Ben Zobrist is a three-time All-Star and a World Series MVP with a $56 million contract, no-trade protections and enormous respect inside the clubhouse. Zobrist is secure enough to admit that the Cubs will need to play Javier Baez more this year, even if it means shifting back to more of a super-utility role.
Baez became a breakout star as the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908, starting all 17 playoff games at second base, making highlight-reel plays look routine, turning tagging into an art form and showcasing his confident personality. Baez has no doubt that he should be an everyday player.
The Cubs are built with depth, flexibility and the 162-game marathon in mind. A potential six-man rotation – with the Brett Anderson deal becoming official on Thursday – and a collection of versatile defenders should help keep them fresh for October (and lead to inevitable grumbling about messing with routines and timing).
After a winter where he faced repeated questioning about the way he managed Games 6 and 7 in the World Series, Joe Maddon will again have to massage egos, entertain/inform/distract the media and not lose sight of the big picture. Bench coach Dave Martinez and pitching coach Chris Bosio should at least expect to have some difficult conversations with frustrated players, putting out fires before it gets back to Maddon’s office.
Zobrist vs. Baez will be one of countless variables when Maddon sits down at a Starbucks and writes out the lineup on his iPad.
“There’s all kinds of stuff going on there,” Maddon said. “Of course, you’ve got to keep everybody involved. (With Kyle) Schwarber being well, you look at Schwarber a lot in left field. And then you look at Javy at second base with Zo. You can even think about Zo in the outfield in right when you want to put Jason (Heyward) in center.
“I’m not worried about that right now.”
In part because the Cubs went through this in spring training last year, when Dexter Fowler shocked the baseball world by taking a one-year, $13 million guarantee and showing up at the team’s Arizona complex.
“It was kind of right around this time last year that we started having sort of more serious dialogue with Dexter about possibly coming back,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention in mid-January. “Up on the white board in my office, we all sat around and tried to figure out the playing time.
“We had (Jorge) Soler up there. We had Schwarber up there. We had Heyward up there. And (with) Dexter, we were trying to figure out how we could get him enough at-bats.
“We kept saying: ‘If all the guys are healthy, it’s going to be tight, but we can figure this out. And that’s going to be Joe’s problem.'”
By Game 3, Fowler and Schwarber had crashed into each other in Chase Field’s left-center gap. The violent collision forced Schwarber to get major surgery on his left knee, setting the stage for a dramatic World Series return.
“It’s a great lesson on depth,” Hoyer said.
Zobrist will turn 36 in May and already has a World Series ring from the 2015 Kansas City Royals. He’s a patient switch-hitter with contact skills and the ability to play all over the infield and outfield for a team that will be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, tailoring lineups for the opposing pitcher and setting specific defensive alignments behind that game’s starter.
Beyond the 39 homers and 102 RBI, Kris Bryant won last year’s National League MVP award with his strong defensive play all over the field, allowing Maddon to get more and more creative with his lineup decisions and in-game adjustments. Bryant, Heyward, Jon Jay, Albert Almora Jr. and Matt Szczur have the athleticism to play center field this season. Schwarber and Willson Contreras have experience in the outfield and behind the plate.
Maddon watched Baez develop last year and again brought up the idea of awarding a Gold Glove to a super-utility guy. When figuring out where to play Baez defensively – at least before that spectacular playoff performance – Maddon would take into account that game’s starting pitcher and information from The Geek Department and try to figure out where the ball should be hit most often.
“He does some things on the field that you just don’t teach,” third base coach Gary Jones said. “He’s one of the most instinctive guys that I’ve ever been around in my 30-plus years in this game. He just does things on the field that make you go: ‘Wow.'”
That’s why Zobrist understood Maddon’s decision to let Baez take over second base in October and early November.
“I’m going to talk about rest from Day 1,” Maddon said. “I really think it’s important, whether it’s pitchers or position players to really be aware of giving guys rest.
“Zo’s another year older. The last two years, he’s played very deep into the year. (And) it’s a long spring training with the WBC (World Baseball Classic) going on. Just try to get a pulse of everybody, where they’re at, what you think they might need.
“Like last year, we were all worried about how we were going to figure out the outfield – and then two guys run into each other in Arizona. All of a sudden, it takes care of itself. I don’t want that to happen that way. But I really believe that we’ll be able to parcel the work out, based on conversation and just giving guys rest.”