Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league employs the “Best Nine” award system, with hardware given to the MVP’s of each position. Although definitely a more painful voting process, it’s a nice way to give nods to contributors playing a team game.
So I decided to give a very official “The Loop Sports Best Nine Award” for each position player that reported to Cubs camp this March: many are men expected to storm the field come the week of March 29, but some are dark horse prospects who matched Arizona’s heat with their own. Included are some short blurbs about what may be in store for the future for each player, and the intrigue and energy that they garnered in a short Arizona spring stint.
Keep in mind that spring performances usually never project into the summer, but let this be a fun exercise before we welcome the official season. A stretch of the hamstrings before the long run, if you will. Remember that the hitters and pitchers faced in March are several notches below what one will find in mid-July: when the real monsters emerge.
But let’s dream for a little.
Pitcher – Yu Darvish
19.1 IP – 2.79 ERA – 0.98 WHIP – 20 K
The former Texas Rangers’ ace has always been held to high standards, and those expectations are to continue as he starts his tenure with the Cubs, if not rise. Now locked in with perennial playoff contenders, we got a small sample size of what’s to come this year. Spring stats are not to be completely dismissed, however; his performance, if anything, shows us that he’s on the launch pad.
We got the full Darvish experience this spring: his signature “hesitation” windup, the Frisbee-like slider, and a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball to offset a plethora of other off-speed. He was the most consistent among the five starting pitchers and punished inexperienced bats as expected. He gets my thumbs-skyward for the consistency and worry-less showing he had in a new shade of blue.
Yu will be approaching his year 31-32 season, but this consistent Spring showing proves that he is still sharp as ever.
Catcher – Victor Caratini
41 AB | .244/.404/.770 – 1 HR – 5 RBI
You may be surprised that I chose Caratini over the hot-hitting Willson Contreras, but his case is more about the ultimate result of his Spring rather than the difference in batting average.
First off, let’s welcome Vic back to the big leagues, and let’s hope that he stays. It takes a pretty good showcase to beat out a veteran backstop like Chris Gimenez with raw talent, and we definitely witnessed one. Maddon obviously found positivity in Caratini’s game to say, “Screw the comfort of our older pitchers. Let’s take the younger bat and glove.” Maybe it wasn’t that blunt, but the bottom line is, youth beat the veteran presence.
Second, look at the difference between his average and his on-base percentage. In pretty much any realistic context, that’s a good indicator of a patient hitter that still produces outside of spraying hits. Some quick stat scraping revealed more walks than strikeouts this spring (although it’s a tiny and probably non-representative sample), which is very encouraging for a kid facing hard-throwing prospects with newfangled breaking balls and high heat. Caratini’s history in the minors has always been highlighted by a lofty on-base percentage, which fits well with a big league team grooming patient hitters.
So is his role as a backup catcher well-deserved? Absolutely. He stuck with the play-style that has always defined him, and he shows a very promising future as a Chicago Cubs catcher.
First Base – Anthony Rizzo
48 AB | .354/.411/.604 – 3 HR – 10 RBI
Rizzo was admittedly the only noteworthy first baseman that reported to camp, so he gets my vote here. Regardless, he put up respectable spring numbers that may translate to a hotter start than last year’s first three months, where he seemed rather lost.
I’ll be making a similar statement for Bryant (sorry for spoiling the 3B pick). Rizzo is only climbing up the rankings for best overall hitter in the majors because of his high walk tendencies and contact/power abilities, even relative to his offensively loaded position. There’s a promising chance that his positive trends (increasing walks, decreasing strikeouts) continue as he commits himself more to them. In an era where strikeouts are climbing and players are swinging more freely, gems like Rizzo are hard to find. His Spring Training OBP looks robust as usual, and he also seemed to make extra contact to pair that game.
Also note that Rizzo was an “A-team” player this spring, which means he was also facing pitchers of major league caliber and slightly below. So there’s some promise in those stats that you shouldn’t dismiss completely.
Second Base – David Bote
52 AB | .269/.339/.442 – 1 HR – 8 RBI
We saw a Cubs’ second-baseman flash some premium leather this spring, and his name sometimes wasn’t Javier Baez.
Bote held his own against his colleagues, turning in a decent slash line against some higher level pitching as well as his usual Single-A and Double-A opponents. They weren’t outstanding in comparison to the rest of the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues, but they were enough to grab the eyes of many attentive fans and scouts close to the team.
Maybe Bote has a very limited opening on the Chicago roster, but he is definitely a prospect to keep an eye on for the next year or so. Maybe he won’t be a household name among the prospect field, but he should definitely be respected for a very respectable showcase against opposition probably outside of his comfort zone.
Third Base – Kris Bryant
41 AB | .366/.480/.537 – 1 HR – 3 RBI
Bryant hit nine dingers in the spring before his rookie campaign, then he musters a single homer only two years after being named MVP. What gives?
Here’s what gives: lots of singles, walks, and extra-base hits that maybe don’t clear the fence. They all give a lot, and it’s become a part of Bryant’s game that he’s looking to master.
I was most convinced about Bryant’s performance translating the best into the regular season. With so many flame-throwing youngsters slinging heaters during all of March, we saw lots of opposite-field singles and doubles, and his patience at the plate was manifested into an on-base percentage almost scratching .500. The superstar has only been improving year after year, and he looks primed for another steady climb up the sabermetricians’ rankings.
If we don’t see Bryant hitting nearly 40 homers like in 2016, that’s fine. If he doesn’t hit triple-digit RBIs for the first time, that’s alright with me. All I want to see is a dynamic and well-honed hitter that is an incredibly tough out for any pitcher, like the second coming of Joey Votto.
It looks like Bryant is ready to take another step forward.
Shortstop – Mike Freeman
54 AB | .407/.458/.611 – 2 HR – 10 RBI
He was most likely known as the fill-in man during Addison Russell’s retirement, and now somewhat known as a Cactus League MVP candidate. Although he’s not likely to receive a bench spot in the majors, executives might put a more watchful eye on the veteran should he warrant a possible promotion.
Of course, we need to recognize the nuance that Freeman was considered part of the “B-team” squad, so his level of opposing competition was miles away from what we’d see in the regular season. Plus, those numbers are almost expected from a B-team player with over 3,000 plate appearances in the minors.
Look at those numbers, though. They’re absolutely absurd. Plus, any batting average of .400 needs some kind of recognition. So here you go, Freeman. Here’s to the grand and entertaining spring you put on, and here’s hoping that we see you back in Chicago sometime this year.
Note: In the NPB, the three outfield positions are lumped together. So that’s what will happen here.
Outfielder – Ryan Court
50 AB | .360/.458/.660 – 4 HR – 7 RBI
As a medium-statured, average Triple-A player, there were little expectations for Court to explode as he did. Maddon and the other executives apparently saw something in the 29-year-old that warranted an invitation to Arizona, and he took the opportunity to turn heads.
With his older age and lack of MLB experience, there is little chance that Court finds his way onto the Chicago roster. Such a fine exhibit during Spring Training, however, may coax other teams’ executives to take some interest in the veteran. And why not? He brutalized amateur pitching for an entire month, and if that performance carries into the summer, he may be looking at a final September promotion into a backup spot at the very least.
Outfielder – Ian Happ
53 AB | .321/.400/.811 – 7 HR – 12 RBI
One of the larger story-lines of the Cubs’ spring was the auditions for the leadoff spot. Happ, who will be playing in his first full season in the majors, ran away with them.
The former ninth overall pick put on on an impressive half-year campaign in 2017, where he boasted explosive power to pair with his defensive versatility. From every outfield position and a few infield spots, he flexed pole-to-pole capabilities from both sides of the plate: suitable for any spot between third and eighth in the lineup. With such a torrid spring campaign, Happ seemed poised to take the highest position in the lineup.
He will be the second youngster in as many years to be experimented with at the leadoff spot, with stealing potential and power that rivals anyone in the lineup. Happ could be considered an MVP candidate for all of Spring Training overall, all while being antsy for a new and important role with a contending team.
Maybe he won’t completely quiet the wake left by Dexter Fowler from years ago. But gosh can this kid play.
Outfielder – Kyle Schwarber
53 AB | .340/.419/.660 – 4 HR – 6 RBI – 4 SB
Schwarber’s workout and diet plans were well-documented by media throughout the winter, the results of which looked like a phony before-after advertisement on the Internet. They’re obviously real, however — Kyle Schwarber has transformed.
His percentages were obscenely and unsustainably high, but all are hoping that a permanent and positive change is here to stay. His 14 punch-outs still amounted to a worrying K-rate, but the power numbers proved more importantly that a loss in weight didn’t translate to any loss in pop.
I also decided to add his stolen base total, just to drive the point home. He’s approaching only two years removed from a devastating injury to the knee, but despite also being built as a catcher, most of Schwarber’s spring was spent scampering around the bases. That bodes well for a team looking to threaten more on the base-paths.
Maybe by some act of the baseball gods, Schwarber’s average will finally rise to something that looks more acceptable. Maybe he’ll become the 30-20 player that all the pundits rave about.