Once More Unto The Breach – The Ivy Drip’s Season Preview: The Infield
Let’s keep it rolling with our season preview of the Cubs and yet another 70-win season (if we’re lucky?). Today let’s go around the horn, where some interesting stuff has already happened today and it’s going to get way the fuck more interesting in June/July.
Catcher – Welington Castillo: Well first of all it only took me to about August to figure out he only has one “l” in his first name. But I’ve got it now. It’s hard to find a player who improved as much as Beef did over the course of last season (didn’t everyone get worse?). Both behind and at the plate, Castillo was a different player in August/September than he was in April. Castillo’s 2nd half OBP was .388. He slugged .475 in that span. He had an ISO of .187. He hit six homers. Defensively, as far as blocking pitches and throwing out runners he was one of better catchers around. The question is, will it continue? It’s easy to point to his high BABIP of .347 and say it won’t. But he had the same BABIP in 50 games the year before. And he did his last full season in Triple A. It may just be what he does. I doubt his OBP we’ll be .380 over a full season or he’ll slug that much, but I don’t think .350 is out of the question. He needs to improve how he calls a game and framing pitches, but considering the leaps and bounds he improved in other areas last year, that doesn’t seem unreasonable.
John Baker or Eli Whiteside: Just stay healthy, Beef.
1st Base – Anthony Rizzo: A lot of the season’s watchability hinges on improvement from Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Riz is the better bet. Rizzo’s BABIP dropped 50 points from ’12 to ’13, and that has to rebound even just a little which will help. Rizzo’s OBP was 100 points higher than his low batting average, so he was still taking his walks. He hit a fuckton of doubles, and some of those will turn into homers this year. His line-drive rate went down, but I think that will go back up this year. He will have to figure out how to lay off fastballs on his hands or how to turn on them, which is where pitchers went to get him out last year. If his walk-rate stays above 10%, you can expect big things from Rizz. I’m not even really worried at all.
2nd Base – Luis Valbuena: Yep, I’m listing him here. Because with today’s move of punting Donnie Murphy, it has to mean Mike Olt is your starting 3rd baseman and Valbuena will move all over the infield. But he should start at 2nd. It’s his natural position, and he was a pretty good defensive third baseman so it stands to reason that he’ll be one at 2nd. And unlike Darwin “I might as well take a fish to the plate instead of a bat” Barney, he might actually get on base more than twice a week. No, he doesn’t hit for much pop but he does work a count and take his walks. And if Rizzo, Castro, and Olt all hit you can have a glove-only guy at second who at least walks occasionally. Fine.
Shortstop – Starlin Castro: Not the sure bet that Rizzo is. He won’t have the voices in his head that he had last year where several people were pulling him in several directions. It seemed like everyone left him alone after the All-Star break, and he had his best month in July. But it all fell apart in August again before something of a half-rebound in September. We know the deal with Starlin. He’ll swing at everything and make contact with most things. He’s not a Theo/Jed type player, and has to hit .280-.290 to even be remotely productive because he won’t walk. The Cubs wanted more power out of him to help with that productivity, but that’s just not who he is. He’s not going to hit 15-20 HR. At least I don’t see it. But letting him lace balls into the gap would be just fine. And as strange as it sounds, he hits best in the leadoff spot. It’s not like there’s another candidate anyway, except for Benifacio who is going to drive me nuts. Starlin has a .300 career average up top and a .345 OBP. Just let him do his thing. What went underreported in that offensive morass was that his defense really improved the last half of last year, and that should continue. He’s not a disaster out there any more and in fact may be on his way to being a plus defensive player.
3rd Base – Mike Olt: At least that’s how it looks today. With the waiving of Murphy it feels like they’re cutting out a spot for Olt, and you wouldn’t have him here if he wasn’t going to play. There’s a phrase in horse handicapping, “throw the last race out.” You do that when looking at a horse’s past performances for a variety of reasons. Wrong surface, wrong distance, wrong class, whatever. That’s what I’m doing with Olt’s last season due to injuries. Throw it out. It’s only one. And if we do that, we’re left with a pretty exciting prospect. Someone who slugged .579 in Double-A. That’s not all that far off from what Baez slugged in Double-A (well, it’s enough but it’s still pretty good). He’ll walk a lot, he’ll strike out a lot. He’s going to be something of a three-outcome guy, but that’s ok with the right power and walks. The only concern is that he might not actually be able to throw the baseball more than three times a day. But if he can, he’s definitely something to watch, and gives the Cubs more flexibility with all the 3rd base prospects.
Bench – Emilio Bonifacio, Darwin Barney, Ryan Roberts: None of these guys can hit it out of the infield. Bonifacio had one decent season with Florida and probably won’t ever replicate it again. He’s got more speed than Barney, but not the glove. Everyone loves Barney, but he simply can’t hit and is a detriment offensively. He’s basically trade-bait for the Dodgers now. Roberts has a lot of tattoos, and there’s nothing else worth talking about. Yeah, help. But it may be on the way because…
The Wild Card – Javier Baez: We don’t know when he’ll be up, we just know he will. We don’t know where he’ll play, though 2nd seems likely. I know the Cubs probably will wait for the service time to lower in July to bring him up to not make him a Super Two (look up the explanation, I’m already tired) and that may seem like a long time. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that Baez will shred AAA and there won’t be any point in keeping him there for too long. Will he struggle with good offspeed stuff? Yeah, he will, and will need to work on that in Iowa. Will he absolutely turn fastballs into puddy? Yes, yes he will. Can he play 2nd? I don’t know, he seems athletic enough and the shorter throw should cut down on some errors. If Castro can improve his defensive arc as he was and Baez can adjust it’ll be the most athletic middle infield the Cubs have had in I don’t know how long. The season’s entertainment value hinges almost solely on Baez. He’ll get here, you’ll just have to wait.