This past month, the Cubs have discovered that one of the nice things about returning most of the core from a 103 win World Series champion is that there isn’t a lot of Spring Training drama. With most of the roster decisions already decided by mid-February, it’s up to the beat writers to create their own stories each day, and you can tell things are going well when headlines out of Mesa boil down to:
One of the few questions that has emerged from this spring concerns the role of Javier Baez (Zack Moser addressed this very thing on Thursday.). Specifically, with the infield and outfield already crowded by everyday regulars, what kind of machinations will Joe Maddon have to employ to get such a talented player a sufficient number of plate appearances throughout the season?
With all the mental agita we’ve spent on this quandary, the solution might end up making itself apparent sooner than we think. Because during the 2017 season, Ben Zobrist will be turning 36. While that doesn’t mean that he’s too old to play effective baseball by itself, for someone who plays the majority of his games at second base, it does mean that it’s time to monitor his production closely. Historically speaking, once second basemen hit that age, they develop an unfortunate tendency to plunge off a cliff headfirst into their decline.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that Zobrist has already earned every penny of his $56 million deal. Ask any Cub fan how much they would have paid to sign a World Series MVP and every one of them would be pleasantly surprised by a contract that didn’t include the phrase “your immortal soul.”
(Although Tom Ricketts would like to add that for a mere $400, you can get Zobrist to sign your soul at the Cubs Authentics stand.)
It’s also important to note that last year, Zobrist’s performance was great. In a season where he spent the majority of his time at second base (119 games), Zobrist amassed 4.0 WARP. For a 35-year-old middle infielder, this is exceptional. As a point of comparison, Chase Utley’s age-35 season produced 4.5 WARP with the Phillies in 2014. At this point in Zobrist’s career, it’s always good to be keeping company with a borderline Hall of Famer.
The only problem is that at that age, that kind of production is historically difficult to sustain. And for an example of that, we need only look to Utley’s very next year where an offseason ankle sprain cost him substantial playing time and transformed him into a replacement player—to the tune of a 0.0 WARP season between Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
And unfortunately, that’s the kind of performance that’s fairly typical for a second baseman at this point in his career. Even several of the position’s all time greats have experienced massive performance declines when they turned 36. A couple of recent Hall of Famers illustrate this troublesome trend: At that age, Craig Biggio fell from 2.1 WARP all the way down to -0.6 before being told to spend the next few years standing on Tal’s Hill and thinking about what he did. And Roberto Alomar somehow managed to follow up a -0.3 WARP year by declining even further and putting up a -0.5 before calling it a career.
With examples like this, it would be prudent for the Cubs to monitor Zobrist’s performance this year very closely. However, there are exceptions to this pattern. Joe Morgan put up a very respectable age 36 season, with a .283 TAv contributing to 3.0 WARP. And Ryne Sandberg just about matched his production at that age with his comeback season fueled by a .444 SLG and 11.7 FRAA to produce 2.9 WARP.
So it’s not necessarily written in the stars that a second baseman has to endure a complete skill erosion at Zobrist’s current age. But even these acceptable late career performances were bookended by less than stellar years (Morgan’s 1.5 WARP in 1979 and Sandberg’s -0.2 in 1997). Again, the Cubs need to be prepared for the possibility of a sharp decline for Zobrist and have a plan in place should that come to fruition.
It’s probably a good sign when you can break the glass of your “In Case of Emergency” player with his NLCS MVP trophy.
Indeed, age has already showed its effects in Zobrist’s fielding from 2016, as he turned in a career worst -10.3 FRAA, mostly due to the -6.9 he accumulated in his 119 games at second. Despite this, PECOTA is still rather bullish on the World Series MVP, projecting him for a very acceptable 2.8 WARP and .275 TAv for 2017.
In order for Zobrist to live up to that, it might behoove Joe Maddon and the Cubs to move him down the defensive spectrum as often as they can to a less intense position with fewer Utleys and Matt Hollidays demonstrating the sliding techniques they learned in their time at Cobra Kai. And ever the unselfish teammate, Zobrist knows this as well:
“With Javy’s emergence and how well he played at the end of last year…defensively he’s so great out there no matter where you put him, we had to get him in there. So that’s going to happen a little bit more this year as well…[probably] giving me a few more days rest.
“With Schwarber added into the action in left field, my guess is I’ll play a little bit of outfield as well, but I become a little bit more of a super-utility guy again as opposed to just a starting second baseman.”
At this point in his career, Zobrist is self aware enough to know what his strengths and limitations are and that he needs to pull back on occasion to make sure that he plays at the highest level he can. He also possesses the requisite baseball senses to appreciate Baez’s strengths as a second baseman. Namely:
- A pair of functioning eyes
- A mouth to scream phrases beginning with “Holy…”
In order for the 2017 Cubs to reach the heights that they ascended in 2016, Zobrist readily admits that Baez is going to have to play as often as possible and he is perfectly willing to do what he can to accommodate that so that he can function as a productive player in the latter stages of his career. That kind of maturity underscores that even at this advanced age, the Cubs are immensely lucky to have him.
And if you have any doubts about that, talk to Bryan Shaw.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports