The future has finally arrived at Wrigley Field thanks to the ascension of prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. With other players like Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara very close to being called up, it bears in the mind the question of where the Cubs plan to put these players, especially considering that several of them have played one position exclusively in the minor leagues. It’s likely that all four of them are going to have to find new homes defensively so let’s take a look at some other top prospects who have managed to switch positions successfully at the Major League level.
In a very limited sample, Kris Bryant has seemingly held his own at third base. His UZR/150 rating tells a different story as Bryant holds a -8.1 rating or below average. Of course, Bryant has played just eight games so far this season at third and could get better with more repetition, but the team was considering making the switch already during Spring Training. Third base is also a tough position to play, just ask players like Scott Rolen and Troy Glaus who may have had longer and more productive careers if they hadn’t succumbed to nagging injuries brought on from playing the position.
One franchise player that made the same switch is a familiar face to Cubs fans, Ryan Braun. Like Bryant, Braun was an early first round pick (5th overall) with a pedigree for hitting and played third exclusively in the minors. In his rookie season, Braun was an absolute monster at the plate batting .324/.370/.634 with 34 home runs, 97 RBI and 15 stolen bases in just 113 games. Braun was an absolute butcher at third however which necessitated a move to the outfield where he has been average. The move has helped Braun stay healthy and since the switch he has played in at least 150 games from 2008-2012. He also made the All-Star team every year and hit 168 home runs total. Injuries and performance enhancing drugs have contributed to a decline for Braun the past couple of years, but he is a great example of what Bryant could be with a change to a less demanding position.
Addison Russell has been in the majors a short time for the Cubs and has already switched from shortstop to second base. Russell’s ability at shortstop has earned the praise of many scouts and has even caused some to raise questions if his talents could move Starlin Castro off the position. However, at 21, Russell is still growing and some reports have suggested that as he continues to mature, he may size himself out of shortstop.
Gordon Beckham had similar questions about his body type when he was drafted in the first round by the White Sox, but no doubts if he had the instincts and range to be a solid defensive player. In Beckham’s first season he played out of position at third base, a position he had very limited time at in the minors and it ended up being his best overall season. Beckham has since transitioned into being one of the best defenders at second base, but has never lived up to expectations offensively and has played shortstop sparingly since being called up. Russell too may never play long term at short, but like Beckham if he has the ability to excel there, any other position should be no problem for Russell going forward.
Arismendy Alcantara began the season with the team, but a slow start offensively and injuries in the bullpen led to his demotion. His versatility likely makes him the first call-up and manager Joe Maddon likened Alcantara in Spring Training to his former player Ben Zobrist. Like Zobrist, Alcantara has a tantalizing combination of speed and power who bats from both sides of the plate. Another similarity the two shares is their lack of outfield experience. Zobrist did not play an inning of outfield in his minor league career and learned exclusively in the majors. He was a quick study and has been a plus defender at all three outfield positions. Zobrist also took a couple of seasons before he was an asset in the batter’s box, so hopefully the Cubs have the patience that the Rays did to unlock an offensive gem like Zobrist turned out to be.
While Bryant is currently entrenched at third, if the Cubs do decide to make a switch there, the most likely options could be Javier Baez or Starlin Castro. Castro has been the team’s shortstop for the past five seasons, but mental errors and his own maturation have made him at best slightly below average defensively. He’s had some added motivation thanks to Russell and Baez looming and has improved, but a position change could benefit Castro. Same goes for Baez who has played mostly shortstop and second base in his career, but with Russell currently filling second and a superior defensive player, Baez may be a great fit at third where he can still use his athleticism and strong arm. Of course, that’s assuming Baez can hit Major League pitching consistently.
In either case, Manny Machado may be a good model of the possibilities of a successful switch from shortstop to third. Like Baez and Castro, Machado played shortstop almost exclusively in his minor league career. He had similar questions about his defense as scouts were unsure if he had the agility, speed or right body type to be successful long term at short. With J.J. Hardy entrenched as the Orioles shortstop, Machado made his debut at third thanks to an injury to Wilson Betemit. Machado has suffered a lot of injuries, but when healthy have been a dynamic offensive player and an outstanding defensive third baseman. Either Baez or Castro has the tools to be an above average third baseman and Machado is a great example of a player who used those tools to become a good player at another position at the Major League level.
With so many examples of Major League players changing positions effectively, Cubs fans should not be worried about their favorite prospects learning at the Major League level. Of course, not all of them are guaranteed to make it or may find themselves traded to another organization to fill other holes, but having multiple options to plug in holes gives the team a lot of fluidity when it comes to figuring out their ultimate defensive alignment.