With an infield set to feature the reigning NL MVP, Kris Bryant, a Gold Glover and perennial All-Star, Anthony Rizzo, the World Series MVP, Ben Zobrist, and an up-and-coming young player who seems prime for a true breakout season, Addison Russell, the Chicago Cubs look extremely prepared to take on any other team in the league as they look to repeat as World Champions. But, the fact is that no team escapes the regular season unscathed. It’s a truism that the Cubs experienced the hard way during the third game of the 2016 season as they watched Kyle Schwarber collide with Dexter Fowler in the left-center field gap and lost their left fielder for the year (…well, with the exception of one kinda important week later that fall).
Nonetheless, the Cubs sustained success even without Schwarber’s bat in the lineup. How did they do this? By jam-packing the team with as much redundancy and depth as they could before the season started.
That same notion of stocking up on talent will remain critical as the team looks to duplicate and build on its 2016 success this year. Knowing that injuries and ineffectiveness will occur, the Cubs’ infield depth will play a critical role in the Cubs’ 2017 pursuit.
The key cog in the reserve squad will undoubtedly be Javier Baez. Baez, with an impressive breakout during the 2016 season, has adjusted his mechanics since his debut and has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 41.5 percent in 2014 to 24 percent in 2016. Although his approach at the plate still can use tweaking, Baez’ work since his debut and previous work in the minor leagues has consistently shown that he is capable of adjusting.
While Baez has memorably contributed offensively, he also serves an integral role in maintaining the versatility and depth of the team on defense. Having seen significant time at second, third and shortstop last season, Baez’ presence dampens the effect a possible injury to or ineffectiveness from pretty much anyone else on the field could have. By virtue of tag teaming with Zobrist, Baez is essentially the backup for every player in the lineup (perhaps aside from Willson Contreras).
Let’s take a look at some possible scenarios: Imagine Albert Almora isn’t ready to play everyday in center. Move Jason Heyward to center, Zobrist to right and Baez into the lineup at second. Injury to Kyle Schwarber (let’s certainly hope not but you never know)? Send Bryant to left and Baez to third. Between Baez and Zobrist, the two can create redundancy for almost every position on the field, meaning that although he may not have a set position in the everyday lineup, Baez will be a huge contributor to the 2017 squad. (Look back to Daniel Hodgman’s piece for a more in-depth look at Baez’ potential upcoming strengths, challenges and role).
But who comes after Baez on the bench? For now, that would be Tommy La Stella, the left-handed second and third baseman, who has put together three pretty nice campaigns since first appearing for Atlanta in 2014. But La Stella’s 2016 isn’t widely remembered as much for his slashing .270/.357/.405 as it is for his unusual August, when he returned home to New Jersey rather than accepting an assignment to Triple-A Iowa. Even after he returned to the squad later that month, the question of whether he would still be playing baseball in 2017 seemed relevant. Nothing so far this offseason has indicated he will not return to the team, and if that doesn’t change, La Stella, as a high contact, high on-base lefty, is a very likely candidate to round out the bench at the start of the season. That said, Javy Baez’ presence and versatility may sap the necessity of another infielder on the Opening Day roster altogether.
Down in Iowa, Jeimer Candelario appears to be entrenched as the everyday third baseman. Candelario, who is widely considered one of the Cubs’ top ten prospects and was recently named by MLB.com as the fifth best third base prospect in baseball, had a quite good 2016 split between Double-A Tennessee and Iowa, hitting .283/.376/.464 overall and posting a 4.2 WARP in just a half season at Triple-A. The Candy Man even briefly got to the bigs just before the All Star break. While Candelario looks like he would be a capable big league starter, if he has a significant role this season with the Cubs, it would indicate that either he got off to a dominating start at Triple-A and proved himself to be too good for the league or someone like Bryant, Baez or Zobrist got injured. With Kris Bryant locked in as the everyday third baseman for years to come, there may be no spot on the Cubs for the switch-hitting, good on-base presence Candelario brings, meaning he could be a quite valuable trade chip come July.
Then there are the real depth guys in Triple-A, notably led by fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki. Kawasaki signed a rather interesting deal last season that allowed the Cubs to option him back and forth from Chicago to Iowa despite not having any of his initial options remaining. Assuming Kawasaki winds up with a similarly negotiated deal this year, he will likely pop up to the majors periodically to serve as the 25th man who can work counts and get on base.
The Iowa Cubs will also have minor league signings Jemile Weeks, Chris Dominguez and Elliot Soto additionally manning the infield. Weeks is the most notable of the gang, with brief MLB appearances every season since 2011, but he had an inconspicuous year last season, with just 57 plate appearances with the Padres and a rough slash line. Weeks typically mans second base but has spent a little time on the left side of the infield and in center over the course of his career. Dominguez is a corner infielder who has had a pair of very brief stints at the major league level with the Giants and the Reds, and spent last season putting up unremarkable numbers at Triple-A Pawtucket. If Elliot Soto’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he was one of the players the Cubs dealt to the Marlins at the 2015 trade deadline in exchange for Dan Haren. Having mostly stalled out at Double-A in the Cubs’ organization, Soto made it to Triple-A New Orleans for the Marlins and saw time at second, third and short. Soto’s average and slugging numbers were unimpressive last year but he did put up a nice on-base percentage of .358.
Even more so than Candelario, who is still very much a prospect with potential upside, if Weeks, Dominguez or Soto appear on the major league roster, something has probably gone haywire.
Finally, the Cubs could receive contributions from guys like Chesny Young or Ian Happ, two minor leaguers who haven’t played above Double-A yet but figure to either start off the year in Iowa or spend some time there before the year is done. Young, who played primarily second, third and short, but also saw some time in the outfield last season, is an interesting case as he has demonstrated the ability to be a high average, high on-base hitter consistently in his minor league career but has shown almost no power while doing so. His season at Double-A saw him come in second in the Southern League batting crown race but still only earned him a fairly uninspiring 2.4 WARP. Scouts, too, seem underwhelmed by Young, with MLB.com comping him to a right-handed Tommy La Stella. All that said, if he can add a little more power to his game once he hits Iowa, the speedy Young may have a shot at playing a role either this season or next.
Then there’s Ian Happ, who saw a ton of time at second at High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season, but who has also played all three positions in the outfield. Unlike the less-heralded Young, Happ is considered by scouts to be one of the Cubs’ top prospects, consistently placed in the top two or three in the system by evaluators. The Cubs’ first round draft pick in 2015, Happ has not had one real breakout season yet like his fellow first rounders Bryant and Schwarber, but has rather needed a more typical, slower development.
Last year, he finished the season with a .279/.365/.445 line between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. Though there are certainly some concerns about Happ’s game, namely a high strikeout rate and a significantly decreased on base number after his promotion to Double-A, if he starts the year in Iowa and plays well, don’t be shocked to see Happ at Wrigley by very late summer. The Cubs’ aggressive promotions with Triple-A first timers like Willson Contreras may be the model if Happ looks good early and a need arises. If Happ makes it to the major leagues, he may take on a similar role to Ben Zobrist, playing second, left and right.
Happ’s versatility brings us full circle back to Zobrist and Baez, the two most significant pieces to the Cubs’ depth going into the 2017 season. While it is great that the team has some plausible fill-ins behind them, it will be these two who will carry the brunt of the load in ensuring the everyday lineup is always filled with above-average players. The strength of the 2017 Cubs will come from its depth. And the strength of its depth will come from its infield.
Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports