For the third year in a row, second base will have a new starter on Opening Day. Over the past couple of seasons, the position has been used as a proving ground for young players with names like Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara making their big league debuts at the keystone. Last year’s .250/.303/.383 line with 14 home runs, 69 RBI and 10 stolen bases wasn’t bad, but improvement was needed, especially for a team ready to contend. Enter Ben Zobrist, the position’s first veteran starter over the age of 33 since Mark DeRosa led the team in starts back in 2008. Let’s take a look at the changes at second base this spring.
When the news of Ben Zobrist’s signing came across the wire, Cubs fans were a little surprised that the front office had made a four-year, $56 million investment in a 34-year old player. Reports from the team said that his signing gave the lineup a contact hitting presence who will work counts and get on base. Last year, Zobrist did just that batting .276/.359/.450 with 36 doubles, three triples, 13 home runs, 56 RBI and three stolen bases while splitting time as a member of the Oakland A’s and championship Kansas City Royals.
His down speed numbers may have been affected by a knee injury that kept him out for most of May and Zobrist believes it affected his defense as well. Generally, Zobrist is an above average second baseman and corner outfielder, but he graded out below average last year according to UZR/150. In his press conference, Zobrist also expressed hope he could move around less and find a home at second base. Nonetheless, Zobrist should find himself in the corner outfield from time to time against left-handers thanks to a career. 290 average against them.
If not for the signing of Zobrist and because of the trade of Starlin Castro, Javier Baez would likely be the starter at the keystone. Instead, the front office has him ticketed for a Zobrist like role playing all over the diamond including the outfield which he saw some time in the winter leagues.
Last year, Baez played in 17 games at second and rebounded from a rough debut season the year before. He batted .289/.325/.408 in 80 at bats with six doubles, one home run, four RBI and one stolen base. He walked just four times and struck 24 times in his brief debut and will have to work on his plate discipline if he expects to stick in the majors.
If not, the door could open for Tommy La Stella who played in only 14 games thanks to an oblique injury that kept him out for most of the season. In 67 ABs, La Stella hit .269/.324/.403 with six doubles, one home run, 11 RBI and two stolen bases. Unlike Baez, La Stella’s game is about working counts as evidenced by his five walks to seven strikeouts. The acquisition of Zobrist keeps him on the outside looking in and likely battling for the 25th man roster spot.
Chris Coghlan played 15 games at second last season thanks to an extremely rough July at the plate by Starlin Castro. His defense was barely passable, but he may have to work on his infield defense to get into the lineup more. The signing of Zobrist and Jason Heyward and increased roles for young players like Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler call into question how Coghlan is going to find meaningful playing time.
It’s probably going to take a major injury for either Arismendy Alcantara or non-roster invitees Munenori Kawasaki or Kris Negron to make the roster this spring.
Alcantara lasted just 11 games last year after making the roster in Spring Training. He went 2-for-26 and struck out 11 times. He didn’t fare much better at Iowa batting only .231/.285/.399 with 35 walks and 125 strikeouts. His versatility and power potential is his biggest asset right now and could be a possible trade candidate if he can figure it out in spring.
Depending on Alcantara’s long term fate with the Cubs, Negron could be a potential replacement of his at Iowa. Negron has played every position on the field in his short Major League career and has been above average at every one of them. At the plate, Negron has shown flashes, but hasn’t been consistent as evidenced by his career .220/.296/.353 line.
If you’ve seen any of his YouTube interviews, the Cubs should add Kawasaki to the roster just for the potential humor. On the field though, he’s probably more likely veteran insurance in the minors. Kawasaki is an above average fielder at second and third base and shortstop. At the plate, the left-hander is a career .234/.314/.284 hitter with not much speed or any power to speak of. If he gets a lot of at bats this year, the Cubs are likely in trouble, but at least it will be funny.
The acquisition of Ben Zobrist and the shift of Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella to bench roles have given the Cubs some very enviable depth at the Major League level. Obviously, there’s some questions about how much longer Zobrist can hold up and continue to post solid stats. Perhaps, leaving him at second base more often might keep him a little fresher and improve his health.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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