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Cubs Position Preview: Infield

The 2019 season is right around the corner and the Cubs are sporting some versatility within their infield. Daniel Shepard breaks down all the club's options here.

When Theo Epstein and the rest of the Chicago Cubs’ front office was building this core of players, there was a focus toward versatility, especially when it came to the infield. Javier Baez can play shortstop, second base and third base, while Kris Bryant has been willing to fill-in at both corner outfield spots over the years. In addition, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist can play both infield and outfield positions, giving manager Joe Maddon many options to consider on a nightly basis.

As has been the case every year since about 2015, the Cubs’ versatility was on full display in 2018. While injuries forced some to play out of position longer than normal, it was Chicago’s flexibility that allowed them to overcome the injury bug and still win 95 games. Last season the Cubs saw three different players log at least 30 games at second base (Baez, Zobrist and Daniel Murphy) while Bryant (87), David Bote (56), Tommy La Stella (26), Baez (22) and Ian Happ (20) all appeared in at least 20 games at the hot corner.

In 2018, Baez was perhaps the most versatile player on the Cubs’ roster, as he appeared in at least 20 games at three different positions (second base, shortstop, and third base) while mashing 34 home runs and driving in 111 runs on his way to a second place finish in the National League MVP voting.

For the upcoming season, the Cubs will be missing Murphy, a mid-season acquisition that elected to test free agency this winter, and La Stella who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in November. Primarily used as a bench player during his tenure with the Cubs, La Stella collected 24 hits and slashed .312/.398/.416/.813 as a pinch-hitter last season.

While La Stella was well equipped to handle his bench role at the plate, he struggled in his limited action on the field. Playing second and third base last season, La Stella was a well-below average fielder, committing four errors in just over 200 defensive innings.

In his new digs with the Angels, La Stella should get a chance to flourish and develop into an everyday player, something he would likely never get with the Cubs.

It did not take the Cubs long to find La Stella’s replacement, signing utility infielder Daniel Descalso roughly two weeks after trading Tommy. Descalso will make $1.5 million in 2019 and another $2.5 million in 2020. The Cubs also hold a third-year option on the left-handed hitting Descalso valued at $3.5 million with a $1 million buyout, meaning the veteran will make at least $5 million over two seasons with the Cubs.

Descalso brings his own unique set of skills to the North Side of Chicago, ones the front office hopes will work in harmony with the rest of the roster.

Below, we will dive into those skills as we break down the Cubs’ infield situation for the upcoming season.

First Base

First off, let’s start with the corner infield positions, spots held down by two superstars and possible future Hall of Famer’s.

Manning first base for the 2019 season will be the same man who has been holding it down since 2012, Anthony Rizzo. When one looks at Rizzo’s baseball-reference page, one word comes to mind. Consistency.

From 2014 to 2017, the left-handed slugger hit 30-plus home runs every year while driving in 101, 109 and 109 runs in 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively. Across those four seasons, Rizzo slashed .282/.387/.522/.910 with a 143 OPS-plus. Additionally, Rizzo amassed 127 home runs and 397 RBI, averaging 34 and 106 respectively per 162 games over those same four years.

That incredible production by the veteran first baseman earned him three straight All-Star Game appearances from 2014 to 2016, three top-ten finishes in the NL MVP voting, including a 13th place finish in 2017, a Gold Glove award (Rizzo won his second career Gold Glove award in 2018) and a Sliver Slugger award in 2016.

As Rizzo has racked up service time and experience at the big league level, it’s amazing to see his transformation at the plate. For four straight years, from 2013 to 2016, Rizzo struck out at least 100 times and drew no more than 78 free passes. Over the last two seasons, however, that trend has shifted. In 2017, Rizzo reached base via the free pass more times (91) than he struck out (90) for the first time in his career. Additionally, that marked the first time Rizzo had struck out less than 100 time since the 2012 campaign when he played in only 87 games.

Rizzo’s feat of two years ago proved to be no fluke as he replicated his low strikeout rate in 2018. Across 153 games last season, Rizzo posted a strikeout rate of just 12 percent, besting his 13 percent mark from ’17 and setting a new career-low in the process.

While his strikeout rate continued to improve, Rizzo’s walk rate stalled last season, falling from 13.2 percent in ’17 to 10.5 percent in ’18. Nonetheless, those numbers are impressive considering how the southpaw slugger began the season.

In what was perhaps the worst month-plus of his career, Rizzo slashed just .149/.259/.189/.448 as he battled a back injury through the end of April. Those lackluster figures included an .041 ISO and wRC-plus of just 32 that was not helped any by Rizzo’s 4.7 percent walk rate and 17.6 percent strikeout rate.

While it’s safe to say Rizzo was not like himself during the first portion of the season, he came back in a big way down the stretch. Immediately following the month of April, Rizzo got back to his usual ways, recording a robust walk rate of 15 percent and microscopic strikeout rate of 8.3 percent for the month of May.

Even with a .984 OPS during the month of May, Rizzo entered the All-Star break slashing .246/.341/.407/.748 with a 101 wRC-plus. After his lackluster start, just to see Rizzo get back to league average was a welcomed sight for Cubs fans. To see him get back to his MVP-caliber self, however, was even more fun to watch in the second half of play.

A bad half season behind him, Rizzo produced like an MVP down the stretch. His near identical walk (11.3 percent) and strikeout (11.6 percent) rates post-All-Star break helped fuel a .329/.420/.550/.970 line in the second half. Accompanying those numbers were a .221 ISO, .406 wOBA and 157 wRC-plus.

All told, Rizzo finished the 2018 season with some of the worst numbers he has posted as a member of the Cubs. His .187 ISO, .470 slugging percentage, 125 wRC-plus and 2.9 WAR all represent his lowest marks since 2013, Rizzo’s second full season with the Cubs.

As laid out by the numbers above, Rizzo bounced back in a big way during the second half of play last season. For that reason, one can assume Rizzo may have been dealing with lingering back issues for the first portion of the season, problems that were resolved post-All-Star break.

No matter his struggles, Rizzo will remain the Cubs’ primary first baseman for at least the next three seasons. At 29 years of age, Rizzo is under contract through 2019 with the Cubs holding two club options for 2020 and 2021. In that time and beyond, Rizzo has a chance to solidify his name among some of the best first basemen to ever play the game.

Since joining the Cubs, Rizzo has posted two five-plus win seasons (2014 and 2015) while racking up 4.9 and 4.0 wins in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The only blemish on Rizzo’s record since 2014 came last season, a bump in the road that is projected to correct itself in 2019.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 146 G, .281 AVG, 32 2B, 30 HR, 93 RBI.

Third Base

Affectionately making up the former part of “Bryzzo,” Kris Bryant has lived up to his lofty draft stock over his first four years at the major league level. An NL Rookie of the Year award winner, Bryant appeared in back-to-back All-Star Games to begin his career, while also winning the 2016 NL MVP.

Across his first three seasons with the Cubs, Bryant racked up 20.7 wins above replacement, topping out at 7.9 during the 2016 campaign. It was during that magical 2016 season that Bryant proved he was more than just a flash in the pan. A year removed from leading the league in strikeouts despite playing in just 151 games, Bryant posted a 22 percent strikeout rate, an almost eight percent drop from the 30.6 percent mark he amassed in 2015.

The strikeout department was not the only place where Bryant took a step forward in 2016. In just four more games, the youngster hit 13 more home runs, topping out at 39, while recording an ISO of .262 and an elite slugging percentage of .554. Both of those numbers still stand as the high watermarks for Bryant’s career, as does his 40.3 percent hard contact rate and 148 wRC-plus.

Bryant’s career has not been all dingers and highlight reels, however. After posting a .946 OPS in 2017 (seven points higher than his MVP mark of .939 in ’16), Bryant ran into injury problems for the first time in his star-studded career.

Fresh off of a seventh place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2017, Bryant picked up right where he left off in 2018. The young slugger jumped quickly into the early season MVP conversation, slashing .291/.441/.506/.948 with a 156 wRC-plus through the end of April. That production, along with his 14.7 percent walk rate, 13.7 percent strikeout rate and .215 ISO, were big reasons why Rizzo’s lackluster start to the season went largely overlooked.

While it’s hard to maintain a .950 OPS over the course of an entire season, Bryant was well on his way after another MVP-caliber month. Despite his strikeout rate hitting 20 percent for the month of May, Bryant posted a .904 OPS, .255 ISO and 140 wRC-plus to accompany his 44.7 percent hard contact rate and 24.7 percent line-drive rate.

Two-plus months into the season, Bryant showed very little signs of slowing down at the plate as two legitimate MVP candidates began to emerge from the Cubs’ order. In June, however, things came crashing down for Bryant.

A head-first slide against the Cincinnati Reds in a mid-June contest caused the former MVP to hit the disabled list (now called the injured list) for the first time in his professional career with a left shoulder injury. From June 23 to July 11, Bryant was on the shelf, appearing in 10 games from July 11 to July 23 before hitting the IL again. This time, Bryant missed the last week of July and the entire month of August before posting a .776 OPS down the stretch.

To say Bryant was not an effective offensive player following his injury would be wrong as the slugger posted a 105 wRC-plus post-All-Star break. While still above average, it was nowhere near the 133 mark he posted prior to the All-Star break when he was largely in peak form. Aside from wRC-plus, Bryant still hit .252 and reached base at a .347 clip in the second half, but struggled with his power, managing a slugging percentage of just .402 with an ISO of .150.

All told, Bryant’s injury limited him to just 102 games, by far the fewest of his young career. Additionally, Bryant hit 13 home runs, half as many as he hit during his rookie season of 2015, while driving in a lackluster 52 runs. It goes without saying 2018 was Bryant’s worst offensive campaign of his career. However, he still posted a 118 OPS-plus and .834 non-park adjusted mark, numbers someone like Jason Heyward would love to have.

2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 143 G, .275 AVG, 32 2B, 28 HR, 87 RBI.

As touched on above, the Cubs have built crazy amounts of versatility into their roster. While Bryant will see the majority of playing time at third base, barring injury, names like Bote, Baez and Descalso could also spend small amounts of time at the hot corner in 2019.

Second Base

When you migrate away from the corner infield positions, things begin to become blurred as to who will be receiving playing time. As things stand right now, with the roster that is currently constructed, second base projects to be a platoon spot for the Cubs in 2019.

For his career, Descalso has logged over 1,000 innings at three different infield positions. Those includes second base (1,974), third base (1,401.2) and shortstop (1,255.2). Second base ranks at the top of Descalso’s best positions defensively as he currently stands as an average defender at the position in terms of defensive runs saved. At both third base and shortstop for his career, Descalso has proven to be slightly below league average, posting negative-11 and negative-21 runs saved at those spots respectively.

With second base being his best position defensively and Baez having to cover for Russell at shortstop for at least the first month of the season, Descalso should get a chance to be the regular starter at second.

Of course, Zobrist would have something to say about that, but we will get into that in a minute.

Offensively, Descalso is nothing to write home about. For his career, the 32-year-old owns an OPS-plus of just 85 and that is after he posted a 106 mark in 2018. From 2014 through 2018, Descalso is sporting a slash line of .237/.335/.391/.726 while at the same time having averaged 11 home runs and 51 RBI per 162 games during that span. If you are wondering, that works out to a park adjusted OPS of just 87 while his strikeout rate has ticked up each of the last three seasons, topping out at 26 percent in 2018.

As for his platoon numbers, Descalso is a left-handed bat, much like La Stella, that hits all pitchers about the same. For his career, there is just a two point different between his OPS against southpaws (.696) and his OPS against right-handers (.694). The biggest difference in the two lines come in the power department as Descalso owns a .372 career slugging percentage against right-handers versus a .366 mark when facing left-handers. That equates to an eight point advantage in his ISO when facing right-handers (.132 vs. .124) but does not help his overall offensive value much as he owns an 88 wRC-plus against lefties compared to an 84 wRC-plus against righties.

Last year, Descalso’s advantage when facing southpaws jumped to another level. While his 31.1 percent strikeout rate was alarmingly high, the veteran posted an .889 OPS and .238 ISO against left-handed pitching, equating to a 134 wRC-plus. Those numbers came because Descalso hit four of his 13 home runs off left-handed pitching in just 63 at-bats last season compared to nine home runs across 286 at-bats when facing right-handed pitchers.

Not known for his power-hitting abilities, Descalso entered the 2018 season having hit just 33 home runs across an eight-year career. Ten of those came in 2017, which set a career mark for the veteran, a number that was bested by his 13 last season. An owner of a career .370 slugging percentage, Descalso managed a .436 mark last season, fueling a .789 OPS which was also a career high.

If Descalso can continue to tap into his new-found power, he could be a difference maker for the Cubs. All signs point to his jump in power being legitimate as Descalso’s hard contact rate has risen every year since 2015 when he posted a 20.1 percent mark. Since then, Descalso has more than doubled that number which jumped from 37 percent in ’17 to 43.1 percent last year.

Also fighting for a role within this infield core is Zobrist. Fresh off of an outstanding bounce back campaign in 2018, Zobrist will be entering the final year of the four-year, $56 million deal he signed prior to the 2016 season.

In three seasons with the Cubs, Zobrist has provided immense value while filling a “do-everything” role for the club. Offensively, Zobrist has posted two well-above average seasons and one below average year in his time with the Cubs. That lackluster season came in 2017 when the veteran played hurt for large portions of the season and managed an OPS-plus of just 79, but that has been overshadowed by two All-Star-caliber campaigns.

All told, Zobrist has slashed .270/.363/.422/.785 across 414 games on the North Side. His 39 home runs and 184 RBI equate to 16 long balls and 72 RBI per 162 games while he has also sported a robust walk rate over the last handful of years.

Defensively, Zobrist provides a lot of the same value as Descalso. Over the course of his career, Zobrist has racked up over 6,700 innings at second base, 4,300 innings in the outfield and another 1,700 innings at shortstop. Unlike the Cubs’ new acquisition, however, Zobrist has been much better defensively, ranking on the positive side of the defensive runs saved column at every position except shortstop.

At 37 years of age, however, Zobrist has been relegated to being an average defender at best, something that has limited his playing time of late. Nonetheless, Zobrist still provides a moderate amount of value that included a 3.6 WAR last season and eight wins above replacement in his three seasons with the Cubs.

Referencing the tweet above, if Descalso sees the majority of the playing time at second base against right-handed pitchers then Zobrist would likely be moved to one of the two corner outfield positions. This, however, presents an interesting challenge as both Kyle Schwarber and Heyward have found success against right-handed pitchers in their careers. Of Schwarber’s 72 career home runs, 66 have come against right-handed pitchers while Heyward owns a career .793 OPS and 118 wRC-plus when facing righties.

As for Zobrist, the switch-hitter excelled against RHP’s in ’18. His .295/.377/.452/.828 slash line was 41 points higher than against southpaws while his .157 ISO and 125 wRC-plus easily outpaced the marks he amassed when facing lefties. With that being said, Zobrist still posted a 116 wRC-plus against southpaws last season, but managed just a .407 slugging percentage and .073 ISO after hitting just nine doubles as a right-handed batter.

While the numbers bear out that Zobrist was better from the left side last season, the same cannot be said for his career. In a tenure that spans 13 seasons, Zobrist owns an .807 OPS and 122 wRC-plus as a right-handed batter facing lefties. That includes a .154 ISO, .365 OBP and .441 slugging percentage from the right side. Compare those numbers to Zobrist’s .777 OPS and 114 wRC-plus against right-handed pitching and it becomes clear the veteran can hit any type of pitching, no matter what side it comes from.

The decision to play Descalso at second base would not come solely from a production standpoint. Instead, the aging Zobrist will need to be protected from being over-worked this year as he enters his age 38 season.

With Russell out, expect Descalso and Zobrist to split time at second base with Zobrist spelling either Schwarber or Heyward in the outfield against left-handed pitching.

Descalso – 2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 50 G, .230 AVG, 9 2B, 5 HR, 22 RBI.

Zobrist – 2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 104 G, .268 AVG, 22 2B, 9 HR, 47 RBI.

Shortstop

Another interesting position to analyze is just a few feet to the right of second base, shortstop. As mentioned by the above tweet, Javier Baez will be the everyday man for the position as Russell serves the remainder of his 40-game suspension.

Baez is no stranger to shortstop as he has racked up more than 1,500 innings at the position during his tenure with the Cubs, including 462.2 frames in Russell’s stead last season. The youngster, who finally broke out in a big way at the plate last season, also plays elite defense that almost can not be quantified with any metric. For that high-level defense and sheer ability to be able to play multiple positions, Baez was awarded the Fielding Bible Award as a multi-position player, an award he has won three seasons in a row.

As that last sentence states, Baez has been an elite defender almost since the first day that he broke into the majors. What has not always been present for Baez was consistent offensive production, something that has always been hampered by his lofty strikeout rate.

When Baez grabbed his first taste of the big leagues with a 52 game stint back in 2014, the 21-year-old displayed an outstanding power-hitting ability. Across 229 plate appearances, Baez mashed nine home runs and posted an impressive hard contact rate (for a rookie) of 31.4 percent. However, the youngster also showed that he liked to swing the bat, which in turn, led to an out-of-sight strikeout rate of 41.5 percent as Baez struck out 95 times in those 52 games.

Luckily for Baez and the Cubs, improvements came as the youngster learned an incremental amount of patience at the plate. With just a 28-game stint at the big league level in 2015, Baez finally stuck on the major league roster in 2016, helping to contribute to what was a World Series-caliber team. In 142 games, Baez racked up just 450 plate appearances as he would often appear late in games as a defensive replacement. Nonetheless, the youngster embraced the role, slashing .273/.314/.423/.737 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI.

Those numbers fueled a 94 wRC-plus for Baez and a solid 2.2 WAR. Perhaps the biggest step forward for Baez, however, came in the strikeout department as he posted a solid, albeit still high, 24 percent strikeout rate in 2016.

Looking back, the Cubs’ run to the World Series very well could have had an immeasurable impact on Baez’s development. His efforts in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers earned him NLCS co-MVP honors along with Jon Lester while his Game 7 home run in the World Series provided the Cubs with a valuable run.

Since that postseason, one could say Baez’s development has increased ten-fold over the last two seasons, beginning in 2017.

It was during that 2017 season in which Baez would set most of the career highs that he would shatter the following year. From home runs (23) to RBI (75) to slugging percentage (.480) and OPS (.796), Baez had part one of his coming out party in ’17. Unfortunately, however, Baez’s strikeout rate continued to hamper his offensive value statistics. While both his wRC-plus (98) and OPS-plus (102) either matched or set new career marks for the youngster, Baez’s 28.3 percent strikeout rate slipped back up more than four percentage points from his ’16 mark.

Up until the 2018 season, people around the team were not sure if Baez would ever be able to take that next step offensively if he continued to strikeout at such a high clip. Instead, 25 home runs and 80 RBI might have been the limit for a guy who was once a highly touted prospect. Do not get me wrong, 25 and 80 are great numbers, but if Baez was never able to tap into his real potential, fans would have been left feeling like there was more he could have offered.

Well, in 2018 Baez finally offered every ounce of his potential and it came at exactly the right time. In a season where the Cubs experienced so many injuries, Baez remained the solid force in the middle of the lineup, day in and day out. Still working with a lofty 25.9 percent strikeout rate, Baez was finally able to tap into solid hard contact rates.

Sitting in the low-30’s, Baez increased his hard contact rate to 35.8 percent in 2018 while at the same time upping his line-drive percentage almost seven percentage points from ’17 to ’18.

Much to the delight of Cubs fans everywhere, Baez was able to turn those percentages into massive amounts of production that resulted in a career best 34 home runs and 111 RBI last season. That latter number led the NL while his .554 slugging percentage helped produce an .881 OPS for the youngster.

Baez did not discriminate between the type of extra base hits he recorded in 2018. In addition to his 34 home runs, Baez racked up 40 doubles and nine triples after having hit no more than 24 and two in a season before. Those 83 extra base hits resulted in a lofty .264 ISO, an almost 60 point increase from his 2017 mark.

Strikeouts be damned in 2018, Baez was finally rewarded with the offensive value statistics he deserves. At 131, Baez’s wRC-plus was 33 points better than anything he had posted prior while his 126 OPS-plus was 24 ticks higher than his 2015 and 2017 marks. Those numbers helped Baez earn his first All-Star Game nod and Sliver Slugger award but was not enough to pry the NL MVP award from Christain Yelich’s hands.

As the 2019 season approaches, it will be exciting to see what Baez can do for an encore. With his defensive skills at shortstop and his offensive prowess at the plate, Russell may not get his position back if/when he returns from suspension.

One thing that will not be impacted by Russell’s return is Baez’s playing time as he has cemented himself as one of the game’s best young stars.

Also vying for a spot among this infield group is David Bote. Already tabbed as Baez’s back-up at shortstop with Russell suspended, Bote very well could find himself playing all over the infield (and outfield) this summer. The 25-year-old is no stranger to that, having played significant time at both third base and second base this season with Bryant injured and Russell away from the team.

In fact, it was Bote who earned the nod at third base in the NL wild-card game against Kyle Freeland, the Colorado Rockies’ left-handed starter. For the 2019 season, expect that to be Bote’s role, playing primarily against southpaws.

During his short 74-game big league career, Bote posted all around better numbers when facing left-handed pitchers. In that split, Bote slashed .275/.381/.490/.871 with a .216 ISO and 134 wRC-plus. That bested a .668 OPS when the youngster faced right-handed pitching, a number that worked out to a 79 wRC-plus.

The numbers behind those slash lines make it pretty clear the difference between the two. Against left-handers, Bote owned a hard contact rate of 47.1 percent while cutting his soft contact to just 11.8 percent. On the flip side, Bote still managed a solid 35.5 percent hard contact rate when facing right-handers, but his soft contact shot up to 20.4 percent.

With those extreme splits, Joe Maddon will likely be very selective concerning Bote’s playing time. Still, a slow start to the season from Descalso or an injury in Spring Training could open the door for a player who owned one of the best average exit velocities in the game of baseball last year.

That being said, Bote will need to translate that into better results than a .239 batting average and .727 OPS if he hopes to have a shot at legitimate playing time moving forward.

Baez – 2019 Steamer projections according to Fangraphs: 147 G, .269 AVG, 30 2B, 29 HR, 96 RBI.

Bote – 2019 Steamer projections according to Fangrahs: 40 G, .246 AVG, 7 2B, 5 HR, 19 RBI.

The Cubs have the versatility to field very different lineups depending on the pitcher. Below is a look at some possible orders:

Possible Lineup vs. RHP

  1. Descalso, 2B
  2. Baez, SS
  3. Bryant, 3B
  4. Rizzo, 1B
  5. Contreras, C
  6. Happ, CF
  7. Schwarber, LF
  8. Heyward, RF
  9. Pitcher

Possible Lineup vs. LHP

  1. Zobrist, RF
  2. Baez, SS
  3. Bryant, 3B
  4. Rizzo, 1B
  5. Bote, 2B
  6. Contreras, C
  7. Happ, LF
  8. Almora, CF
  9. Pitcher

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports

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