The Cubs have 5 starting caliber infielders and 4 positions at which to play them. Joe Maddon doesn't have a specific solution, only saying that he will allow things to play themselves out.
It's always possible one player could get hurt. Remember we had the same questions regarding the Cubs OF at this point last year when the Cubs re-signed Dexter Fowler even though they had an outfield alignment of Kyle Schwarber (LF), Jason Heyward (CF), and Jorge Soler (RF). The Cubs even traded Chris Coghlan to make room.
What happened, of course, is Schwarber was hurt in the very first series of the season and would not come back until the World Series. Fowler performed well, but Soler and Heyward struggled out of the gate. Suddenly the Cubs went from having too many OFers to having to use Kris Bryant and Matt Szczur out there more often than they may have planned, especially early on in the season. Willson Contreras would play out there as well before settling in a regular rotation at catcher. The Cubs also called up Albert Almora and even ended up bringing back Coghlan.
Obviously this is not the ideal situation. You want all of your best players at each position to play well, stay healthy, and get the lion's share of PAs -- but the Cubs are smart not to bank on that happening. Even in the unlikely event that the players stay 100% healthy and perform consistently well all season, the depth can still be an asset and everyone can get their share of PAs.
First of all, to represent this as 5 players for 4 positions isn't exactly accurate. Ben Zobrist can also play the OF, so we could say then that the Cubs have 8 starting caliber players for 7 positions (not including catcher or pitcher) -- but that isn't exactly true either. The Cubs have two semi-regular CFers in Almora and Jon Jay. So it really works out to 9 starting caliber players for 7 available positions.
If we add up the games started for all of those positions (162 x 7) it comes out to 1.134 starts. But with 9 starters or quasi starters, that comes out to 126 starts per player if we rotate them all out evenly. Almora and Jay will mostly be in CF but one or both may get some defensive time in the corners as well. We can also add in the last spot on the roster (Szczur or LaStella). Either way (or even combned) hey probably won't get a ton of PAs, so let's call it 8 players for 6 positions and rotate those evenly, then it comes out to 122 games per player. That's probably a crude way to divide that, but I am just being theoretical here. I am not trying to give an exact formula of how many PAs each player should get.
Now consider that the Cubs were 5th in the league in plate appearances per game at 38.3. Again if we divide that by 9 that comes out to approximately 4.25 plate appearances per starter if divided equally. In the 8 players rotating for 6 positions scenario, a player who averages 4.25 PAs over 122 games will finish the season with 520 PAs. That is a pretty good number on the surface, but of the 8 non-pitcher positions in question, only two (LF and C) didn't have a regular with more than that number of PAs, so no matter how much Maddon rotates the players around, someone will lose PAs...probably everyone. In the most extreme example, 520 PAs is 179 fewer PAs than Kris Bryant had last season. Does anyone want to see Bryant with 163 fewer PAs in 2017? Of course not.
That little exercise was just to give you a basic idea of how PAs could be spread out and still give everyone plenty of playing time, but it will not be spread out evenly. So where will the PAs come from?
- Ben Zobrist will turn 36 in May and he has played in two consecutive World Series. As much as the Cubs would like to play him everyday, they have to be realistic that he can't continue to do that year after year at this stage. I don't expect him to repeat the 631 PAs he had last year. The Cubs will likely want to keep him fresh for what is expected to be another run in the postseason.
- Jason Heyward has worked hard to get back to where he was as a hitter, but he was a liability against lefties last year on offense with a 62 RC+/.268 wOBA -- basically the numbers of a glove first utility infielder. Even if he does bounce back to where he was, his 82 RC+/.298 wOBA career numbers vs LHP is still well below average. It makes sense that he will sit against some lefties -- at least the ones Maddon doesn't feel he'll match up well against.
- Kyle Schwarber is coming off a severe knee injury and while he seems to have a super-human ability to overcome pain and injury, it may still be wise to give him some scheduled days off this year. And if he does end up catching some games. that could open up some playing time in LF for Zobrist as well.
- The Cubs may want to give all of their starters a few more days off. Only two players started as many as 155 games played (Bryant and Rizzo) and only one other (Russell) had more than 150 (at 151), so maybe it isn't unreasonable if we say those 3 players each play 150 out of the 162 games next year if healthy.
- The Cubs play 9 games in which they will be able to use a DH.
So what if we cut down Ben Zobrists PAs to say...500 for the regular season to keep him fresh? Some of those PAs will come at 2B, of course, but some will also come in LF and RF. What if he gets 25 starts in LF to rest Schwarber and/or in games when Schwarber catches or DHs. Those 25 starts multiplied by the 4.25 average PAs per game comes out to 106 PAs in LF.
Now for Heyward. Let's assume we get 689 PAs from RF (162 games X 4.25 PAs per game for each position). Last season, approximately 24% of the Cubs PAs came against LHP, so of those 689 total PAs, about 165 PAs would theoretically occur vs. LH hitters. Considering Bryant had 186 PAs in 155 games vs LHPs, that might be a conservative estimate, but we'll stick to the 165. If Heyward plays 2/3 of the games vs. LHSPs, that's about 55 PAs more for Zobrist in RF.
So 106 PAs in LF and 55 PAs in RF for Zobrist comes out to 161 PAs. If Zobrist gets 500 PAs and we subtract the 161 for the games he plays in the OF, that leaves 339 PAs at 2B. Then, if we take the 689 estimated PAs we have set aside for each position over 162 games, then that leaves 350 PAs for Baez at 2B alone.
Now let's say the rest of the infield gets a bit more rest than last year and each plays 150 games. As we mentioned that's not unreasonable in comparison with last season and certainly doable without much loss in production with the Cubs depth. That leaves 12 games at each position open for either Javy Baez to play or perhaps with someone like Kris Bryant sliding over to play 1B with Baez playing 3B. However it is sliced up, that comes out to 36 more opportunities to start for Baez. Multiply that by 4.25 PAs per game and that is 153 more PAs. Added that to the 350 at 2B and now we have Baez getting 500+ PAs over the course of a season.
And then there's the 9 games where the Cubs will get to use the DH. That's another potential 38 PAs with Schwarber likely at DH, Zobrist in LF, and Baez at 2B.
Granted, this is oversimplified because we took one player (either Tommy La Stella or Matt Szczur) + the idea that Almora and/or Jay would play some corner OF and combined that as one "player". I wouldn't expect a lot of those PAs as eithea pinch-hitter that takes PAs away from the pitcher or a late PA after coming in as a replacement on defense.
Additionally, none of this is taking injuries into account, nor do we take account for partial games where Baez may come in as a defensive replacement at 2B (with Schwarber leaving the game and either Zobrist, Jay, or Szczur filling in LF) and potentially getting a PA late in the game.
But my point was not to get an exact number, rather it was just one of many possible ways you could theoretically spread 500+ PAs among 8 players at 6 positions. You can fiddle with your own combinations and come up with a different solution. You may want Baez playing more at 2B with Zobrist taking more PAs in the OF and DH, for example.
In the end, I don't think Maddon will do anything that calculated. There may be times where he matches up or plays the hot hand. Other times when he decides a player needs a rest. In the end, however, I think it will indeed work out one way or the other, even if all players stay healthy all season.
And since this is mostly about Javy Baez, here is a gallery of him playing 2B this spring. We'll have the rest of the infield sometime this weekend.
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