The Middle Infield Question

The Middle Infield Question

I am a big fan of roster speculation, and probably spend too much of my spare time thinking about kinds of lineups the Cubs will run onto the field on any given game day. This has been an especially interesting thing to do this season, particularly as we have seen an influx of young talent that is probably unparalleled. All of this has raised some fun problems lineup wise, and given the results of yesterday’s non-waiver trade deadline, these lineup questions will probably only increase. For now, I think the most intriguing question is right in the center of the infield. Currently, the tandem of Addison Russell and Starlin Castro is working fairly easily (minus, of course, the fact that Castro is having a colossally down season), but this is likely to change, and possibly very soon.

Prior to the end of trading activity, many Cubs fans, myself included, really expected that Castro was playing his last as a member of the Cubs. Going into Friday, I was fully anticipating that Castro would be headed elsewhere, and likely to San Diego in some kind of trade that would have at least brought Tyson Ross to the Cubs. We can only speculate for now as to why this trade didn’t happen, but my suspicion is that the asking price involving Castro was too high, and that it might have even had something to do with the Padres asking for Javier Baez as a part of the deal, as was rumored a couple of days before the deadline. Whatever your thoughts or mine regarding the Cubs’ activity at the deadline (maybe give this a read for some excellent perspective), the reality is that, barring a waiver trade at some point this month, the Castro is still here, and Baez is still in the farm system in Iowa. But, based on his performance, that doesn’t seem like it will be the case for long. Baez, in spite of missing a lenghty period with a thumb injury, is having one of his best professional seasons thus far. He has a slash line of .306/.385/.554 in his 41 games in Iowa so far, and if you include his numbers from the 4 games he spent in the Arizona Instructional League, those numbers are of course going to be a little higher. The biggest concern with Baez has always been the strikeout rate and that is down notably since last year in AAA. He has 47 in 157 ABs this year (just under 30%), and last year he finished with 130 in 380 ABs while in AAA (34%).

With that in mind and given the lack of offensive depth on the bench, I suspect that we might see Baez back with the Cubs prior to 40 man roster expansion on September 1. This means that we will have 3 very talented players will 2 positions to fill. Here are a few possibilities:

 

1. Starlin Sits

Not to say that he should ride the pine most of the time, but I have often wondered if his struggles at the plate don’t merit more opportunities for him to take a game or two off each week. If he were able to take a night off once or twice a week, Russell can slide over to SS and Baez can take 2B for the night. This would afford Baez the opportunity to get into the lineup (outside of pinch hitting opportunities) enough to make it worthwhile. This wouldn’t be too far off from what Kyle Schwarber is doing right now. The downside here is that Baez doesn’t get a ton of opportunities and it seems like regular at bats would be beneficial for him right now.

 

2. Russell Sits

If you have taken a peak at Russell’s numbers this year, he is hitting like someone who may have needed more time in AAA before being called up. I have always thought that the injury to Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara‘s inability to perform well enough to hold down 2B led to Russell’s call up earlier than what the Cubs’ front office might have liked. Like the previous option, letting Russell take a night off twice a week or so allows Baez to take those starts at 2B and gives him the same chance for somewhat regular at bats. Again, here you have the same problem of Baez probably not getting enough plate appearances.

 

3. Baez in LF or at 3B?

Prior to his injury, Baez had seen a few starts at 3B, his first since a handful in the Arizona Fall League in 2012. Kris Bryant has some experience in LF, which would allow for the possibility of an infield that has Baez at third, Castro at short, and Russell at second. Otherwise, the possibility of Baez taking a look in the outfield is there too, but this is more risky, as he has no experience there in his professional career. I’m not the first to ponder this possibility though, so keeping on eye on where Baez gets his starts while he’s still in Iowa might be telling.

 

Lastly, some combination of these could be the most likely scenario, but it is also possibly that a waiver deadline deal could ship Castro or Baez elsewhere (or just make things more complicated, adding Chase Utley has been rumored), but given how tightly the front office seemed to be holding on to them at the deadline yesterday, I don’t think Baez or Castro would be traded in a waiver deal unless the return was pretty big.

Ultimately, my hope is that Baez continues to perform well in Iowa, and hopefully we get to see how Joe Maddon finds a way to get all three of these guys into the lineup as much as possible. It’s a good problem to have.

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