Nick Madrigal, Passing at Third Base, and a Roster Floor
Had Nick Madrigal looked immediately like a butcher at third base in yesterday’s game, punting an easy grounder and lollipop’ing his throw over to first base or whatever, I can be honest and say I probably would’ve had to force myself to say “small sample size.” Like, it would’ve been a battle to say it.
Which is, of course, unfair to Madrigal, because any one play is just one play – it is the smallest of sample sizes!
It’s obvious to me now that I’m coming to this whole Madrigal-at-third-base thing with a tremendous bias against smaller dudes playing third. I generally have an open and pliable baseball mind, but I suppose there are a few things that are just stuck in there after decades of following the sport at the highest level. One of those things is that very small guys with average arms cannot play third base successfully at the big league level. I don’t think I realized how strong that bias was in me until now.
None of which is to say that, just because Madrigal DID successfully make his first couple plays at third base in yesterday’s game, I’m telling you he is clearly an average or better big league third baseman. That’s not something the eye test can tell you in a single day.
Instead, all that it can tell you – and all I am telling you today – is whether a guy has given you an initial glimpse at possibly being at least passable there. And from what I saw yesterday, there was not yet a reason to conclude he CANNOT be at least passable there:
Those are passable plays. There’s no need to oversell or undersell it. Basically looked like a big league third baseman on those two plays. Unremarkable. And that’s exactly what you would have hoped to see.
For his part, Madrigal admitted some jitters about his first ever game at third base, knowing that the ball was going to find him. But getting that first play (and the second) under his belt was important to calming the nerves.
Madrigal also shared that, in addition to the coaching staff working with him on the position (and the physical training in the offseason), he picked up a great tip from Hall of Fame third baseman Scott Rolen (Sun-Times). The gist? At third base, unlike at second or short, you can’t track the ball the whole way from the pitcher’s hand to the plate. You won’t have enough reaction time. Instead, you have to shift your eyes to the front of the hitting zone right when the pitcher starts his delivery. Nice tip.
I remain very interested to see how the defensive experiment plays out this spring. It remains an open question how many starts would actually be available for Madrigal at third, given the massive group there – Patrick Wisdom, Edwin Rios, Christopher Morel, Zach McKinstry, and Miles Mastrobuoni – but you’ll note that every other player in the group is significantly versatile and/or has minor league options remaining. The Cubs can do basically anything, positionally or roster-wise, with this group. So if they like Madrigal’s bat the best, if he’s healthy and swinging it well, then I’ve gotta believe upwards of 50% of the starts at third base could be made available to him. Throw in periodic starts at second base and at DH, and suddenly Madrigal is getting semi-regular starts, even without an injury elsewhere in the lineup.
Will it play out like that? I wouldn’t bet on it today. But it would be nice to know that it’s an option for the Cubs, because we know that not everyone else will be healthy, not everyone else will be swinging it well, and not everyone else is going to have room on the 26-man roster anyway.
Putting that another way, *IF* Madrigal shows that he can play passably at third base this spring, then the only question of his spot on the roster is going to come down to his bat. And that’s what you want the decision to be about, because either his bat is going to be what he showed in 2020-21, or he’s not going to justify a roster spot anyway. Madrigal has to hit, or none of this is going to matter.
Positional versatility could create a roster floor for him, but being passable at third base, alone, isn’t going to get him on the Opening Day roster.
Still, it’s the first step. We’ll know more about the bat, I would hope, by the end of Spring Training. Moreover, because there is a track record of offense there – albeit in his unique way and without a HUGE sample behind it – you probably focus a little less on the offensive results right now anyway. The glove at third, by contrast, is completely knew. So for now, for these first couple weeks, my eyes are hyper-focused on Madrigal’s defense.
Oh, and an obligatory note at the end: yes, it still remains possible that Nick Madrigal is optioned to Iowa or traded before Spring Training ends. Being passable at third base still matters on those fronts, too, as he could head to Iowa and keep getting game reps (and regular at bats), or he could be sent to a team that has questions at second base AND at third base.