by Jim Silva
The Cubs infield glove men were simply amazing last season and for the most part they are back. When you think about the state of baseball these days, one thing that many old-time fans lament is the lack of stability on most teams – a casualty of free agency. No longer are players “enslaved” by their employers. They are free, after a certain period of control, to reach a mutually satisfying agreement with any team they choose. For the players, this was a development that had to happen, and it is a good thing for them – not so much for the fans, except that over time the average fan might get to cheer for many more players than in the past – and that is the “best sunshine blowing” that I can muster in this discussion.
So for Cubs fans, next season will be warm and cozy with the return of their infielders. If you just look at the WAR (wins above replacement) for the starters from 2016, they all accumulated between 3.4 and 7.7 WAR each (using the Baseball Reference version of WAR). I am using the four guys who are likely to start this year – Bryant, Russell, Baez, and Rizzo. This isn’t cherry picking because the guy I left out was Zobrist who put together a 3.8 WAR season playing more at second than anywhere else in his role as team pocketknife, where he played at least one inning at every non-catcher, non-pitcher position except third base and centerfield. Zobrist is likely to reprise his multitool role playing less at second unless Javier Baez struggles. Now this is one of those bits of info that makes Cubs fans insufferable – those four infield starters are all between 22 and 26 years of age. And that is what makes the Cubs such a frightening team – none of them are likely going anywhere for a while.
Let’s look at the infield starting with the old guy in the group – 26 year old Anthony Rizzo. If you are a Cubbies fan you have to be happy that not only has Rizzo not peaked, but last season was a lot like the previous two seasons. There was a slight spike in doubles and a corresponding uptick in slugging percentage, but other than that (yawn) Rizzo pretty much did what a Rizzo does. He hits either 31 or 32 home runs, and gets on base between 38 and 39 percent of the time depending on how you feel about rounding. Based on WAR, Rizzo had a 2016 that was in the lower third of the pack for 26 year old first basemen who are in the Hall of Fame. I’m not saying he will make the Hall of Fame, but he is not yet 27 and has accumulated 21.7 WAR. He is certainly an elite first baseman with the glove having already put up 49 DRS (defensive runs saved) and 7.1 UZR/150 (a similar defensive measure) in his career. He is not yet an elite offensive first baseman in the historical sense when you look at guys like Gehrig, McCovey, Foxx, and many of the other first basemen in the Hall of Fame, but he is certainly in range. He has been unbelievably consistent with the bat for three seasons, and if that continues then he will be in the conversation. It will be interesting to see if there is any growth left in his bat. Can he hit 40 home runs instead of 32? Can he hit .310 instead of .285? These are really just questions, as there isn’t much to point to that would portend another jump from his current level, except maybe his increase in the number of hard hit balls off his bat each of the last two seasons from 31.6% to 34.3%. If he only maintains his current level of awesome, the Cubs will be ecstatic.
At the opposite corner we have supermodel/wonder boy Kris Bryant, who just turned 25. Like Rizzo, Bryant is likely to have people talking about the Hall of Fame before his career is over – I mean, other than what I did just there. Bryant just finished his second season in the majors and already has accumulated 13.6 WAR. If you look at Hall of Fame third basemen – and there are only 16 of them – then Bryant is in Wade Boggs, George Brett, Eddie Mathews territory for age 23/24 seasons or their first two full seasons – whichever was better for the HOF guys. Again, two seasons does not a Hall of Fame career make, but that’s the beauty of projecting. Bryant is already one of the best third basemen in baseball, if not in the history of baseball. Like Rizzo, Bryant isn’t just doing it with the bat as the 6’5” (that’s pretty tall for an infielder not playing first base) just put together a 4 DRS/7.7 UZR/150 season. He makes a lot of plays out of his zone – an indication of his tremendous range and has also looked good in the outfield. It’s hard to know what Bryant’s ceiling is since we only have two major league seasons to look at so far and he improved in so many ways from his first excellent campaign to his second MVP season. He decreased his strikeout rate (by a lot – more than 8 percent), increased his isolated power rate (almost 50 points), and increased his percentage of hard hit balls. It probably isn’t his peak, but even if it is, he is one of the best players in all of baseball right now.
The middle of the Cubs infield doesn’t quite leave that Hall of Fame taste in your mouth just yet, but Addison Russell and Javier Baez just turned 23 and 24 respectively and almost everyone expects more out of their bats. Baez hasn’t even been a starter for a full season yet, while Russell just completed his second season as a starter, but both men have yet to become average contributors with bats in their hands but are already tremendous defenders. By average contributors I mean neither man has produced a season with a wRC+ of 100 yet (95 for Russell in 2016, and 94 for Baez) – that would be the mark of an average major leaguer after adjusting to the park and the league. That doesn’t mean both guys are doing everything wrong when they step into the batter’s box. Let’s start with Russell.
Addison Russell came to the Cubs in a trade with the A’s in 2014. He was regarded as the A’s top prospect because of his youth, his glove, and his offensive potential/athleticism. He now has two full seasons in the majors and is already an elite defender at shortstop, as I’ve already mentioned, and an improving hitter. Here are three numbers that indicate growth from Russell and one number that indicates better numbers in 2017 whether he grows or not. Two pretty straightforward numbers indicate that he is gaining control of the strike zone – his walk percentage which increased from 8.0% to 9.2%, and his strikeout percentage which decreased from 28.5% to 22.6% – that’s a huge change. His ISO (isolated power which attempts to isolate how much of his batting average was due to extra base hits) jumped from .147 to .179. So he controlled the strike zone better and hit the ball harder in 2016 than he had in 2015. That’s good, right? And he did it while being moderately unlucky on balls he put in play. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was only .277, the lowest full season mark of his career by more than 25 points. So even if Russell does what he did last season, the Gods of statistical probability are likely to smile on him and give him back 20 or so points of batting average. That would likely get him over the 100 wRC+ mark. Add that to his great defensive and you have a 4.0 WAR shortstop and that is a star-quality asset.
Baez’s issues were different from those of Russell. His first shot at full time play – the 2014 season – had him overmatched in the field and at the plate. He was only 21 but the Cubs gave him a solid shot with 229 plate appearances and he was a hot mess. When you strike out 41.5% of the time there is no way you can do anything else to compensate for that level of futility at the plate, and Baez didn’t. It wasn’t like the signs saying he wasn’t ready yet weren’t there in the minors, but after giving Baez a real shot to adjust at the major league level, the Cubs sent him back down to learn how not to fan at historic levels, hoping that he would still hit the ball hard. Baez was one of those super hot prospects who failed and was almost forgotten. But the Cubs appear to have a good organizational memory and they worked with Baez who came back up at the tail end of 2015 with a new approach. He cut his strikeout rate substantially during his cup of coffee stay in Chicago, so the Cubs were looking for even more out of him in 2016. Chicago hedged their bets with the acquisition of Ben Zobrist who made them more versatile but also gave them a safety net in case Baez returned to his empty swinging ways. Baez more than rewarded the Cubs faith in his potential becoming one of the best defensive second basemen in the game while hanging onto the strike zone gains from 2015, only fanning 24.0% of the time. The power and speed are still there and when you have a season with a .344 ISO in the minors in your background, people are going to be looking for that breakout 30 homer season. Numbers are useful, and if you’ve read more than one of my posts you will know that I have a bit of a crush on statistics, but to really appreciate Javier Baez you only had to watch all the things he did in the playoffs. He plays the game uniquely and creatively, doing things that few if any other players do in combination. If he doesn’t turn into a star I will cry because there is no player in baseball who is more fun to watch than the Cubs starting second baseman for 2017 (and hopefully for years to come).
When you have a team this good, it doesn’t seem fair to have young top prospects hovering in the minors, but that’s what the Cubs had before they made some in-season moves to solidify their post-season roster. They ended up trading away their top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, to the Yankees to get Aroldis Chapman. There is still Ian Happ who plays second base and can hit some. Does he hit enough to justify carrying his mediocre glove? Hard to say. If he sticks at second and improves enough to be average there then yes, his bat is good enough to be a major league regular, but probably not a star. If he is forced to move to the outfield – and the Cubs have tried him there in the minors – then he probably turns into a 4th outfielder, unless his power picks up substantially. Beyond Happ, the system is thin on infield guys who are close, but has some youngsters who are several years away. Really though, if you are a Cubs fan it would be a bit ugly of you to whine about the lack of infield help in the high minors. I mean, come on, 2016 was amazing and flags fly forever – especially the World Champion variety!