Flex Appeal: The Lineup May Be More Static, but the Cubs Will Be Anything But Rigid in 2016
With most teams, you can pretty much fill the lineup card out with a Sharpie. The Cubs, however, were no such team last season. You never knew where any given player might be batting or what position he’d be manning on any given day. And that was part of the fun, wasn’t it? And it didn’t stop with the starting lineup either. Kris Bryant might move from center to right to third while Javier Baez went from third to second and Starlin Castro (oh, Starlin, how I miss you) slid from second to short. There’s something to be said for that Little League style of everyone-plays-everywhere baseball. Then again, there’s something to be said for a bit of structure.
I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I remember hearing during the World Series that the Royals had utilized the same lineup in something like a million times. Okay, I may be exaggerating that a little bit, but I know their consistency was remarkable. In fact, I believe I actually did remark when I heard the trivial tidbit. It kind of got me thinking at the time, but I was still in a bit of a Cubs funk and wrote something about the Royals being the bizarro Cubs. But now that it appears the roster is pretty well set, I wanted to revisit the topic briefly.
You certainly can’t argue with the results Joe Maddon got by employing his players like a collection of Swiss Army knives, but I think we all knew it couldn’t really continue like that in perpetuity. I mean, having super-utility tools is great and all, but there’s something to be said for having the right single-purpose implements too. While I have zero doubt Maddon will continue to tinker with the combinations he employs, I think we’re going to see a settling of sorts when it comes to some of the key players, particularly the top five hitters.
There’ll be a little less shifting around in terms of positions as well, with most of the musical chairs being played as the result of scheduled days off. While it’s true that Ben Zobrist is a guy who’s accustomed to playing all over the field, I’d imagine we’ve seen the last of his peripatetic play. Well, for the most part. He’ll still get some reps at multiple positions, but it makes sense for him to be the primary second baseman. Not only will that help to keep his offensive value higher (one assumes he’ll experience some decline over the next few seasons, some of which will be mitigated if he’s at 2B vs. a corner OF spot), but it frees Baez up to be the resident itinerant. Think of it like the succession of the Dread Pirate Roberts, where the old grooms the new.
Anthony Rizzo is one of the few players who manned only one position last season, and I think we can safely say he’s not moving anywhere. Russell isn’t going to playing anywhere other than short, and he should be set for a vast majority of the workload there. Bryant, likewise, is pretty well locked in at his spot, both for his own proficiency and what appears to be a fairly set outfield. Ah, but therein lies the continued value of maintaining a roster full of guys who capable of moving around at a moment’s notice.
Everything above assumes a run of good health, which we all know could end with a single funky step or inside pitch. This Cubs team can attenuate the potential devastation of one or more relatively significant injuries because they’ve got the ability to interchange positions almost at will. That’s not to say they’d be just as good or that no position is more important than another, just that you don’t worry as much about their R in WAR.
We may not have quite as fun waiting for each day’s lineup card to be published, but I like the idea of things solidifying a bit more. It’s as though the Maddon scientist was running through different prototypes last season, tweaking this and twerking that, all in an effort to get the right combination. By adding Zobrist and Jason Heyward to the mix, it appears that he’s picked up a couple new tools while maybe eliminating some moving parts. If it all goes to plan, I don’t think anyone’s going to get bored with the results of this beautiful machine.