Position by Position: Top of the Rotation

(MLB.com)

In the past two years, the Chicago Cubs have had two Cy Young finalists and one Cy Young winner. In 2015, Arrieta won the Cy Young Award, and in 2016 Jon Lester was the runner up, with Kyle Hendricks taking third place.

The Cubs had the 3rd most fWAR by starting pitchers, and they had by far the lowest staff ERA in the majors at 2.96. The next lowest ERA was 64 points behind them at 3.60. While part of this was due to excellent defense, the Cubs still had the 4th lowest staff FIP, putting them in the elite company of the Mets, Dodgers, and Nationals.

There is no question that the Cubs have an elite staff, but the question is how much their staff success was due to excellent defense, and whether they can repeat their 2016 success. In this Position by Position post, we’ll take a look at the top of the rotation for 2017, consisting of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta, as well as what we can expect from these starters this year.

Jon Lester

(Chicago Now)

Jon Lester had an excellent 2016 and capped it off with a stunning performance in the playoffs. While he did not command the lowest ERA among Cubs starters (that honor belonged to Kyle Hendricks) he placed second in Cy Young voting and was worth an excellent 4.3 fWAR. Lester’s 2.44 ERA (2nd lowest in baseball) and 3.41 FIP (9th lowest) were some of the best of his career. In fact, it was the lowest ERA he has put up in his 10 years in the big leagues.

Lester compounded that feat by pitching 202.2 innings and starting 32 games. He won 19 games, if that’s something that you care about, and only lost 5. He had an excellent K/9 ratio (8.75) and BB/9 (2.31) and pitched his way to 2 complete games. He had 197 strikouts and only 52 walks.

While he still has problems throwing to first base, Lester had one of his best seasons in the big leagues last year. He also contributed in the postseason, where he had an excellent 2.02 ERA in 35.2 innings. He was the NLCS Co-MVP with Javier Báez and struck out 30 batters in the playoffs. Lester also came out in relief in Game 7 of the World Series and was excellent, and he was a critical part of the Cubs rotation all throughout last year.

Can Lester repeat his 2016 success? Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Lester worth over 4.0 fWAR next year, and both predict he will have an ERA under 3.50. His strikeout and walk rates should stay fairly consistent, but with a different defensive look it is hard to predict how his excellent ERA might be affected with Schwarber in left and without Fowler in center. While we can expect some regression, Lester is still set to be the ace at the top of this Cubs staff.

Kyle Hendricks

(Frome Sports)

It’s not everyday that a pitcher is able to drop almost 2 full points in ERA in one year, but that’s exactly what Kyle Hendricks did in 2016. Hendricks’2016 was far better than almost anyone could have predicted and he put up excellent numbers across the board. He had a career high in fWAR (4.5, the most on the Cubs staff) and had a career low in ERA (2.13) and FIP (3.20). He struck out the most batters of his career (170 SO) and only gave up 44 walks in 190 IP.

In the postseason, he might have been even better. Hendricks put up a 1.42 ERA in 25.1 innings and started the clinching game against the Dodgers in the NLCS where he pitched brilliantly and Game 7 of the World Series before he was relieved by Jon Lester. He only allowed 5 runs in 5 games and struck out 19 in the playoffs.

The 264th overall pick out of Dartmouth is never phased, and though he relies on command more than speed, his contact oriented and ground ball approach (48.4% ground ball rate last year) works well with the excellent defense of the Cubs. While he was good on the road (2.95 ERA) he was outstanding at home where he put up a minuscule 1.32 ERA in 95.1 innings.

Although Hendricks seems like a prime candidate for regression to his more normal numbers, Depth Charts has him projecting 3.3 fWAR and having a 3.40 ERA, not too shabby all things considered. The key for Hendricks going forward is to maintain a healthy ground ball rate and let the defense do the rest. The Cubs had a historically good defense and Hendricks used that to his advantage as he pitched his way to a his best season in a Cubs uniform to date.

Jake Arrieta

(CSN Sports)

2016 was an off-year, at least by Arrieta standards. After all, he only pitched his second no-hitter, had a 3.10 ERA, and was worth only 3.8 fWAR. He only pitched 197.1 innings, struck out 190 batters, and went 18-8. So for Arrieta, it was a disappointing year when compared to his last two.

Arrieta didn’t have a Cy Young worthy year, but he again continued to impress since coming to Chicago in 2013. The 5th round pick has been worth a combined 16.1 fWAR the past three years, and put up excellent performances in both the 2015 and 2016 postseason. Arrieta went 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA in the World Series to lead the Cubs to their first title in 108 years, and was easily the most dominant Cubs starter during that series.

Arrieta has always had overpowering, no-hitter type stuff, but until coming to the Cubs he had struggled both in the minors and in the majors. In the deal that also brought relief pitcher Pedro Strop to Chicago, the Cubs surely got the best of that trade. Both acquisitions bloomed into excellent pitchers and were critical to the Cubs’ World Series run.

Arrieta is projected to have a very similar 2017. According to Steamer and Depth Charts, his ERA will take a slight hit (3.39 and 3.20 respectively) but he projects to be worth more wins with fWAR at 4.0 and 4.1 respectively. Look for Arrieta to have another solid year as he tries to impress the Cubs enough for the lucrative extension that he is looking for.

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Between the three All-Star caliber pitchers at the front of the rotation, the Cubs starting pitching staff looks strong heading into this upcoming season. That being said, ace Jon Lester is not getting any younger, and as of right now Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are set to depart after this season. For right now, the Cubs are in great shape with regards to their starting pitching at the top of the rotation, but next year there are certainly questions.

In the next Position by Position, we’ll take a look at John Lackey and some of the possible #5 starters who could emerge as key pieces to the Cubs staff in the future.

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Position by Position: Catcher

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(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The catcher position is usually a predictable scenario for most teams in the league: you have one regular starter who can also hit sufficiently, and one backup who may not have the best bat, but provides exceptional defense whenever spot starts are necessary.

True to form, Joe Maddon’s Chicago Cubs have bucked convention since his arrival in 2015. Since Opening Night of his first season, Maddon regularly had three catchers on his roster, ranging from Welington Castillo to Willson Contreras. This has proven to be advantageous for the Cubs, providing Maddon with extra depth behind the plate for that lengthy, extra inning midsummer contest and day-to-day lineup variance.

With the retirement of David Ross following a surprisingly effective farewell tour, and regression from former “regular” catcher Miguel Montero, Maddon’s 2017 plans became less clear. But now we have an idea of how he’ll likely manage his backstop, and it still includes three catchers: Contreras, Montero and Kyle Schwarber.

Willson Contreras

The 2016 rookie was surprisingly effective in his first big league term, slashing .282/.357/.488 and logging a 2.2 fWAR. This kind of production was certainly expected from Contreras once he developed into a full-time major league catcher, but the surprise came from the immediacy of his success. He wasted no time leaving his mark on the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs.

Contreras made his debut on June 17 and played in 76 games, usually behind the plate and occasionally in left field. During the regular season, he primarily caught John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, and in the World Series he effectively caught Jake Arrieta. One can anticipate this won’t change, but we can also expect to see a lot more of Willson Contreras in 2017 beyond it being his first full big league season.

Despite reluctance to pair Contreras with Jon Lester in 2016 due to the ace’s marriage to David Ross, that ball-and-chain is now out of the picture, and the Cubs are committed to giving a Contreras/Lester battery a shot. We can’t make note of this pairing without beating the dead “Lester can’t throw to first” horse, and Contreras helps mitigate that problem with exceptional arm accuracy and strength.

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(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Lester is arguably easier to please than his best buddy John Lackey, and the Lackey/Contreras battery in 2016 was a fun one to watch when the veteran starter had his good stuff working. Lester is a three-time World Series champion and many-time (and current) staff ace. He doesn’t owe all of his success to David Ross, and I don’t see this change negatively impacting his performance long-term.

Ross had a quality offensive season in 2016 for a backup catcher, but he’s no Willson Contreras at the dish. Arguably — and time will tell if this is the case — the Cubs may be in a better position behind the plate now than they were a year ago in this regard.

Miguel Montero

Fortunately, Montero dispelled rumors of his disenfranchisement with the Cubs by tweeting a lovely picture of himself and Maddon out on the town. It was the most absurd non-story of the offseason: that somehow Montero, who expressed displeasure over lack of playing time on occasion before and after the postseason, was somehow going to be a “distraction” to the 2017 Cubs.

Let’s forget that he’s set to make $14 million in 2017 (which matters quite a bit to the legion of meatheads who don’t like him now) and put this in a human context: since his days with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, Miguel Montero has been a primary starting catcher. He was so effective that he earned all-star selections in 2011 and 2014, and served as the Cubs’ primary catcher in 2015.

He was objectively terrible for most of the 2016 season, logging a .631 OPS through August 26 and allowing runners to steal him blind due to what one can assume was his bad back. As a result, he was relegated to one start per rotation cycle, remaining Jake Arrieta’s trusted counterpart.

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(Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Can you even imagine how devastating it has to be, over the course of just one year, to go from the guy to the backup’s backup? 2016 was a huge setback in Miguel Montero’s life. He genuinely felt he could contribute, and the team felt otherwise. If you genuinely think this wouldn’t be defeating to you, you’re lying to yourself. Or simply lack empathy.

But some people just need drama, no matter how incredibly harmonious the Cubs as we know them happen to be. Fortunately, Montero has earned praise early in spring training for showing up at camp in tremendous shape and for his leadership role on the club. It’s assumed he’ll catch Arrieta every five days again, and if he improves upon his 2016 campaign, there’s little doubt Maddon will find even more opportunities for him.

Make no mistake: the Chicago Cubs are better with Miguel Montero. He’s a well-respected figure in the clubhouse with a track record to back it up, a track record people often, willfully forget. Since he and Maddon have moved on, you should too.

Kyle Schwarber

When Schwarber said he wanted to catch again in 2017, I rolled my eyes and thought he was being stubbornly hopeful. Then I quickly reminded myself what he did in the 2016 World Series, and convinced myself this guy can and will do anything he sets his mind to, and do it successfully.

I have incredibly little doubt that Schwarber will serve as Maddon’s last resort behind the plate. No matter how healthy he is right now, Maddon will almost assuredly play it safe and relegate him to left field on a day-to-day basis. Given that Schwarber has always been a pedestrian defensive catcher anyway, Maddon’s decision is an easy one.

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(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Still, you can expect him to don the gear and assume the position from time to time. I don’t foresee him being matched with anyone in the rotation, but if he is you’re looking at ~30 starts behind the plate, max. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the possibility of the Cubs running a six-man rotation at any given point in the year.

Kyle Schwarber is going to be the Cubs’ every day left fielder. But his versatility — along with the versatility of literally everyone not named Anthony Rizzo or Miguel Montero — gives Joe Maddon an ace-in-the-hole if Contreras or Montero go down with an injury. Not many other teams have a potential 40 home run hitter that can also work behind the plate, and Maddon will respond to this blessing accordingly.

Position by Position: Right Field

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(Getty Images)

Jason Heyward signed an 8-year, $184M contract before the start of the 2016 season. He received $15M last year. In spite of the great contract, Heyward put up 1.6 only fWAR. That’s right, he hit .230, slugged .325, with only 7 bombs (a career low) and stole just 11 bases. Heyward was supposed to be the Cubs leadoff hitter and center fielder until Dexter Fowler returned on a one-year deal as Spring Training began. Instead of the offensive, good base running, excellent defensive center fielder the Cubs had envisioned, they got someone who was missing two of the tools they wanted, and Heyward quickly became a disappointment for Cubs fans.

What Heyward did contribute was excellent defense. In fact, he had the third most defensive runs saved for a right fielder with 14, only Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton had more. He had the 14th most DRS in all of baseball last year, and was 5th in UZR/150, a metric used to predict how many runs above average a fielder is per 150 games. According to UZR/150, Heyward was 21.6 runs above average last year.

While Heyward has been known for his defense, 2016 may have actually been an off-year for the right fielder. In 2015 while playing right field for the Cardinals, Heyward had 22 DRS, and the year before that he had 26 in Atlanta. Through his seven major league seasons, Heyward has 120 career DRS, averaging over 17 a year. So while his already excellent 14 DRS last year was good, it would not be unreasonable to assume that he can save even more runs next year.

(Baseball Savant)
(Baseball Savant)

Looking at the two graphics above, we can see that Heyward caught just about every ball he was expected to catch, according to Hang Time of the ball and Heyward’s distance from the landing spot of the ball. He caught every “easy” ball and missed just one “routine” play the entire year. He also made most of the “tough” and even made a few “highlight” catches as well. In fact, almost the balls he missed were more difficult than highlight reel catches, in other words balls that were almost impossible to catch.

While Heyward contributed much defensively last year, he did not get much going at the plate. According to FanGraphs’ overall offensive metric, Heyward was the 5th worst offensive player in majors. He had 72 wRC+ which was good for 2nd worst in the league.  His slashline of .230/.306/.325 gave him an OPS of .631. His batting average dropped more than 60 points from 2015, and he knocked .114 off of his slugging percentage. Overall, it was a terrible offensive season.

So does his stellar defense make up for his lack of contributions at the plate? FanGraphs WAR seems to think it came close. In a year that Heyward received $15M, he should have been worth about 1.875 fWAR, using $8M/win as a way to estimate contracts. In the end, he was worth 1.6 fWAR. Keep in mind that even after being the 5th worst hitter in the league he still came extremely close to being worth his contract, at least for this year. Heyward is set to make $21.5M next year, meaning he has to be better to be worth the contract the Cubs gave him. The real question is whether he can be worth over 2.6 fWAR next season, his expected performance given his contract.

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I think he can do it. His lowest batting average prior to this season was .254, and he never had a slugging percentage below .384. His defense has continued to be excellent, even if it has trended downwards the past few years. Even in a bad season, Heyward still had good BB% (9.1%) and K% (15.7%) which are both very close to his career average, perhaps even better with regards to striking out less. He was still disciplined at the plate (he had a 41.3 Swing%, compared to 41.1 Swing% last year) so he is still seeing the ball well. He is still making contact (85.5 Contact%, even better than 2015) and striking out less.

The only things that seemed to go wrong for Heyward, at least stat-wise, was his Soft and Hard Contact rates. Last year, his Soft Contact rate rose over 4%, while his Hard Contact rate went dropped 4% which is the opposite of what players want. If he can get back to hitting the ball well, I would expect Heyward’s previous offensive success to continue. He is walking the same amount, striking out the same amount, continuing to make contact, but the ball just hasn’t been dropping. His batting average on balls in play was only .266, well below the league average of .300. Part of that comes with hitting the ball less hard, so he if he can increase his Hard% I would expect him to return to his previous success.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Heyward bouncing back next year, at least to a certain extent. Steamer has him slashing .268/.347/.415 and being worth 3.1 fWAR, and Depth Charts is predicting Heyward is worth 2.9 fWAR. He should hit with more power (both have him hitting 13 home runs next year) and stealing more bases (11 and 14 respectively) while keeping good BB% and K%. Both of the projections also predict he will have a wRC+ of 100 or more, meaning he will be at least league average offensively while hopefully not sacrificing anything defensively.

In case he doesn’t put up good numbers or gets injured, the Cubs still have some options, as both Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist can play in right. While playing Zobrist and Bryant in right takes them out of their natural positions, it would open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez. Nevertheless, while Heyward struggled at the plate in 2016, he made up for it partially by playing excellent defense, which his replacements likely wont be able to do.

Look for Heyward to bounce back next year and put up good numbers both offensively and defensively. He still has plenty of time to make up for a disappointing season last year.

 

 

Position by Position: Center Field

Albert Almora Jr. in the World Series (MiddleTown Press)

When it became clear that Dexter Fowler’s career year and impending free agency meant that it was highly unlikely that the offensive catalyst of 2016’s historic run would return, the Cubs brass had two options – stand pat and put Albert Almora in position to be their everyday center fielder and Opening Day starter before he turned 23, or add a veteran to replicate an outfield platoon similar to the one that will be employed in left field this season, albeit smaller.

Signing Jon Jay for $8 million acted as a stopgap, anticipating that Fowler would indeed eventually cash in and sign elsewhere for a price the Cubs weren’t willing to pay. It’s worth questioning, as this FanGraphs piece does, what exactly Jay brings to the table, when there remains a significant production gap in Fowler’s absence, considering the former Cubs leadoff man had the third highest WAR total on the team behind only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

A career .287 hitter in seven seasons, Jay had a line of .291/.331/.389 with the San Diego Padres last year. He is a tick above replacement level offensively with a 0.5 fWAR mark. Collectively, the numbers don’t inspire much confidence in this position group at the plate, collectively managing just 1.1 fWAR between Jay, Almora, Jason Heyward, and Jacob Hanneman, whom Fangraphs included in their projected depth chart. To Jay’s credit, he did post an oRAR (offensive runs above replacement) of 17, which puts him in the neighborhood of Max Kepler and C.J. Cron. Being a left-handed bat certainly doesn’t hurt, as it gives manager Joe Maddon the opportunity to play the matchups as often as possible.

Jon Jay playing for the Padres in 2016 (Alex Gallardo/AP)

But just as Fowler is almost certain to regress to the mean in 2017, Heyward’s dismal 2016 leaves plenty of room for upward mobility, which would take a lot of pressure not only off of major run producers like Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber, but also lessen the load on Jay or Almora.

The Cubs haven’t seemed very interested in playing Heyward in center, and it will likely remain that way unless injuries make that necessary. Pittsburgh moved Andrew McCutchen from center to right to accommodate a better outfielder in Starling Marte this offseason, and now with Jay to split time with and/or spot start for Almora as he matures, there’s really not much of a case for shifting Heyward away from right field.

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How much Almora will play remains to be seen, but the biggest question with him is what kind of impact he’ll have this year. Forecasts from ZiPS and Steamer have Almora at .269/.298/.396  and .270/.300./.398, which is respectable for a guy with less than 50 big league games under his belt. His plate discipline may give the Cubs headaches initially, but this is just a part of the growing pains of developing young prospects. Much was made about Fowler playing deeper last season and his improved playing the outfield, but the thought that should reassure Cubs fans this season is the notion that Almora’s ceiling as an outfielder is already much higher than Fowler’s ever was.

Position by Position: Left Field

(AP)

The wait is over. Cubs fans will get to see Kyle Schwarber for a full season in left field after missing all of the 2016 regular season. We all got a sneak peek of Schwarber in the World Series, when he returned from an ACL tear in time to hit .412 in 17 at bats and even steal a base.

It looks as if Kyle Schwarber will be getting the nod in left field for the majority of the games in the upcoming season after the Cubs traded outfielder Jorge Soler for relief pitcher Wade Davis. However, Schwarber is still recovering from a serious knee injury and he’s only played 85 games in his Major League career, postseason included. Schwarber won’t start all 162 games, and he probably won’t get close to a full season. Other players who will play in left field include Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora Jr, Wilson Contreras, and Matt Szczur.

Kyle Schwarber, born in Ohio in 1993, will be playing in his age-24 season in 2017. He was drafted fourth overall in 2014 by the Cubs as a catcher out of Indiana University-Bloomington, and made his debut in the following season. In 273 at bats in 69 games during his rookie season, Schwarber slashed .246/.355/.487 and hit 16 home runs while drawing 36 walks. The success continued for Schwarber in the postseason, where he hit 5 homers in 27 at bats in the Wild Card, NLDS, and NLCS. In just 78 games, he was beginning to make a name for himself in the North Side, and there were high hopes for him in 2016.

On April 7, during a regular game against the Diamondbacks, Jean Segura hit a line drive to left-center field. There was miscommunication between Schwarber and the center fielder Dexter Fowler, which ultimately resulted in a nasty collision between the two. Sources said it was only an ankle injury for Kyle, but it ended up being a torn ACL, leaving Cubs fans speechless.

(Ezra Saw/Getty Images)

He was supposed to be out for the entire season, but despite numerous statements saying Schwarber would not return for the postseason, he returned for the World Series! He still didn’t look too great and wasn’t able to play in left field, but having his bat in the lineup for the games in Cleveland provided a boost for the Cubbies. In 17 at bats as a DH and pinch hitter, Schwarber slashed .412/.500/.471, driving in two runs and walking three times. If Schwarber can hit off the likes of Corey Kluber (whom he went 3 for 4 against) after missing an entire season, then can’t he hit off of anyone?

The Schwarber return not only helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, but also provided a ton of optimism for Cubs fans regarding the young left fielder. In a small sample size, he proved that he could still see the ball well, and that the injury wouldn’t set him back as much as some were saying. He might not be able to play behind the plate, but it looks like he’ll be able to be the slugger he was in his rookie year.

Thar being said, Schwarber is far from perfect. He’s not very good defensively (-3 DRS in LF in 2015) and his ACL tear won’t help. He has really bad splits against lefties (.143/.213/.268 slash line in 61 career PA). That’s worse than Jake Arrieta’s line vs lefties (.240/.269/.360). He can also work on his relatively high strikeout rate (career 28.4 K%).

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(FanGraphs)

Schwarber also has a tendency to hit the ball to the right side, as you’d expect from a left-handed slugger, and the shift will be in play for most of his at bats in 2017. Hitting the ball to the opposite field should help Schwarber improve next year.

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I’d expect Schwarber gets the majority of the starts in left field when there’s a righty on the mound for the opposition, as his slash lines vs righties (.272/.392/.544) is great for such a young hitter. In fact, 14 of his 16 home runs in 2015 came off of righties and he hits for more power against them.

When Schwarber doesn’t get the nod, however, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant will be the next in line. Zo played 127.2 inning in left in 2016, and Bryant played 353.1 innings at the same position. Playing one of the two in left field will open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez, who would replace Zobrist at second or Bryant at third when one of the two plays the outfield. Other options for left field include recent acquisition Jon Jay, who has played 339 innings in left in his career, as well as sophomore player Albert Almora Jr, who played in a few games in left in his rookie year. The Cubs also have Matt Szczur, who played over 200 innings in left in 2016, and Willson Contreras can also man left field, but he’ll primarily catch in the upcoming season. All are solid options, but we likely won’t see Jay or Almora there unless all other options are off the table.

Joe Maddon has several intriguing options for left field in 2017, and it will be interesting to see how the position is managed. Kyle Schwarber should get the majority of the starts in left, but after that  Maddon has plenty of options and can have fun with it.

Position by Position: Shortstop

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

Russell’s Grand Slam in Game 6 of the World Series (Sporting News)

When Addison Russell (presumably) makes the start for the Cubs on Opening Day at shortstop, he’ll be younger than Kris Bryant the day Bryant made his debut. Let that sink in. Kris has already won Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a World Series. Russell still has two years to do all of that (although he’s already accomplished the last one)!

The reigning starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team does have some accomplishments of his own, however.

Russell, who was drafted 11th overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2012, quickly made a name for himself in the minors. In 2013, he was rated the #22 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and in 2014, he made his way all the way to seventh on the list. Then, on July 5 of 2014, he was dealt with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily to the rebuilding Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. He quickly made a name for himself, and got called up in 2015 at the age of 21.

In 2015, Russell slashed .242/.307/.389 in 142 games, and posted a 3.3 WAR. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old! There was definitely room for improvement, and improve he did. In 2016, he posted a slash line of .238/.321/.417, and a WAR of 4.3. He was the starting shortstop for the National League All-Star Game, and even received 5 points for the 2016 NL MVP, good for 19th.

With a career wRC+ of 93, and 66 defensive runs saved (44 at shortstop), Russell has been more of a defensive first shortstop in his first couple seasons. He’s a little below average with the bat (-9.5 batting runs above average), but makes up for it with his glove (28.7 fielding runs above average) at one of the hardest positions to play in baseball. His 95 RBI in 2016 may be a little deceptive, as hitting behind Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist definitely shows. If you believe in “clutch”, Addi has that too, putting up a .271/.342/.421 slash line in 244 high leverage situations in his career.

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Addi is one of four shortstops in MLB history to accumulate 5.0+ defensive WAR through age 22. The three others (Travis Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville) all have a plaque in Cooperstown. That’s pretty impressive.

However, Russell is even more known for his postseason heroics in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run. He joined Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb as the only players to drive in nine runs in the World Series before turning 23. He became the first player in Major League history with 6 RBI in a potential elimination World Series game (which he did in the first three innings of Game 6!). Those heroics even made him the sixth most Googled MLB player in 2016.

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So, what can Cubs fans expect from Addison Russell in 2017? Steamer projects him to slash .247/.321/.418, a 1 point improvement in the wRC+ category (going from 95 to 96). My personal biases expect a little more from him, because I’d expect his walk rate to improve with experience and his strikeout rate to drop. As for defense, I’d expect we’ll see more of the same excellence Addi brought in his rookie and sophomore seasons. He’s a permanent shortstop now, as opposed to his rookie season which he split between second and short. When looking at his spray charts from his first two seasons, you can definitely see his offensive improvements.

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(FanGraphs)
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(FanGraphs)

 

He’s been getting more hits to the left side, as he’s hitting it further into left field. However, a major source of doubles for Russell in 2015 came from hitting it into deep right-center, something he didn’t do much the following season.

It’s easy to be excited when talking about Addison Russell and his future, but what do the Cubs have behind him just in case?

Javier Baez, the Cubs’ super role player, looks to be lacking a starting spot in 2017. He’ll get the nod at short when Russell gets a day off, and if Russell is out for an extended period of time will likely take over the shortstop position. I bet a lot of teams would take Baez as a starting shortstop. Baez played 194 innings at short in 2016, and has played 494 innings there in his career, worth 1 DRS.

Kris Bryant, while he looks to be staying at third more in 2017, can handle shortstop if necessary for the Cubs. It’s obviously not his natural position, and he won’t be the defensive presence like Russell or Baez, but he could probably handle it. Bryant has played one inning at shortstop in his career, but did not handle any chances there.

Ben Zobrist, who looks to be the Cubs starting second baseman in 2017, can also man the shortstop position. He, like Bryant, likely wouldn’t be above average at the position, but Zo has surprisingly played 1766 innings there in his career, worth -10 DRS.

Addison Russell is the future of the Cubs organization at age 23, and it should be fun to see what he does for the North Siders in 2017.

Position by Position: Second Base

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

(Sports Illustrated)

A tough decision lies ahead for Joe Maddon and the coaching staff as they will try to figure out who will be pairing with Addison Russell in the middle of the infield this year. Who do they want to start at second base? The 2016 World Series MVP? Or the 2016 NLCS MVP? For most teams, that person would be the same player, but with the depth the Cubs have in the infield, both Ben Zobrist and Javier Báez are competing for the spot. Both are equally deserving: Zobrist has an incredibly reliant offensive track record and Báez has a high ceiling, not to mention spectacular defensive ability. So who should get the majority of starts at second?

Zobrist and Báez took different paths to the majors. Zobrist, an Illinois native, was selected in the 6th round of the 2004 amateur draft by the Astros but didn’t debut until 2006 after he was traded to Tampa Bay. He struggled his first three years in the majors, accumulating -0.4 fWAR in 145 games in the majors. He had a breakout season in 2009, slashing .297/.405/.543 and hitting 27 homers while driving in 91 RBI. He achieved his first All-Star selection, placed 8th in AL MVP voting, and was worth an outstanding 8.6 fWAR. Over the next seven seasons, Zobrist averaged 4.62 fWAR per year, received two more All-Star selections, and won two World Series in five trips to the postseason. Before the 2016 season, he signed a 4 year $56M contract with the Cubs through his age 37 season.

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Zobrist uses all fields extremely well (Baseball Savant)

Báez, on the other hand, was the 9th overall pick of the 2011 draft, a remnant of the pre-Epstein regime. Báez spent the better part of his first four years in the minors, but he arrived in the majors with a splash when he homered in his debut to give the Cubs a win. He has the flare of a first round pick and the strikeout rate (29.9% in MLB) of a High-A slugger. Across three years in the majors, Báez has appeared in 222 games, though only recorded 759 PA’s, and has swatted 24 home runs. 2016 was by far his best season, where he played in 142 games (450 PA’s) and slashed .273/.314/.423 while accumulating 2.7 fWAR. His real contributions in 2016 came from his defense, where he was within one DRS of the second base leader Dustin Pedroia. While Báez had 11 DRS to Pedroia’s 12 DRS, Báez did it in 30% fewer innings. If Baez played a full season at second and kept up the same rate of saving runs, he would have saved over 33 runs last year, surpassing last year’s DRS leader Mookie Betts.

Báez in the NLDS (Sporting News)

So who would the Cubs rather have at second for most of the season? The grizzled veteran who puts up reliable offensive numbers but does not rate well defensively (-3 DRS at 2B last season) or the young stud who strikes out too much but plays some of the best defense in the league? The answer might be a little simpler than previously thought.

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Think about it. A second base platoon where one player provides excellent offense and the other outstanding defense. With Báez and Zobrist, this platoon could not only be possible but could be extremely effective. So how do we decide who starts against whom? Though not necessarily a primarily offensive powerhouse, Báez hit lefties very well last year. Though he only had 122 AB’s against lefties in 2016, his batting average was 53 points higher against lefties, not to mention that his wRC+ (runs per plate appearance, scaled to 100) was significantly better against lefties (124 wRC+ with 100 being average) than righties (82 wRC+).

Zobrist, meanwhile, had a lower batting average against righties, 40 points lower in fact, but had more power against righties, hitting 10 more home runs last year. The fact that Zobrist is a switch hitter provides more value, as pitching changes would affect Zobrist less than Báez. In fact, Zobrist might actually do better against a lefty reliever. While his wRC+ was lower against righties (123 against righties as opposed to 129 against lefties) Báez’s outstanding defense and significant splits in favor of hitting lefties would counteract what Zobrist loses by only hitting righties.

(CSN Chicago)

In Báez, the Cubs have an excellent defender who hits lefties well and has good K% (18.4%) and BB% (8.1%) against them, while Zobrist has more power against righties, even if he does have a significantly lower batting average. As a result of platooning them, each player would be used somewhat regularly. Using them regularly could increase the effectiveness of defensive changes in games (Báez coming in for Zobrist with a lead) and offensive changes (Zobrist coming in for Báez when they need to get going at the plate) which gives Maddon more moves to make late in games. While the lefty-righty platoon would help Báez the most, Zobrist would still stand to benefit against righties with his increased power.

In the end, the Cubs are in an excellent position at second with two potential All-Stars, not to mention the depth in the minor leagues with Ian Happ and others. If either Zobrist or Báez were injured, the replacement at both the major league level and minor league level would be excellent, and second base looks like one of the strongest positions for the Cubs going forward.