Stars All Around the Infield at Wrigley

I tend to write about aspects of teams that experienced major changes, but in a time of instability I am going to write about the Cubs infield, a unit with very few changes. Change is certainly exciting, and if you are a fan of a baseball team that didn’t make the playoffs, change seems mandatory. But the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and a few core members of that club are still members of their infield and still in their primes (or within spitting distance thereof), so do they need to make changes there? Let’s look at how the Chicago Cubs infield stacks up in 2020.

Starting with the hot corner, in 2015 Kris Bryant won the Rookie of The Year Award. In 2016, his team won the World Series while he won the MVP Award. So when Cubs fans heard that Kris Bryant was on the trade block it must have been quite a shock. Bryant has quite a resume for a 28 year old including three All Star team selections to go with the above mentioned hardware. As good as Bryant is, there seems to be some disappointment that he hasn’t hit the 6.0 WAR mark the last two seasons after surpassing it in each of his first three seasons including his 7.9 WAR MVP season. Offensively, 2019 was a typical Kris Bryant year. He had a 135 wRC+ and slashed .282/.382/.521, which is very similar to his career slash line of .284/.385/.516. As Bryant usually does, he played a lot of games and his counting stats (31 home runs and 108 runs scored) were among the league leaders. What knocked Bryant’s WAR down each of the last two years were the defensive metrics. UZR/150 and DRS both agree that in each of the last two seasons Bryant was a bit below average at third base and even worse in the outfield. Take heart Cubs fans – projections like him as a bounce back candidate with the glove and appreciate his consistent offensive numbers. There are very few third basemen in baseball capable of doing what Kris Bryant can do, so the non-trade was the best transaction the Cubs made this off-season.

Moving around the horn in clockwise fashion, when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Javier Baez was playing second base, third base, shortstop, and even some outfield.   The Cubs knew they had something special in Baez, but he was being used more as a utility man since Addison Russell was the starting shortstop, Kris Bryant was the starting third baseman, and Ben Zobrist was the starter at second. Jump ahead to 2019 and the 27 year old Baez has firmly established himself as the starting shortstop and a star with both the bat and the glove. If you have never watched Javy play then you are missing out. He plays with energy and flair and often makes tags that seem wizard-like. At the plate, Baez manifests both power and speed. He first surpassed the 20 home run mark in 2017 when he went deep 23 times. In 2018, he followed up with 34 home runs, and hit another 29 in 2019, giving him 110 in his short career. After slashing .281/.316/.531 last season (114 wRC+), he now has a career slash line of .270/.310/.484 which is just a little under where most projection tools have him for 2020. You might have noticed that Baez’ OBP is quite low. His walk rates have never risen above 5.9% in a full season so Javy’s ability to get on base is largely dependent on his batting average. Low walk rates combined with high strikeout rates (27.8% last years and 28.1% for his career) are definitely keeping Baez from superstardom and making him more volatile, but his excellent defense (26 DRS last season) and his power bat make Baez a fan favorite and one of the most exciting Cubbies on the big league roster.

Continuing our tour around the diamond, let’s skip second base for now and get to the cold corner where Anthony Rizzo is the incumbent. Boy, do the Padres wish they hadn’t traded Rizzo to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner right about now! The affable first baseman will turn 31 in August but his production is still excellent. He posted another excellent wRC+ in 2019 (141) and hasn’t been below 125 since 2013 when he was just  establishing himself as a full-time starter. As exciting as Rizzo’s power is, his plate discipline might be his best offensive attribute. When you have a batter who can consistently pop 25 plus home runs (six straight seasons), who strikes out under 15% of the time (three straight seasons), and walks more than 10.5% of the time (seven straight seasons), then you have a run generating machine. He could bat in any of the top four spots in almost any lineup and help a team win with his ability to get on base and drive in runs. His career slash line sits at .273/.373/.488 but his last five seasons have been better than that. If you add in his three Gold Gloves – DRS and UZR/150 agree that he can pick it – you have one of the best first basemen in the game, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

If you had to pick a catcher to build around, Wilson Contreras, who turns 28 in May, wouldn’t be a bad choice. Aside from his 2018 campaign, he has been a model of consistency with the bat running pretty close to his career slash line  of .267/.350/.470 every year. You don’t find many catchers who can break the 100 wRC+ mark, but he has done it each of his four seasons in the Majors. Contreras is a little prone to chasing but still manages to keep his walk rate close to 10% (career 9.7%) and his strikeout rate around 23%. In a world where most teams are thrilled with a catcher who can manage a wRC+ of 90, Contreras is practically a luxury. So what about his glove? Well that’s more of a mixed bag. His arm is elite and runners have to be careful that they don’t get caught napping at first where he is happy to test them with a back pick – a snap throw from the catcher down to first right after the pitch. He saves his teams runs with his arm and his blocking ability, but gives that back and more with his poor framing. Over the last three seasons, Contreras has cost his team almost 34 runs because of his subpar framing skills. If anyone wanted robotic umps more than Wilson Contreras, I would be stunned. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Contreras gets used because he has started to show some signs of wear, missing a few more games each season due to injury.

Contreras’ understudy, Victor Caratini, had a really good season in 2019, both with the bat and the glove. Caratini had a 108 wRC+, popping 11 home runs in only 279 plate appearances. He also managed a 10.4% walk rate while limiting his strikeouts to 21.1%. A backup catcher who slashes .266/.348/.447 is quite valuable, but Caratini also saved the team 1.6 runs with his framing ability – not star level, but better than Contreras. If he can maintain the framing gains he made last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Caratini get more time behind the plate while Contreras gets some time in the outfield to save some wear on his body while keeping his bat in the lineup.

Ah yes – second base – I haven’t forgotten. The picture here is a little confusing to be honest. Ian Happ, who came up as a second baseman, is likely to be the starting center fielder. The young slugger has played every position but catcher in the majors – yes, he pitched an inning in 2018, but has yet to establish himself as a regular and spent the majority of last season in the minors in spite of having two decent seasons with the big club under his belt. By “decent”, I mean he put together wRC+ seasons of 114 and 106 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. When Happ was up last year he was better, slashing .264/.333/.546 and contributing 127 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances. So Happ could spend time at second base, but will probably get a chance to be the starting center fielder.

Then there is Jason Kipnis who is a 33 (almost) year old non-roster invitee to Spring Training. Kipnis had some star moments earlier in his career but has been maddeningly inconsistent with a 5.1 WAR season followed by a 0.7 WAR  season, and two 4.0 plus WAR seasons followed by a 0.5 WAR season. Lately Kipnis has been consistently below average with his wRC+ sitting between 80 and 89 since 2017. His defensive work has been good each of the last two years so maybe there’s some value there, but a shortened Spring Training will hurt Kipnis as he tries to show the Cubs why they should give him a chance to start.

The pride of Longmont High in Colorado, David Bote, has played every position but catcher, but has spent most of his time at third base and second base. Bote didn’t show much power at all until he reached double-A, but has 17 bombs in 566 plate appearances with the Cubs. He draws a good number of walks (11.1%) but  strikes out too much for a guy without elite power (27% K rate). His ability to get on base and his versatility are his strengths, so the Cubs might want to use him as their Swiss army knife instead of making him the starter. His glove at second is probably fine – the defensive numbers are mixed, but he will likely be a low batting average, decent on base guy with some pop, and those guys tend not to hang onto starting jobs for long if they ever get them. At 27, this might be Bote’s last shot to be a starter.

Another long shot to grab the starting second base job is 33 year old Daniel Descalso. Like Happ and Bote, Descalso has played most everywhere but, unlike the two younger players, Descalso has never shown much with the bat reaching the 100 wRC+ mark only once. With little power and a career .235 batting average, it is hard to see Descalso grabbing a starting job. He had a decent season with the glove at second in 2019, but his defensive numbers aren’t great. His best offensive skill is his ability to draw walks, but we’re not talking John Cangelosi, Ken Phelps, or Eddie Yost here. Descalso has a career walk rate of 10.5% but to be fair, he hasn’t been under 11% since 2015. Still, Descalso’s versatility is where most of his value lies and the Cubs have that in younger players, so it would be surprising to see the veteran utility man make this Cubs team.

There is one more player who deserves consideration, and that is arguably their best prospect, Nico Hoerner. Hoerner will turn 23 this season and hasn’t played triple-A yet, although he did get 82 plate appearances with the Cubs last season due to a rash of injuries at the shortstop position. Hoerner hasn’t shown much power yet but his hit tool has looked good. He even managed to hit .282 in his audition for the Cubs and has a career slash line in the minors of .297/.365/.427. The shortstop should easily be able to make the transition to second base (he isn’t moving Javy) but will probably start the season at triple-A, in part because that would allow the Cubs to control his service time. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Hoerner take the second base job part way through the season as there just isn’t another great option for the Cubs.

The Cubs infield is locked down except for second base. Second base should be easier to figure out and might be either a platoon situation with the lefty Kipnis facing righties, and the righty Bote seeing action against lefties. Keep an eye on Hoerner who will be pushing hard from triple-A. And if Kipnis doesn’t make the team and Descalso is healthy and beats him out, then substitute Descalso for Kipnis in the platoon. The club’s problems lie elsewhere for the most part and the team could have three MVP candidates and an All Star on the dirt this season. There aren’t many (any?) teams that can say that, so look for the Cubs to go as far as their infield can carry them in 2020. That concludes our tour of the Cubs infield. Please exit to the right and stay safe out there!