Versatility a Short Path to the Majors

Since taking over in 2012, the Cubs’ current front office has made it a seemingly never-ending search to find players that can add versatility to their roster. They first tried veterans such as Jeff Baker, Emilio Bonifacio, Chris Coghlan, Joe Mather, and Luis Valbuena before scoring big in free agency with Ben Zobrist. Management also tried some players they inherited in the farm system like Arismendy Alcantara and Junior Lake before hitting the right combination with Javier Baez.

The Cubs also kept an eye out for versatility in the draft, starting with David Bote in 2012 and later adding Chesny Young and Andrew Ely in 2014 and Ian Happ in 2015. Both Bote and Ely are beginning their season at Double-A Tennessee, while Young and Happ are members of Triple-A Iowa. Young won a batting championship in the Carolina League with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans two years ago, and came close to winning as second one with the Tennessee Smokies last year. Currently, Bote is among the top hitters in the Southern League while Happ leads the Pacific Coast League in home runs after having a torrid spring.

In a 2015 interview, Young explained that he spent about an hour before each game practicing every position, placing emphasis on the position he was playing that game. In his career with the Cubs, Young has played six positions including all four of the infield spots. Play-by-play man for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Nathan Barnett, explained that Young “had the ability to compartmentalize parts of the game and keep things simple”.

Such ability is partially the results of the Cubs mental skills program that they are implementing at all levels. South Bend assistant coach Jonathan Mota can relate to the hard work the players are putting in. With an eleven year minor league career, Mota played every position on the diamond, including pitcher and catcher. “You have to come to the park ready every day” said Mota, “you have to put in more work than everyone else”. Mota repeated what seems to be the Cub mantra this year of “staying in the moment”, adding “you have to come in with the mentality that this is something you really want to do”.

This past summer, the Cubs also selected Trent Giambrone and Delvin Zinn as well as Zack Short, their second position player chosen.  Assigned to the South Bend Cubs to start the year, Short received some off-season comparisons to Red Sox super-sub Brock Holt. On South Bend media day, Short shrugged off those reports, acknowledging that he considered them a great honor. “He (Holt) is a great player” said Short.

In explaining his role with the team, Short related that he had played third and second base as well as shortstop both in high school and in college “so it’s not like it is anything new to me”. When asked if he had been approached about the idea of playing the outfield, Short said that he had not, but “I’d be willing to do anything they asked”.

In preparing for the season, Short said he talked with Young in spring training about coming up with a routine. “It’s similar to college” explained Short, “if you develop a way to prepare, you set yourself up for success”. Short seems to have taken some of his talks with Young to heart, as he was witnessed taking multiple reps at third, short, and second base prior to a game he wasn’t even scheduled to play in.

Zack Short takes some reps at third base/photo Lauren Usiak

Zack Short takes some reps at third base/photo Lauren Usiak

It was a great way to put a frustrating opening night behind him, as Short went 0-for-9 and committed four errors in both games of a doubleheader. Short was both gracious and humble when addressing his start to the season, saying “you have to put any bad breaks in the past”. After a night off to clear his head, Short returned to shortstop and was placed at the top of the batting order, going 3-for-3 with a double in the first win of the season for the S-Cubs. Since then, both Short and South Bend have taken off, with the S-Cubs winning five of their next seven games and Short batting .364 over that span.

But Short will not be the only member of the infield that will be used in a variety of roles. Manager Jimmy Gonzalez reported in the South Bend Cubs’ preseason kickoff that infielder Yeiler Peguero will see time at second base and shortstop, while Isaac Paredes will play both short and third base and Wladimir Galindo will line up at third and first base. “I love having that option” said Gonzalez, “it’s great for their development and it gives a bunch of guys a rest”.

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    I think we get a little ahead of ourselves with being versatile, a player in pro ball if an OFer should be able to handle those duties of catching and throwing. And to that end an IFer should do likewise in the infield. The problem I see is when you try to do both are they being just average at one of the positions and above the norm in the other.
    If you look at Javy in the infield, he is way better than Ben at second , Ben seems to look passable compared, but in the outfield Ben looks very good. Same comp goes to Happ, he looks good in outfield, but doesn't look the same in infield, so really where is his value going to be.
    Are the cubs versatile team or do we have 4 good infielders,and 6 outfielders, with one adequate back up infielder who is a good pinch hitter.

  • In reply to tater:

    The Cubs have 5 good infielders (Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Zobrist) and another adequate one (La Stella). They also have 6 quality OFs (Heyward, Almora, Jay, Zobrist, Szczur, Bryant) and 2 adequate OFs (Schwarber, Contreras).

  • When the MVP of the league plays on your parent club and starts at 5 different positions (3B, 1B, LF, CF, RF) and also plays an inning at SS when the need arose it sets a perfect example for the entire organization. It shows the prospects that versatility is not just something that will help secure them a bench role, but can also help secure them a starting role.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks Michael, I could not have said it better myself.

  • Both fair points, ME and Tater.
    But the point of the post, in my mind, is:
    "The Cubs also kept an eye out for versatility in the draft, starting with David Bote in 2012 and later adding Chesny Young and Andrew Ely in 2014 and Ian Happ in 2015."
    As Joe has said, these kids are BaseBall players. I also think his repeated comments on moving guys around helps take the pressure off of their offense are given short shrift. Sports psychology in MLB is in it's infancy. But versatility, going forward in the game is critical.
    When he can throw a Wilson Contreras in LF, with very limited time out there, and he holds his own (not to mention Schwarbs), it helps the team win.

  • As further evidence that the Cubs versatility is due to their athleticism rather that their minor league players experience :

    - Kris Bryant played 0 MiLB games in the OF
    - Willson Contreras played only 24 MiLB games in the OF
    - Kyle Schwarber played only 36 MiLB games in the OF
    - Arismendy Alcantara played 0 MiLB games in the OF prior to being called up and thrust into CF in 2014

    I, for one, am amazed that they all performed as well as they did.

  • If I'm reading his stats correctly, Jeimer Candelario has never played anywhere besides 1B and 3B in the minors. Any chance he gets some reps at 2B, LF, and RF? A switch hitter able to play those five positions and have minor league options available could fit in quite nicely.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    I believe that Candelario has played a few innings at shortstop in winter ball.

  • In reply to Tom U:

    I realize that playing the OF is a slightly different skill set that corner IF - but if he could play a passable LF at least - that would be beneficial to both him and his future team.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    He is not going to play MI. A few years ago I would not have believed LF to be an option, but he seems to be moving better now then he ever has before. He has gotten himself into incredible shape, better then I ever expected him capable of, so I could at least see LF as a possibility. It wouldn't hurt to try him out there for a little bit just to see if he has any instincts in the OF. Although, at this point I would imagine they would have tried that out in practice at some point. The fact he has never played there at all in a game probably points to him not being comfortable out there.

    Even good athletes can struggle in the OF. It took Chris Coghlan years and years before he became even competent out there. Not everyone can read a ball off the bat and be able to take effective routes to reach it.

  • Speaking of versatility, check out this video of Happ flashing leather at second and left field. He also goes deep. The Iowa manager said he's ready for the Major Leagues right now. Man, this team can sure draft 'em!

    https://twitter.com/Cubs_Live/status/853992965475360769

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