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.

zobrist-spray
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.

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Position by Position: First 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)

We all remember the moment Anthony Rizzo caught a throw from the falling Bryant and squeezed his glove, securing the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years. We all remember when Rizzo slipped the now famous baseball into his back pocket and ran towards Bryant, where the two embraced on the mound as the rest of the field and the visitors dugout rushed them. We all remember when Rizzo threw up his arms and the world knew that the Cubs had finally done it.

It’s fitting then, that the man who caught the final out of the World Series was the beginning of it all. Though not the longest tenured Cub (that honor belongs to Travis Wood) Rizzo was the beginning of the grand Theo Epstein plan. After signing with the Cubs in 2011, Epstein hired Padres GM Jed Hoyer to be the general manager in Chicago. Previously a member of the Red Sox organization, Rizzo was traded to the Padres in 2010, and in 2012 the Cubs acquired Rizzo and a minor leaguer from the Padres for Andrew Cashner and another minor leaguer. The Cubs, like always, got the better of the deal.

Rizzo quickly became the number one first base prospect in the game, and has been a perennial All-Star contender since. He has participated in three consecutive All-Star games and got his first start at 1B for the National League this year. Combined between Triple-A and the majors in 2012, Rizzo played  in 157 games. In 2013 he played in 160. In 2015 he played 160 games again, and in 2016 he played in 155 games, making him a reliable bat in the middle of the order. Rizzo had a career  year in 2016, slashing .292/.385/.544 while driving in 109 RBI and swatting 32 homers. While the batting average might not be entirely impressive, he has a knack for getting on base (.362 lifetime OBP) and has averaged over 29 home runs over the past four seasons. In the last two years, Rizzo has seen his BB% remain fairly constant (11% over the last two years) while decreasing his K% (16% last year, down from 18.8 in 2014.)

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Rizzo’s spray chart is a thing of beauty (Baseball Savant)

He’s done all of this offensively while also playing excellent defense. In 2016, Rizzo logged 1337 innings in the field and had 11 DRS, the most by a first baseman in the majors. According to FanGraph’s overall defensive metric, Rizzo had -5.8 Def, which put him 3rd among qualified first basemen. He also did much better this year according to Inside Edge Fielding, improving  in every category except Likely plays.

 

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Rizzo continues to put up impressive Inside Edge Fielding metrics. (FanGraphs)

So what can Cubs fans expect from Rizzo in 2017? Will they get the 2013 Rizzo, who despite playing 160 games that year put up only a meager .233 AVG and was worth only 1.9 fWAR? Of course, 2013 was only Rizzo’s second season in the major leagues, and has since improved drastically, averaging over 5.45 fWAR the past three seasons. Depth Charts has Rizzo at 4.7 fWAR next year, and Steamer has him a little lower at 4.5 fWAR.

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I’d be more inclined to believe that Rizzo is worth about five wins next season, maybe even more. For the past couple of years, he has played steady defense at first, perhaps even improved a little if his highlight reel catches have anything to say about it. Not only that, but he has continued to produce at the plate (145 wRC+ the past two years, 155 in 2014) and has even started decreasing his K% and increasing his BB% since he first came to the majors. With the now healthy Kyle Schwarber batting ahead of him, as well as Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist, Rizzo will have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs like he did last year, and he will continue to be a key part of the Cubs offense in 2017.

Rizzo is a crucial part of the middle of the Cubs’ batting order, but they lack depth behind the young first baseman. While Bryant can play first, he is much more effective in his natural third base position, and none of the Cubs Top 30 Prospects play first, so reinforcements through the farm-system seem unlikely. While Rizzo has played an extraordinary amount of games over the last five seasons, issues could arise if they need a long-term replacement for him. Forcing Bryant out of his natural position could have negative consequences on his offensive performance, and Rizzo’s patience would be sorely missed in the middle of the order.

That being said, if anyone can figure out a way to replace Rizzo, it would be Joe Maddon.

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2016 World Series  - Chicago Cubs v. Cleveland Indians: Game Seven
(Ron Vesely, MLB Photos/Getty Images)

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