Will Cubs' depth stunt growth of Baez, Soler?

Maddon's myriad of options could hinder development of some

March 20th, 2016

MESA, Ariz. -- Can a baseball team have too much talent?


Astros skipper A.J. Hinch speaks for managers everywhere when he says, give him the options and he'll take the sleepless nights. But Cubs manager Joe Maddon's not likely to turn into an insomniac at this point.

He just doesn't vibrate at that frequency, as you probably know. But with or without visible anguish from the manager, the next couple of weeks will be fascinating for the Cubs.

It's time to sort through the over-sized inventory of players and determine how to fit the pieces together. While the bullpen remains the area of concern, there are intriguing questions to ask about a lineup that should be the best in the National League.

The Cubs have never had so many options -- at least not good options -- in their history, and Maddon has seen it every day in the Cactus League.

"It's obvious just by making the daily lineups now,'' he said before Sunday's 5-2 victory over the Royals. "When you give guys a day off playing but the team that goes to play that day is pretty thick still. That's what has hit home with me. … The depth is really intriguing. You need that to be successful during the course of a long season. You're going to have things happen. No question.''

Eleven of the 12 or 13 roster spots for hitters are already set. But there are another 15 players who could play roles during the season, including a group of veterans (Shane Victorino, Tommy La Stella, Munenori Kawasaki, Matt Murton and others) and the next wave of prospects (Jeimer Candelario, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, John Andreoli, Dan Vogelbach, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ and others).

Because of the versatility of many of Maddon's regulars, the two-deep plan at positions isn't clear-cut.

For instance, if a corner outfielder was to be injured, Kris Bryant could shift from third base to the outfield, opening up a spot for Candelario. Or Ben Zobrist could cover out there, with Javier Baez playing second base. Kyle Schwarber could move from left field to catcher at times, opening up more at-bats for Jorge Soler or Baez.

Speaking of Baez, can he get enough work as Maddon's super utility man to continue his development? The Rangers used 20-year-old Jurickson Profar in a similar role in 2013 and it started a backward trend for him.

"I think we can [make it work],'' Maddon said. "Of course that's a concern. Guys that young, we don't retard their development at all just through inactivity.''

Kawasaki, Arismendy Alcantara (9-for-27 with five stolen bases this spring) and Kristopher Negron are available as middle-infield options if the Cubs decided they wanted Baez to continue his development in Triple-A. But there have been no indications they're thinking that way.

Baez grounded out in his only plate appearance Sunday and is hitting .200 with one home run and eight strikeouts in 30 at-bats. "I think his at-bats have been a little bit more mature this camp,'' Maddon said. "Defensively he's been all over the place -- made great plays in center, first base, up the middle. The Robinson Cano play up the middle … he's actually had a pretty good camp.''


Maddon said he'll try to stay two series ahead in planning out a template for playing time after going only one series ahead last season. He's also got to worry about getting work for the 24-year-old Soler with Jason Heyward in right and Schwarber in left.

Heyward joins Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Bryant as the Cubs in line for the most starts, followed by Dexter Fowler and Zobrist. As a right-handed hitter, Soler would be on the secondary side of a platoon with Schwarber in left field. What happens to him if Schwarber starts hitting left-handers like he did in the Minor Leagues last season?

There's a school of thought that says Schwarber could become a personal catcher for Jason Hammel, which would put Soler or Baez in the lineup instead of Miguel Montero some days. But there are still some skeptics in the scouts' seats who aren't sold Schwarber can be adequate behind the plate.

And what about the lineup? Having unexpectedly retained Fowler after adding on-base mavens Heyward and Zobrist, Maddon has options aplenty.

Fowler seems certain to open the season as the leadoff man but nothing else is clear.

Maddon could stack Fowler, Zobrist and Heyward at the top, but does he really want his three biggest power hitters -- Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber -- to potentially have to wait until the second inning to bat?

Probably not. There's probably a better chance he goes with Rizzo second and Bryant third. But the guess is he'll juggle Heyward and Zobrist between the second and sixth spots depending on whether it's a lefty or righty opposing starter (Zobrist is a switch hitter but has been more productive right-handed than left-handed).

Maddon also hasn't determined if he's going to again hit the pitcher eighth and Russell ninth, as he did last year. He's got a little bit longer to consider his options before he and Theo Epstein's baseball operations department have to start making decisions.

Many will be expected. Some will be surprising. And some will be dictated by events that haven't happened.

"I believe in developing your plans this time of the year but understand that it's probably not going to work that way,'' Maddon said.

Roger that.