Second base was a position of upheaval last season that saw seven players manning the keystone and figures to be more of the same going into Spring Training. With lots of options at the position, there figures to be quite the competition to see who nabs the starting gig. Let’s take a look at the possibilities going into Opening Day.
Originally, Javier Baez was the incumbent starter according to the front office, but a disappointing debut and continued struggles in Winter Ball have cast a lot of doubt on the young phenom’s prospects going into the season. Baez is known to need some time to acclimate between every promotion to a higher level, but never really got going when he was promoted to the Cubs last August.
In fact, he performed his best upon his debut, batting .268 from August 5th to August 13th, but then fell way off to a weak .145. He wasn’t able to rebound in Winter Ball in Puerto Rico against inferior competition either hitting just .214 with a 34% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate. Baez doesn’t have a lot of experience at second base, playing shortstop most of his minor league career and much of his time with the Cubs due to an injury to Starlin Castro at the end of the season. His UZR rating at both positions were not good and needs some hard work to get better. A great spring could go a long way and give him a chance at the starting gig. If he continues to strike out, not make any consistent contact or be a real adventure in the field, he will find himself at Iowa to start the season.
If Baez proves he isn’t ready, Tommy La Stella has a very good shot to take his place. La Stella was acquired in a trade back in November with the Atlanta Braves. Several reports suggested that La Stella might be a precursor to a larger trade involving Baez. That still may be true if Baez’s star continues falling within the organization, but La Stella’s acquisition is more about strengthening the Cubs talent base. In his rookie season last year, he posted a .251/.328/.317 line with one home run, 31 RBI and two stolen bases. La Stella has little to no power to speak of and has just 17 home runs over four years in his entire professional career. He does have solid plate discipline and gives the team an additional possibility to help set the table at the top of the lineup. He will likely get some reps at third base in the spring as well, but will definitely fill a role on the Cubs bench or as the Opening Day second baseman.
Another option to fill second base is Arismendy Alcantara. Like Baez, Alcantara struggled when called up and posted a .205/.254/.367 line with 10 home runs, 29 RBI and eight stolen bases. However, he posted a lower than average .266 BABIP and his 31% strikeout rate was ten points higher than it ever was in the minors. If both statistics normalize some, Alcantara’s batting average should rise.
The Cubs would like Alcantara to fill a role as a super sub similar to how Ben Zobrist did on the Rays for Joe Maddon. He’s expected to see some reps at third and the outfield during spring to ease him into this role. However, if he continues to have problems with his contact rates and needs some more seasoning, he could give an opportunity to some non-roster invitees.
Depending on the situation with Alcantara, additional utility at-bats and time at second figures to be a two-way competition between Chris Valaika and Jonathan Herrera. Both players can play all over the diamond and have their positives. Valaika spent time with the club last season and the front office knows what they are getting with him on and off the field. He played 12 games at second and batted this .167 with one home run and three RBI. Herrera is a switch hitter that owns a career .250 average as a pinch hitter, a position the Cubs were severely lacking in last year. Whichever player the Cubs decide to go with will likely start the year in Iowa and be the first call-up in case of injury.
Addison Russell is a wild card and it will be interesting to see if he gets reps at any other positions during the spring. He’s expected to start at Iowa as their shortstop, but with Starlin Castro firmly entrenched there currently, it will be interesting to see how the front office handles him going forward. We will go more in depth on Russell in our shortstop analysis and the organization’s future plans with him.
As it stands right now, second base hinges on where the front office feels Javier Baez is in his development during Spring Training. After a rocky start in his Major League debut, management stated that Baez would be the Opening Day starter at second base. After scuffling in winter ball, they changed their tune to say that Baez would have to earn a spot on the roster. If Baez does bounce back, it’s conceivable he starts the year much lower in the order in an effort to gain confidence and to give the team a big power bat. If he doesn’t, second base will likely be filled based on match-ups until Baez proves he’s ready or another player seizes the role.