For second base, Cubs enjoy first-rate options
When Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon makes out his daily lineup card, he has these options at second base:
• The reigning World Series MVP and starter in the All-Star Game, a veteran with back-to-back world championships to his credit.
• The co-MVP of the National League championship series, a rising young star whose sleight-of-hand glove work has even veterans wondering, "How was that possible?"
Ben Zobrist is the veteran. Javier Baez is the upstart. They present Maddon with a nice problem, but they also present him with a challenge to find them enough playing time.
"I'm pretty sure we're going to rotate a lot," said Baez, who saw action at second base, first base, third base, shortstop and left field in 2016. "Wherever they put me, I'm just going to try to do my best."
Maddon's strength has been working all of his moving parts into the lineup, sometimes at multiple positions during any one game. He'll have interesting options with the 35-year-old Zobrist and the 24-year-old Baez.
"We have to balance a lot of different things," Maddon said. "(Baez) is going to play some second, of course, and so is Zo. Zo's going to be out there primarily and then we'll work Javy in there, but Zo could also do what he's done in the past: play some outfield.
"Javy was so significant to the conclusion of last season. He's going to be very significant this year and years to come."
Another of Maddon's catchphrases is that baseball can have a cruel way of sorting out things. Injuries, a hot streak or a cold streak can force the issue one way or the other.
Both Baez and Zobrist have one thing in common: versatility.
According to FanGraphs, Baez had 16 defensive runs saved among all five positions he played last year.
Zobrist played in 119 games at second base, 27 in left field, 24 in right field and 1 each at first base and shortstop.
Most players would love to settle at one position, but Zobrist has carved out a long career by being willing and able to play multiple positions. Maddon even has advocated for an all-star spot and Gold Glove award for "super-utility" players.
"I think you just do it out of necessity, like Javy last year at the beginning of the year," Zobrist said in the early days of spring training. "He really didn't have a choice. It was like they told him, 'You're going to be moving around quite a bit this year.'
"You can choose to take a good attitude like he did and make the best of it. And look what happened by the end of the year, how well he was playing and how important he was for us to win the World Series. That's what happened for me in my career. It was like, 'You want at-bats, you're going to have to move around.' And I did. You do it out of necessity and then you realize after the fact how valuable it makes you as an individual."
Both players had productive seasons at the plate last year. The switch-hitting Zobrist put up a line of .272/.386/.446 with 18 home runs and 76 RBI. His 10th-inning RBI double in Game 7 of the World Series scored the decisive run in giving the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908.
Baez, who possesses prodigious power potential, produced a line of .273/.314/.423 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI. Equally impressive, his strikeout rate has gone from 41.5 percent in 2014 to 30 percent in 2015 to 24 percent last year. He is still susceptible to breaking balls out of the strike zone, but the Cubs are banking that his plate discipline will improve with time.