Perhaps you saw the ending to Puerto Rico’s Tuesday night victory over the Dominican Republic in the second round of the World Baseball Classic. Perhaps you witnessed Javier Baez make another improbably good and unreservedly fun play. Perhaps you even questioned the veracity of that play’s result. But then again, perhaps you didn’t. For those of you who didn’t, and for those of you who just want to witness a moment of boundless joy on the baseball diamond again, take a look:
With that, Javier Baez re-lodged himself in the baseball center of my brain, and, with that, Baez also caused a sort of mini-crisis.
How so, you ask?
I’m terrified of trying to work out a playing time configuration for the Cubs’ bevy of good position players. This might only be a crisis for someone who derives pleasure from writing about the Chicago Cubs for this website, but it’s a crisis nonetheless, and I’m determined to work through it. This is my attempt at exorcising this demon of defensive alignments, this Beelzebub of a ballplayer carousel.
Baez, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber will jostle for defensive positioning any given day, and the splash of any one alignment of those players sends ripples throughout the rest of the defense. The nuts and bolts: Bryant will start at third most of the time, and Schwarber will get most starts in left field. Zobrist and Baez will split time at second base—how so, it remains to be seen—with Zobrist getting starts in right and left field, and Baez shuffling to shortstop and third when Addison Russell and Bryant, respectively, need days off.
When will Joe Maddon decide to deploy these players at these positions, though? We must take into account not only total offensive production, but also matchups, health, and defensive aptitude in order to hazard any combination that Maddon might choose in a situation. Let’s go through a few scenarios.
With all players healthy, and a righty on the mound, it stands to reason that Bryant will start at third, Schwarber in left, and Zobrist at second. Zobrist’s switch-hitting ability makes him a more attractive start versus righties than Baez, and Schwarber mashes right-handers. This isn’t controversial: it’s the optimal offensive lineup for the Cubs, as well. Schwarber or Zobrist leads off, and the other hits cleanup.
When a southpaw takes the mound, though, things get a little hairier. It’s not an instance of rote platooning, since Zobrist switch hits and Schwarber should get an opportunity to hit lefties (despite 61 bad plate appearances against left-handers in 2015), but Baez hits lefties as well as Schwarber hits righties. PECOTA pegs Baez for a below-average .254 TAv in 2017, but his TAv versus lefties has been healthily above .300 for his career, with a gain of nearly 100 points in slugging. Schwarber and Baez will certainly trade off via platoon often, but not always, pushing either Zobrist or Bryant to left.
With this in mind, we must return to Baez. His offensive ability is the least known of these four players, and therefore he’s the hardest for whom to project playing time. If Baez is going to continue his ascent as an offensive player, cutting down on strikeouts and upping his contact rate while not selling out his power, he’s a player one wants in the lineup most days. If he’s a 15-home run player instead of a 25-home run player, he might be a mere regular instead of a star, and therefore not worth many starts over Zobrist or Schwarber.
Injuries make this calculus moot. The attrition of a full season might sideline the aging Zobrist, and Schwarber is coming off of his season-ending torn ACL. Both are candidates for injury, and any other injuries to the squad might necessitate some shuffling. Keeping Zobrist fresh might behoove Maddon regardless of injury status: his swoon in June and July of last season was quite pronounced, and Maddon’s old favorite would undoubtedly benefit from more rest. The rest of the position players on the team are young and in good health, so frequent but regular rest should be fine.
What does an ideal allotment of playing time look like? With the above considered, we can sketch out a number of starts for each player at each position.
Bryant will almost certainly start about 80-85 percent of games at third, and far fewer than the 48 outfield starts he snagged last season. This is mostly a function of an outfield clog: Heyward is the right field starter, and Schwarber (with Zobrist) will fill left field enough to make Bryant unnecessary. Likewise, Schwarber will get most of the starts in left, probably about 60-70 percent. He’s sure to be the designated hitter for interleague play, and he might get a few stray starts at catcher in a pinch. About these we can be fairly certain.
Zobrist will start most games as well. He’ll split with Baez at second and Schwarber in left, and spell Heyward in right field. Ideally, I think I would put Zobrist at second about 50 percent of the time, give him 20 percent of starts in left, and move him around the diamond for the last 15-20 percent. This leaves Baez with half of the starts at second, and about 10 percent of the starts at third (the remainder of the third base action goes to Jeimer Candelario or Tommy La Stella, whoever has the last bench spot).
Let’s visualize this:
(Note: the Cubs have nine interleague games in American League parks.)
Honestly, it’s difficult to sketch this with much confidence. Your unreliable narrator has led you astray—how can Baez only start about 60 percent of games, and Zobrist 85? I’ve shown my bias for the proven Zobrist, I think, but that might be instructive. Maddon likely thinks similarly, and unless Baez proves early that he’s made adjustments, Cubs’ management will likely put him in positions he’s most likely to succeed. That means selective deployment against righties.
Have I driven this demon out? Hardly. Will this torment me all season? Almost certainly. Will Joe Maddon make me a fool at least once over? You’re darn tootin’. Maybe I’m condemned to wander the wilderness in search of the perfect defensive alignment for the 2017 Cubs. That’s fine by me.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports