The Chicago Cubs began the 2018 season with hopes of once again reaching the World Series. A year ago, the club suffered through much of the season with a title hangover only to reach the NLCS for the third straight season. In that NLCS, the Cubs were bounced quickly by a Los Angeles Dodgers team that would push the World Series to seven games against the Houston Astros.
After running out of steam in the 2017 postseason, Cubs ownership opened their wallets and signed the biggest free agent starting pitcher on the market. Yu Darvish signed a mega-deal worth $126 million over six years while the North Sider’s gambled that Tyler Chatwood would pitch better outside of Coors Field, inking the right-hander to a three-year, $38 million contract.
With their rotation restocked heading into 2018, the Cubs knew their offense would continue to carry them through much of the season. Over the last two years (2016 and 2017), the Cubs owned one of the best offenses in the game. Led by a young core, that offense ranked first in WAR and OBP, ninth in slugging percentage and fifth in wRC+ over that two-year span.
Much of the success of that offensive core during the last two seasons revolved around one man, Kris Bryant. Anchoring the top of the lineup, Bryant posted back-to-back top-ten finishes in the National League MVP voting in 2016 and 2017, winning the award during the Cubs’ World Series title run. Look at Bryant’s numbers over the last two seasons. A slash line of .293/.397/.546 with 68 home runs and 175 RBI to go along with a .943 OPS and 144 OPS-plus.
That success, while even slightly diminished in 2017, had Cubs fans looking for yet another outstanding season from Bryant in his age 26 campaign.
A month into the season, it looked like the fans would get their wish. At the end of April, Bryant was slashing .291/.441/.506, putting him solidly in the early season MVP talks. By the middle portion of June, however, things began to take a turn. Bryant entered June after posting back-to-back months with an ISO above .200, a slugging percentage higher than .500 and an OPS greater than .900. In June, those numbers fell to .107, .373, .707 respectively as the youngster managed just one home run in 75 at-bats.
By the final week of June, it became public why Bryant had been struggling. He had been dealing with pain and inflammation in his left shoulder, no doubt causing his powerful swing to suffer.
On June 23, Bryant was placed on the DL for the first time in his professional career, missing 16 games before returning to the lineup. That return, however, was short-lived as Bryant was once again placed on the disabled list on July 24, just 13 days after making his return.
Now, 13 days into his 10-day DL stint, the Cubs are coming to grips with the fact Bryant may be out for another couple of weeks. While missing a star player would hurt most teams — especially one in the middle of a pennant race — the Cubs are finding a way to turn Bryant’s absence into a strength.
Bryant’s Replacements Are Doing a Fantastic Job
So far this season, five players have logged a plate appearance while playing third base. Those players are: David Bote, Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Tommy La Stella and Victor Caratini. La Stella and Caratini have a combined 38 plate appearances while playing the hot corner, six behind the next closest guy in Happ who has 44.
For the sake of the list, let’s start with the contributions of David Bote. Drafted as an 18th rounder in 2012, Bote has had a long road to the major leagues. Parts of seven years in the minors finally paid off for the 25-year-old who slashed .268/.342/.494 with 13 home runs and 41 RBI in 61 games at the Triple-A level before earning the call-up in late April.
That call-up was to fill-in for Ben Zobrist who hit the disabled list with back tightness, but his most recent action have been replacing Bryant at third base.
Bote’s first stint in the majors did not raise any eyebrows as he went 1-for-9 with three strikeouts. Since then, however, Bote has done his part to soften the impact of Bryant’s two DL trips. Across 20 at-bats sprinkled through May and June, the youngster collected six hits, including one double while logging six RBI.
With more consistent at-bats, Bote has kicked his offensive production up a notch. In 14 July appearances, Bote logged 24 at-bats, getting a hit in 11 of those opportunities. One of those hits was his first major league home run, hit on July 4. All told, Bote slashed .458/.563/.792 in July, helping to establish his current .328/.419/.508 slash line in 61 at-bats.
Even though it’s a small sample size, Bote has played at Bryant’s MVP-caliber level, posting an OPS-plus of 143 in his time at the major league level.
On the defensive side of the ball, Bote has been equally as good. Like so many of the Cubs position players, Bote has versatility, logging playing time at three different positions so far (third base, second base and first base). The bulk of his 148 total defensive innings have come at third base (118). In that time, Bote has failed to record an error in 36 chances. In fact, Bote has not committed an error at the big league level this season while turning five double plays and logging 52 total chances.
It would be hard to talk about the third base position in Bryant’s absence without mentioning Javier Baez. In the midst of an MVP-caliber season, Baez is setting career-highs left and right. His 25 home runs and 88 RBI are already his personal bests while his .302 batting average, .335 OBP, .594 slugging percentage and 138 OPS-plus are all on pace to join those career-highs.
Even with Bryant healthy, Baez saw his fair share of playing time at third base. Prior to this season, Baez had logged more than 400 big league innings at the hot corner, much of that time coming in 2016 when Bryant was relegated to the outfield.
This season, Baez has racked up 86.2 innings at third base. While that is his worst position by fielding percentage (.964), Baez will never be a defensive liability anywhere he plays. If you need confirmation of that, just look at this play he made on Monday night against the Kansas City Royals.
How many gold gloves are you allowed to win in a single season? pic.twitter.com/BAOc3W34j2
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 7, 2018
On the offensive side of things, Baez seems to like playing third base. His aforementioned overall slash line balloons to .422/.438/.844 when he plays the corner infield position. While the sample size is relatively small, just 45 at-bats, Baez owns an sOPS-plus (OPS for split relative to league’s split OPS) of 225, far and away the best number of any position Baez has played at this season.
Perhaps more of a defensive liability at third base than Bote and Baez, Tommy La Stella and Ian Happ have also helped fill the void left by Bryant. Happ owns a .923 fielding percentage in 94.2 innings at third so far this season, while La Stella has committed two errors in 91 innings for a .905 fielding percentage. Despite that, the two actually balance themselves out in defensive runs saved, meaning their combined effort at the position has been solidly league average.
For Happ, that is good news because the switch-hitting youngster has been able to compensate with his bat. While his overall .241/.366/.420 slash line with more strikeouts than total bases does not jump off the page, Happ, like Baez, has been better offensively while playing third base.
Happ’s .241 average increases to .270 when he plays third while his OBP gets a 20 point boost. Despite that, Happ owns a .297 slugging percentage at the position which drags down his OPS, but his 10 hits in 37 at-bats is better than his 31 hits in 125 at-bats when he plays center field.
La Stella, on the other hand, has not provided any type of value at third base this season. His .212/.297/.242 slash line falls directly in line with his lower batting average as a starter versus coming off the bench this season. As a pinch-hitter, La Stella is one of the best in the business, logging 16 hits this season and a .371 OBP.
The Cubs Have Three Solid Options at Third Base
With Bryant continuing to be out, the Cubs will have to rely on Bote, Baez and Happ to continue their solid body of work. The numbers mentioned above have turned the absence of Bryant from an end-of-the-world-type situation into a position of strength for the Cubs moving forward.
These types of situations is why the Cubs’ brass drafted and developed versatile players that could fill-in at multiple positions in case of injury. Throughout the last couple seasons, we have seen that play out over and over again with this time being no different.
Having three guys playing so well at third base not only helps the Cubs continue to win games, but it also helps Bryant himself. The Cubs were not going to rush Bryant back anyway but since his replacements are playing well, that takes the pressure off Bryant to feel like he needs to play through an injury.
Right now, the Cubs’ depth is paying huge dividends. How much longer that lasts, no one knows, but hopefully it’s long enough for Bryant to fully recover and return to his traditional level of play.
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