It certainly was a surprise when the Cubs acquired veteran free agents Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler. Their acquisitions blocked vaunted prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez from regular at-bats. Usually when top rated prospects advance to the majors, clubs make sure that player has a clear spot. This is to ensure that player gets as much playing time as they need to continue their development and to avoid stunted growth. Let’s take a look at why the Cubs are seemingly doing the opposite.
Since the hiring of Joe Maddon as manager, much has been made of his relaxed approach to the long season. However, he also has instilled the importance of being versatile and a culture of earning playing time for the good of the team. Maddon’s past teams with the Tampa Bay Rays were full of players who could play multiple positions. Some of this was because low payrolls caused Maddon to be creative with roster construction, but the underlying factor was trust. Rays players like Zobrist, Aubrey Huff, Desmond Jennings, Carl Crawford and Melvin Upton Jr. are great examples. Maddon had no issue calling on any of them to play a variety of positions when the need arose and they all took the challenge with aplomb. All five were also indispensable fixtures in the lineup and would also bat anywhere that was required with no issues.
It’s likely how Maddon tabbed his leaders in the clubhouse and you saw some of this coming through last year. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo all moved out of their comfort zones at one point last year to help the team win. Bryant played five positions total and manned the outfield even though he hadn’t played there with any regularity since college. Schwarber moved between catcher and outfield when called upon despite being less than proficient at either and also led off a few times. Rizzo batted second 43 times last season to assist the lineup and stole 17 bases, which matched his career total combined the previous four seasons. The best example came from Russell who played second base to start the season. He was filling a hole caused by an injury to Tommy La Stella despite a lack of playing there throughout his pro career. It eventually earned him the starting shortstop role as incumbent Starlin Castro’s poor hitting and defense led to a demotion to the bench.
So how this relate to Baez and Soler? The veteran signings may have been a chance to improve, but also likely send messages to their young players about their brand of baseball.
Javier Baez has been criticized by fans and management alike for his approach at the plate. In 289 career at-bats at the Major League level, he has struck out a whopping 119 times to a scant 19 walks. There’s no doubt that Baez has amazing power and tools, but he hasn’t done much with the opportunities he’s had so far. In the off-season, the front office told Baez and fans of their intentions to use him in a super utility role. So far this spring, he’s played every position in the infield and center field. In 30 at-bats, he has six hits this spring, with four runs scored, one double, one home run and four RBI. He’s also walked twice with eight strikeouts. A late spring thumb injury kept him from playing the outfield corners, but he’s expected to get work there before being activated from the DL. Without full time at-bats, Baez will have to make the most of his playing time, but if he continues to stay versatile and do all the right things, he’ll likely be an important player this season.
Jorge Soler has also seen his share of criticism. After showing a lot of power in his initial debut in 2014, Soler’s uneven overall numbers of a .262/.324/.399 slash line with 18 doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 47 RBI last year left something to be desired. That coupled with his lackadaisical defense and ridiculous ski mask in cold weather, the front office has started to question his overall commitment level. His numbers this spring have been more of the same, flashes of greatness combined with troubling signs. In 19 games, Soler has just eight hits in 52 at bats. Four of those hits are for extra bases, with one double, three home runs and nine RBI. He’s walked four times and struck out 12 times, a far cry from the playoffs where he walked six times and struck out five times in 19 at-bats. Soler is expected to share left field with Kyle Schwarber. He also will still see time in right when Heyward moves to center field or has a day off. Like Baez he’s going to make the most of his at-bats to earn back trust from the front office.
In addition to Baez and Soler having to earn their playing time, putting them in different roles also protects their trade value. In the off-season, both players were mentioned a flurry of rumors as the Cubs looked to improve their starting pitching. With the team looking to contend for a championship, both players are likely to be headliners for a similar deal before the trade deadline. More regular at-bats could expose flaws in their games and leaves teams to scout them for what their abilities could be over a full season.
Also, moving them both around the field improves their value because they aren’t pigeonholed into one position. Soler has been seen mainly as a right fielder, but time in left boosts his abilities. Similarly, if he can hit well off the bench and in less playing time, he could also be a DH possibility for AL clubs. Baez likely has the most to gain as playing at every position except for catcher and pitcher opens up his market to pretty much any team in baseball.
Once Baez returns from the disabled list, the game begins for him and Soler to earn a long term spot on the Cubs roster. Both have very similar tools, power, athleticism and the ability to be strong hitters. If both perform equally, it will likely come down to who earns the best return if traded, or who earns the most trust to Joe Maddon in the Cubs clubhouse this season.