During the 2016 postseason, Javier Baez started every game for the Cubs at second base. You know how he showed the nation the defensive wizardry he’d shown us all season long.
During the 2016 postseason, Ben Zobrist started every game as well. He started 16 of those games in left field and one (Game 3 of the NLDS against the Giants, with Madison Bumgarner pitching) in right field.
With Kyle Schwarber healthy and ready to play again in 2017, that presents a dilemma for Joe Maddon. Schwarber’s best (and, perhaps, only) defensive position going forward is left field. That likely takes Zobrist out of the mix there, at least when righthanders are pitching. Jason Heyward is established (we hope with better offense!) in right field.
If Baez plays a lot of second base, where does that leave Zobrist? Joe Maddon has used the supersub concept throughout his managing career. Zobrist, in fact, was the guy he used most in that role when Joe managed in Tampa.
At CSNChicago.com, Patrick Mooney has posted an article examining this very topic. In it, he writes:
Zobrist vs. Baez will be one of countless variables when Maddon sits down at a Starbucks and writes out the lineup on his iPad.
"There's all kinds of stuff going on there," Maddon said. "Of course, you've got to keep everybody involved. (With Kyle) Schwarber being well, you look at Schwarber a lot in left field. And then you look at Javy at second base with Zo. You can even think about Zo in the outfield in right when you want to put Jason (Heyward) in center.
"I'm not worried about that right now."
Center field, of course, is where the Cubs have newly-acquired Jon Jay as well as Albert Almora Jr., who could work well as a platoon.
One thing Maddon did exceptionally well last year was give players rest during the season. This kept everyone fresh throughout a grueling postseason that stretched into November.
So here’s how I see things shaking out.
Schwarber isn’t going to play every day — his knee still might not be 100 percent, plus, at least for now, he has not established that he can hit major-league lefthanders. Thus, it would seem that Zobrist could play left field against lefthanders. Baez, who started games at all four infield positions in 2016, could very well do that again, and certainly will give days off to Addison Russell at shortstop and Kris Bryant at third base. Bryant could spell Anthony Rizzo at first base from time to time — there’s really no need for Rizzo to keep starting 150+ games at first base every year.
Excluding catcher, the Cubs essentially have nine qualified players (Schwarber, Jay, Almora, Heyward, Bryant, Russell, Baez, Zobrist and Rizzo) for seven positions, not even including Willson Contreras, who started 21 games in left field (and two at first base) in 2016. The total number of starts for seven positions is 1,134 over the full 162-game season. If you divide that by nine you’d get 126 starts for everyone. Obviously it’s not going to be spread out that much or that evenly, but I could see 140+ starts for most of those players (perhaps excepting Almora, who I think the Cubs will break in gradually), giving them mostly full-time play, with rest when needed.
Also, consider the Cubs will need a DH 10 times this year when visiting American League parks. That’s likely 10 additional starts for Schwarber, assuming there’s a righthander going for the opposition, putting someone else in left field. If a lefty starts vs. the Cubs in an A.L. park, there’s a DH spot for Zobrist, or Baez, or even Contreras.
Having too many good players for the positions available is a nice problem to have, in other words. Maddon’s good at helping everyone buy in to the concept in order to give the team the best chance of winning. I’m sure he’ll figure it out as the year goes by.