Look around a major league club’s locker room and you will find outstanding talent in every corner, athletes with the ability to play the most difficult sport and regularly filled by men who excel at one position—pitcher, outfield, catcher, first base, second base, third base, and shortstop.
Take inventory of the Cubs clubhouse and you see the same talent level, but by men who stand out at multiple positions.
Manager Joe Maddon has been second-guessed with his frequent lineup changes and maneuvering of players from one position to another. But make no mistake, the World Series-winning skipper is aware of each player’s ability in terms of strengths and weaknesses.
“Our guys are out just to win,” Maddon said, “they don’t care who gets the credit or who gets it done that night. We’re just out there to win and it’s beautiful to watch. We like to put players in a position where they are going to have the most success.”
In Maddon’s first 599 games at the helm with the Cubs, he has helped guide the team to 358 victories and a .598 winning percentage. And he has accomplished this with a roster of players who, as he put it, just want to win regardless of their position on the field or in the batting order.
This season, Javier Baez is the perfect example of the versatility the Cubs possess. The sure-handed infielder has played in 86 games at second, 31 at shortstop, and 14 at third base. He is so talented a fielder that he could win a Gold Glove award at any of those positions, and that can’t be said about many, or any other major league infielder.
At the plate, Baez is an MVP candidate as the season winds down to its final 48 games. He’s hitting .298 with 31 doubles, 25 homers, 19 stolen bases, .598 slugging percentage and league-leading totals in RBI (88) and total bases (245).
Remarkably he’s maintained those totals by occupying every spot in the batting order. Baez has nine at-bats as leadoff hitter, 83 in the second slot, 61 as the third batter in the lineup, 77 in the cleanup spot, 50 ABs hitting fifth in the order, 28 in the sixth spot, 60 while batting seventh, 45 hitting eighth and six as the last batter in the order.
The Cubs roster is filled with players who have played multiple games at different defensive positions in 2018:
- Baez — second base (86 games), shortstop (31), third base (14)
- Ian Happ — center field (47), left field (42), third base (16), right field (10), first base (2)
- Ben Zobrist — second base (46), left field (36), right field (30), first base (4)
- Kris Bryant — third base (71), right field (9), first base (4)
- Willson Contreras — catcher (95), left field (4)
- Victor Caratini — catcher (20), first base (14), third base (2)
- Jason Heyward — right field (94), center field (11)
- Tommy La Stella —third base (20), second base (13)
- David Bote — third base (21), second base (5)
As for the batting order, it’s rare for Maddon to institute the same lineup in consecutive games. Maddon has used eight different players to start a game as the leadoff hitter, nine different to begin a contest in the second spot, 10 different players to fill in as the number three, five, six, and eighth hitter, seven different Cubs have been used in the cleanup spot, 11 have batted seventh in the batting order and six players, outside the pitcher, have been penciled in as the No. 9 hitter.
“You look for different items to incorporate different defenses,” Maddon said. “Whether the pitcher is a groundball pitcher, fly ball pitcher, you consider hit velocity, pitch movement, location, the ballpark, the weather and the opposing hitters. We look at all of this when finalizing how we want to set up our defense and offense.”
The Cubs hold the National League’s best record, but there are those critics who argue that when the club goes through a spell of inconsistency, the position juggling of hitters in the lineup is where criticism is directed. But with the most wins, runs scored and highest on-base percentage in the N.L., how can anyone argue the Cubs and Maddon don’t unite a successful strategy?
“I try not to comment on the lineup changes,” Maddon said, “because it’s such a poor discussion. There’s no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense and doesn’t belong in today’s game.”
The argument about the Cubs being inconsistent is somewhat of a myth. All clubs struggle during the course of a 162-game schedule. But for the Cubs, they have participated in the postseason and made it to the NLCS three years in a row while being the MLB team with the most wins over that span.
“We’ve won a lot of games over the last three and a half years,” Cubs president Theo Epstein added. “Whenever we’re winning, no one talks about how we’ve overcome moving guys around in the lineup. It’s only when we lose, which is understandable because the fans expect us to win.”
And win is what the Cubs have done since 2015, no matter who is batting leadoff or cleanup or playing second, short, or third. The Cubs have a winning atmosphere in their clubhouse because Maddon allows every player to be an important contributor to the team and each player is only concerned about winning, not personal achievements or accomplishments. They all have personal goals, but the one common thread they share that overshadows individual accomplishments and weaves a cohesive bond among them is winning and being the best team on the field.
One of the highest accolades that can be given to a major league player is the description of him as a “team player,” a performer who’s not afraid to sacrifice personal goals for the good of the ball club.
It’s a characteristic shown by a batter who does what he has to do to move a runner along on the bases, rather than swing for the fences, or by a fielder willing to play more than one position to shore up a team’s defense.
Baez’s MVP status will be determined in the final weeks of the season, but through mid-August, he is the front runner in the minds of many voters because of his ability to excel at key positions. He is arguably the best second baseman in MLB and with injuries to Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, Baez has filled in at shortstop and third base without the club suffering a downfall at either position.
“Javy has all the attributes to play all infield positions exceptionally well,” Maddon said. “He has great hands, quick feet, a strong arm and terrific instincts. He may be the best multi-position player, but he certainly isn’t the only one on this team. Players like Javy, KB, Zo and Happ all are valuable commodities because of their ability to play different positions so well. When you have players like that, it allows you to explore so many different possibilities for your defensive alignments and your lineup.
The Cubs versatility, both offensively and defensively, is a component most teams don’t have, which makes Chicago a powerful and dangerous opponent heading into the stretch run and October baseball.