The Complexity Of Flexibility

I like to get cute with my titles. What of it?

The past two years, we’ve marveled at the flexibility of the Cubs roster. This guy can play here! This guy can play there! This guy over here can play both and more! We should have been referring to everyone as Optimus or Mystique. Actually, I often refer to Javy Baez as Mystique (breathes on fingers, polishes chest). But the thing was, last year’s ever-bending/changing lineup didn’t really cost anyone ABs, at least not undeservedly.

Seven guys got over 400 PAs, with Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras essentially splitting the plate appearancesĀ behind the plate in the second half of the season. David Ross didn’t need to play that much anyway. The only ones to really make way were Jorge Soler, who didn’t hit as badly as you remember but didn’t hit as well as everyone who took his time, and Montero which we know he wasn’t a huge fan of.

But it was a lot easier to shave people’s playing time, or shift them to positions other than their most natural, when you’re all pulling for the same cause. And the cause of ending 108 years is one that probably causes players to give in just a little more than they might. Also when you start 25-6 and are never really under threat is a status that would tend to quell any discontent as well. No matter your beef, everyone can see that it’s working. It’s hard to argue with success.

But that flexibility/changing form of a team this year has been more problematic. And the things that might have bound the team together last year over some personal grumblings—a championship pursuit to end all others and immediate dominance—are not around right now. The Cubs have won, and while they certainly want to win a second, third, fourth time and beyond, there’s nothing quite like the urgency of the first, especially on the Northside. And we know what the record is, because you’ve probably seen your neighbor defenestrate themselves somewhere around Hunter Renfroe’s grand-slam on Monday.

You’re Albert Almora Jr. You weren’t necessarily promised your role, but it sure looked like you earned your way to garnering most of the starts in center. Ok, you haven’t hit, and you haven’t defended the way that everyone expects. But you only got one month at a point in your career where you need ABs, and then suddenly Ian Happ is here, and now you’re not playing. But the team isn’t playing any better. Might you squeeze a little tighter when you do get your odd chance? And with Happ not really having hit in two weeks (Sunday night aside), are you a little antsy about when you’re going to get a serious run of play again?

You’re Addison Russell. You’ve been guaranteed your spot for two seasons. You’ve hit big home runs in the postseason. You struggle for six weeks, and though you may be hurt, suddenly you see Javy Baez taking more and more starts at short. And your struggles are getting worse. You see Zobrist punted all over the field and the bench to make room for others. Do you get a little worried and squeeze too?

Meanwhile, Schwarber has been every bit as bad as Almora or Russell, and yet he’s only been reduced to a platoon. And that doesn’t even get Almora more ABs, at least not yet. What does Almora think then? And on the veteran side, John Jay had a tremendous April. He had to make way for Happ and Schwarber as well. Zobrist has played the good soldier, but we’re pretty sure he was promised most of his time would come at second and not the outfield. When it’s not working, does his agitation grow a bit?

The Cubs are never going to have a set lineup, and I’m not sure they should. Flexibility is a good thing, but I wonder if it hasn’t spilled over the lid here. If Immortan Joe doesn’t have too many toys at his disposal. And with the losses piling up, there’s obviously an urge to change things heavily the next day. And again the one after that. And when you’re not winning, it doesn’t feel like rotation so much as experimentation or straight fishing.

When the Cubs really started to hum the final two months of last season, the lineup was actually pretty set. Bryant stuck at third, and Zobrist basically either played second or moved to left to accommodate Baez. There was the rotation behind the plate, but that’s kind of its own thing now that none of them are moving to the field anywhere. The movements were more minimal than you remember.

But now with Schwarber suddenly a platoon, there are four or five who can play left. There are four for center. There’s four for right. There’s three for second base, and that’s if we don’t include La Stella when he’s on the roster. It seems like there’s just too much, and the longer it doesn’t work the more side-eyed the players involved might start looking at it.

Or it might be all fine when Lackey, Arrieta, and Butler stop giving up homers.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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