Last season was changing of the guard at the shortstop position. Addison Russell was called on earlier than the front office had hoped to fill a need at second base. His stellar defensive play led to him usurping Starlin Castro who had been the Opening Day starter at the position for the past six years. With Castro now traded to the New York Yankees, the shortstop position is now Russell’s alone and it will be interesting to see how he progresses this year. Let’s take a closer look at the possibilities.
Among other rookie teammates like Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, Russell sometimes got lost in the shuffle. A .242/.307/.389 slash line with 29 doubles, one triple, 13 home runs, 54 RBI and one stolen don’t quite jump out at you like the eye popping numbers of the others. At 22 and with just 14 games at the Triple-A level, there’s no doubt Russell missed some development time. He obviously still needs some work on his plate discipline and needs to solve left handers as he batted just .156 against them.
However, Russell was a fast learner and really took off in the second half, around the same time he took over the shortstop job for good. In the first half, Russell batted .226/.296/.354 and struck out 80 times. In the second half, his OPS jumped almost 100 points and hit .259/.318/.427 and cut his strikeouts to 66. The key for Russell this spring will be if he can continue to adjust.
If not, Russell’s main value last year and going forward is his defense. When he pulled a hamstring legging out a triple in the playoffs, it was apparent how important the future Gold Glover’s work with the leather was missed by the Cubs. His UZR/150 rating of 13.6 at second base and 20.6 rating at shortstop would have ranked him No. 1 at both positions if he played a full season at each. At 142 games played, Russell showed this season he can be fairly durable, so only time will tell if he can become one of the elite defensive players at shortstop in baseball.
As witnessed in the playoffs, a capable backup at shortstop is a necessity for a contending team. Javier Baez filled the role for the Cubs when Russell was lost to injury and filled in admirably. With Russell’s gaudy defensive abilities, there was an obvious drop-off on defense, thanks to a mental gaffe and not as much range on Baez’s part. However, it may have been a lot to ask for basically a fellow rookie to plug and play in a high pressure situation. At the plate though, Baez hit a crucial three-run homer against the Cardinals in Game 4 and during the regular season hit a solid .289 in limited at bats. The key for Baez will to improve his plate discipline and cut down on his strikeouts.
As discussed in the second base preview, Baez is expected to fill a utility role where he is expected to make starts at second and third base and in the outfield. His time at shortstop may be limited, due to Russell’s importance, but it’s nice to know the team has a decent backup if needed.
Another potential Major League option at shortstop if needed is Ben Zobrist. The veteran was signed to play second base and fill in at the outfield corners, but has played in 196 games at short in his career. He last played the position in 2014 and there are some questions still if Zobrist’s knee injury from last year that affected his speed may have also affected his range. It’s something to watch this spring for sure.
On the minor league side, shortstop is likely to be filled by a combination of non-roster invitees Munenori Kawasaki and Kristopher Negron at Iowa. Both players were profiled in our second base preview and are solid defensive players, but not quite as good with the bat. Kawasaki is probably the best option of the two due to a little better bat while Negron is better suited in a utility role.
Gleyber Torres did not receive an invite to Spring Training and is not currently on the 40-man roster, but he is likely to be on the mind of Cubs fans to start the season. Torres is considered by many to be the top prospect in the team’s system and his progress at High-A Myrtle Beach will be watched very closely. Last season, at a year mostly spent at South Bend, Torres batted .287/.346/.376 with 24 doubles, five triples, three home runs, 64 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Scouts say he is an extremely advanced hitter for a 19-year old due to a strong knowledge of the strike zone and ability to hit to all fields. He has been projected to gain some power as he matures and his body fills out. On defense, scouts have been surprised by his ability at shortstop due to average speed and impressed with his instincts.
Like second base, shortstop is one of the deeper positions for the Chicago Cubs. Not many teams in baseball can boast of two potential starting options under the age of 25. All eyes will be on if Addison Russell can avoid the sophomore slump, and if Javier Baez can finally put it altogether.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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