This year’s early exit from the playoffs left Cubs fans perplexed, bitter, and frustrated by a season that never truly materialized. In spite of 95 wins and four-straight playoff appearances (a franchise first) the season felt more confusing than exciting, glaring flaws overshadowing appreciation.
So while the baseball world is currently in the midst of two promising Championship Series, and while playoff baseball — with or without the Cubs — will always be a prescribed drug for me, the Cubs fan in me can’t help but look beyond the World Series and into the off-season. There’ll be questions aplenty surrounding the entire roster, with a hard look at the infield composition one of several important tasks for the front office this winter.
2019 is Bound to See Some Infield Changes
Let’s clear up one issue immediately: Addison Russell will not be a Cub in 2019. This was my plea in the immediate aftermath of his ex-wife’s blog post, and after MLB’s investigation closed with a 40-game suspension, Theo Epstein being non-committal on Russel’s return to the Cubs, and a growing consensus among beat writers that he’s played his last game in Chicago (Patrick Mooney and Andy Dolan of The Athletic, among others), the only question that remains is if he’ll be outright released or if they’ll seek out a trade. For the sake of optics the Cubs are best-served to release him, but either way there’ll be a new Opening Day shortstop in 2019.
Others, too, will be departing. Daniel Murphy was a pure rental, and while his immediate presence in the lineup boosted an offense that was in the midst of an outright spiral, his bat was intended only for the short-term. His age (34 next season), notably poor defense at the keystone, and lofty contract that’s expiring make him an expensive, injury prone free agent that doesn’t fit the Cubs future plans.
Ben Zobrist will be returning for the last season of his four-year contract with the Cubs. At age 37 he put together a fine campaign, amassing a .305/.378/.440 triple slash with a paltry 11.5 percent strikeout rate, a solid wRC+ of 123, and a 3.6 WAR. Zobrist accomplished this while playing several different positions with aplomb — and he anchored right field down the stretch with Jason Heyward on the DL.
While Zobrist will be a major contributor next season, he can’t be expected to replicate these numbers. Assuming he can slot in at second everyday while moving Javier Baez to short minimizes his utility appeal while also assuming his body can still hold up to the rigors of playing everyday. His 520 plate appearances in 2018 were (I’m guessing) more than what was imagined before the season started — a result of his impressive production and the string of injuries that plagued the roster all season. Expect him to maintain a super utility role with ~400 plate appearances, but an everyday starter at age 38 just isn’t happening.
One player that may get more playing time next season is David Bote. While he certainly made a name for himself with passionate play, surprisingly solid defense at multiple positions, and of course, perhaps the most memorable regular season home run in franchise history, expectations for him should be tempered. Despite Bote’s exciting exit velocity, his numbers overall combat the nostalgia the fan base already has for him. A .239/.319/.408 slash is hardly inspiring, and his wRC+ of 95 suggests he was slightly below league average as a hitter. Rookies often get better, and I certainly expect Bote to be a contributor for the Cubs in 2019; I do not envision him as an everyday starter, however.
Bote has one glaring weakness: pitches up, both in and out of the strike zone. Per Brooks Baseball, this chart displays his whiff rate throughout the zone in 2018:
Pitchers started throwing up and away, and he could neither catch-up nor layoff. Perhaps with Anthony Iapoce working with Bote this will improve, as the new hitting coach is a familiar face within the organization that believes in launch angle, and therefore may have better insight for a launch angle darling like Bote. This remains to be seen, though it will be critical if Bote is to take the next step forward in his career. For now? He’s a nice bench piece, perhaps a platoon option somewhere if necessary.
Despite questions surrounding the infield there are obvious certainties. Anthony Rizzo is the Captain, the anchor of this infield that put together a characteristically brilliant .283/.376/.470 triple slash. Kris Bryant‘s injury plagued season has little bearing on his future. There’s little reason to think he won’t return to his superstar level of production next season at the hot corner. And Baez asserted himself as one of the game’s premier players, putting together an MVP-caliber season. The sky is the limit for “El Mago.”
What Might Free Agency or Trades Bring to the Infield?
How the Cubs address this off-season is critically important. That much we all know. Regarding the infield they could make a big splash and go all-in for Manny Machado, but questions surround such a signing. Do the Cubs want to open the check book for a player adamant about playing shortstop when you have Javier Baez? Would he be willing to move back to third base, and if so, do you transition Kris Bryant to left while exploring trades for Kyle Schwarber? Would that money be better spent on another high profile free agent?
These are questions we will soon know the answers to, but in the meantime we can only imagine the scenarios. After Machado there’s very little intrigue on the free agent market with regard to infielders. Jose Iglesias is one name that sticks out to me as he’s a terrific defensive shortstop. I’m just not sure the Cubs will commit to a multi-year deal on a defensive-first player after this season’s offensive woes.
As for trades, it’s far too early to speculate on what moves the Cubs might make. We have every reason to believe that the Cubs will look into dismantling the core. How they do so — and what return they might receive as compensation — is impossible to know right now.
What we do know is that the Cubs front office will be busy this off-season. Right now it’s time to objectively enjoy playoff baseball and let the promise of Hot Stove season satisfy our wildest dreams.
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