Chaos in the Outfield Brings Relative Clarity to Cubs’ Infield Situation

The Cubs’ unexpected trade of Chris Coghlan and re-signing of Dexter Fowler blew up expectations for the outfield. They are now (happily) muddled, and I (happily) left that hard stuff for Matthew Trueblood to sort out. On the infield side, though, these moves actually serve to clarify the Cubs’ roster. Several players whose roles were unclear or inessential just received a little more certainty.

The primary player at each position won’t change because of today’s moves. Anthony Rizzo will still play first, Ben Zobrist second, Addison Russell short, and Kris Bryant third. This is a starting infield projected to put up a sterling 13.6 WARP, and even that might be a little low. For these players, not much has changed—Zobrist and Bryant are now likely to play less outfield than they might have before, but overall the expected starting four is fairly static.

On the bench, though, things are different. Roles were particularly clarified for two players: Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella. I’ll take them in order.

Baez, until today, was expected to be in the mix as the Cubs’ primary backup centerfielder. Behind Heyward, who has still never spent a meaningful amount of time in center, the Cubs seemed to be planning to either use Matt Szczur, sign a late free agent like Austin Jackson, or give Baez a shot. Reports actually suggest that Baez is looking good in the outfield, although this seems less likely to be useful now with Fowler back in the fold. He could still be a primary outfield backup on days when Schwarber starts at catcher, but overall Baez should now be able to focus for the most part on a more traditional backup infielder role. He will be the primary right-handed backup at third base and second base, and he is the clear backup shortstop.

PECOTA likes Baez in that role: they project him to put up 1.0 WARP (.236/.286/.444, 13 HR) in just 263 plate appearances. This sounds about right to me—there should be plenty of opportunities for Baez to act as a pinch hitter and give Zobrist and Russell a day off now and then. And, of course, he could get even more plate appearances if there is ever any significant injury in the infield. Having Baez and his versatility as a member of the bench is incredibly valuable to the Cubs, and if he keeps making improvements on his swing and contact rate the Cubs would be foolish not to find plenty of opportunities to get the potentially explosive 23-year-old on the field.

I’d argue, though, that this set of moves clarifies La Stella’s role more than anybody else. Before the moves today, I was working on a piece that explained why La Stella was very much a man at the margins of the Cubs’ roster. The short version: although he has a strong contact rate, a left-handed bat, and a surprisingly-very-solid PECOTA projection of 0.7 WARP (.269/.342(!)/.380, .265 TAv, 12 percent strikeout rate) in just 262 plate appearances, it was unclear where and when he would be able to get playing time. Coghlan (and Montero, in Ross/Schwarber-started games) were the presumed first left-handed bats off the bench, and Baez provides the same positional versatility that La Stella does and more. Plus, there were the reports that Coghlan was practicing playing second and third, making La Stella potentially even more redundant.

Now, though, the trade of Coghlan carves out a clearly defined role for La Stella. He will be the first or second lefty pinch hitter off the bench (depending on who else is sitting) and the primary left-handed backup infielder. It seems that the front office buys into his value as a high-contact, high-OBP player who complements the Cubs’ power heavy roster nicely. He’s not likely to hit as well off the bench as Chris Coghlan would have, but PECOTA suggests that he might not actually be that  far off. And the moves today (along with the trade they made last year to get La Stella) show that the Cubs’ front office likely agrees.

The main infield question remaining is what (if anything) the Cubs can do with Christian Villanueva, who is out of options and doesn’t seem to fit clearly into the roster. Isaac Bennett will write more about the roster implications of the Fowler and Coghlan moves today as well, but in the infield they serve to clarify some important roles. And—I’ll go out on a limb here—with Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella as clear and complementary backups, that infield situation looks pretty good.

Lead photo courtesy Kyle Terada—USA Today Sports.

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1 comment on “Chaos in the Outfield Brings Relative Clarity to Cubs’ Infield Situation”


Lots wrong w/ the Fowler move: more expensive, lost our 2nd rd pick, lost Cogs, Szczur, lost playing time for Soler, Schwarbs, and Baez, budding resentment/creeping loss of chemistry.

Did we gain enough? Anything?

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