Sometimes, of course, that’ll mean making way for the younger Baez. “He’s such an elite defender, you have to have him in there,” Zobrist said. “You have to feel good about that as a team guy.” Even after just one year of intimate familiarity with Zobrist, most Cubs fans, I suspect, will not be shocked to hear that position.
But if you think back to last offseason, you’ll recall that one of the Cubs’ biggest draws for Zobrist was the ability to offer him more positional consistency/security than other teams. The Cubs even made sure to trade Starlin Castro in tandem with signing Zobrist to make things very clear. After building a career rooted in flexibility, Zobrist was finally ready to settle down at second base. Eventually, as I’m sure you remember, injuries and varying levels of effectiveness from other players on the team forced the Cubs’ hand.
But that’s where last year already differs from 2017.
In 2016, the Cubs tried to keep Zobrist at second base as much as possible to execute their offseason plan. In 2017, however, more flexibility is explicitly on the table. Zobrist will move around. “We have to balance a lot of different things out,” Maddon said. “(Javy’s) going to play some second, of course, and so will Zo. Zo’s going to be out there primarily, and then we’ll work Javy in there. But Zo can also do what he’s done in the past and play some outfield.”
And like we suggested at the top of this post, Zobrist won’t just get time at other positions, he’ll get more time off as well. In fact, according to Maddon, that’s already started in Spring Training, where Maddon has thrown “a couple more DH days at him as opposed to just running him out on the field.”
Rest will be important for all members of a Cubs team that played as long as possible last season, but that might go double for one of the elder statesmen of the team.
For his part, Zobrist continues to be OK with moving around more often and getting in some extra rest. He used to see it only as a necessary part of the game, but now he understands that it makes him a uniquely valuable player. We’ll have to wait and see how things actually play out this year, but so far, it sounds like there’ll be plenty of opportunities to go around.