Assuming the Cubs Keep All the Core Players, How Can They Maximize Playing Time For Them?
The Cubs had too many shortstops, too many catchers, too many corner outfielders, and too many rookies. And if we’re going by the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, they had too many wins. But with Joe Maddon at the helm, the boys in blue rewrote the equation to read: a² + b² + wtf². The lineups didn’t always make sense and not everyone was happy with his playing time, but you can’t really argue with results.
You can, however, argue that success is difficult to replicate if you’re not a movie franchise based on souped-up cars and testosterone. The Cubs had some diesel power of their own as they plowed through the Cardinals in the NLDS, but they looked like lemons against the Mets in the NLCS. They turned over all right, but it was just to expose their collective belly to the dominant team.
With that in mind, is it wise — or, better yet, possible — to maintain the core of the roster as-is and expect better results? Sure. I mean, you have to figure the experience this roster gained will help them and the bitter taste of failure is something they’ll do their damnedest (huh, that’s actually a word and not just a colloquialism; no red squiggly line under it or anything) to wash out. I really like the idea of a team that plays with hands on its helmet and a chip on its shoulder, in a collective sense of course.
So even though I just wrote about the possibility of trading core pieces for pitching/roster depth, I wanted to take a look at how the Cubs could head into 2016 with the same foundational (apparently not a word) group and how they could get the most out of those players. This is easier said than done, as many of these guys overlap one another and will necessarily usurp innings from each other. But since my job is to say and not do, I’m on the easier side of things.
Below you see my hastily-put-together grid of players and positions for a 6-game stretch. I utilized some players (Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber) in several positions, while others (Starlin Castro, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler) were pretty static. The two primary catchers are neither versatile nor parts of the core group, but have been included for the sake of filling out the field.
A quick look at utilization shows that I was able to get every one of the key players at least 5 starts in 6 games, and that’s with having at least one Dude (PTBNL) in the outfield for 4 games (2 Dudes in two games). Feel free to fill those amorphous tags in with names like Heyward, Jackson, Zobrist, or Fowler.
Of course, I’m operating under the assumption that the Cubs could/would use Baez in the OF. His freakish athleticism and high baseball IQ would allow him to transition there from time to time and it’d get him in the lineup more often. And taking a spot in the outfield would allow Russell to start every game at SS during the week, while perhaps giving Soler a break and keeping his legs fresh. Of course, that depends on whether Baez can play both corners, which is perhaps a bit of a stretch. Since this is a piece based wholly on speculation and whim, however, I’ll allow it to stand.
I chose not to address the issue of platoon splits, though there’s a tacit assumption that Schwarber will often be out when a lefty is pitching, at least until he improves those brutal splits. I’d really like to see them slot War Bear behind the plate once a week or at least every 10 days or so in order to get him live action back there. Not only does it help his growth as a backstop (which may or may not be his future), but I think we saw this year that Montero could benefit from more days off throughout the season.
I also neglected to illustrate an idea I’ve been advocating for a bit since the end of the Cubs’ season, which is that Schwarber could actually play some first base as well. I mean, he’s already a defensive liability at two other positions so why not a third? Right, AL scouts who only watched him play in the NLCS? In all seriousness though, I think it’s a good idea to get him time there.
Rizzo is perhaps the most indispensable player of the group, given that the Cubs don’t have another 1B. Having a guy to fill in in the event of an injury without suffering a massive drop in offensive output is paramount. That’s also why I actually have the sparkly unicorn himself getting some run across the diamond from his standard spot (which we’ve already seen, albeit briefly). It’s not ideal and maybe not even something we’ll see again, but it wouldn’t hurt to continue that experiment to some extent moving forward.
Under the structure above, Bryant would play all 162 games (unlikely) and the other core players would log 135 apiece (also unlikely). As needs arise, this schedule of playing time could easily shift to meet them, thereby adding to or subtracting from the games-played totals. There’s also the likelihood that whichever player isn’t making a start on a given day would be used as a pinch hitter/defensive replacement, thereby upping his total.
What would be really ideal is to have a guy like Ben Zobrist on the roster to float between 2 or 3 OF spots in order to allow other guys to play positions for which they’re best suited on a given day. Austin Jackson could do more of the same, as could J-Hey (though the price tag on that one is significantly higher). Zobrist also has the whole switch-hitting thing going on, which helps to account for that necessary evil of platoons I skipped over earlier.
I’m not sure how everyone else felt about it, but I really enjoyed looking over the various lineups Joe Maddon would come up with each day. It was like a cool little present for fans, checking each day to see who’d be where and then hearing the skipper’s explanation for his choices. I believe the movement kept the players fresh and focused, though an argument could be made (and probably quite easily) that putting players in relatively unfamiliar positions over and over is just baseball’s version of Russian roulette.
The Cubs certainly shot themselves in the foot, repeatedly, with defensive miscues in their sweep at the hands of the Mets. I don’t think Maddon’s tinkering is wholly to blame there though. Maybe I’m whitewashing things, but the NLCS woes appeared to me to be as much a confluence of bad luck as they were chickens coming home to roost (though I suppose you could say those are kinda one and the same). I mean, it’s not a surprise that Schwarber muffed a play here and there, but there were also terrible plays made by guys who are only ever in one position on the field, so…
In any case, I set out to find a way for the Cubs to give ample playing time to each of their core players, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing so. Well, on paper. And I suppose “succeeded” is a pretty arguable term. But I feel pretty good about the possibility of keeping this current group together without forcing anyone to sacrifice a great deal of games or innings. What do you think? Have any other ideas for who/where/how they could better make this work? Have at it.