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!

The Cubs obscenely good infield returns, but can they be even better in 2017?

Infield Envy
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!