Cubs have options at hot corner in '23

February 20th, 2023
Jordan Bastian

MESA, Ariz. -- It may have only been a live batting practice workout Sunday, but Edwin Ríos wasted little time in showing precisely why the Cubs added him to the Spring Training mix.

Facing lefty Drew Smyly, Ríos connected with a cutter and sent the baseball ricocheting off the black backdrop looming over the center-field fence. Smyly watched the baseball soar, heard the gasps of awe around Field 1 and could only smile and shake his head as he readied his next pitch.

"We're excited to get Edwin," Cubs manager David Ross said. "Real left-handed power bat."

The North Siders signed Ríos to a one-year contract Friday, throwing him into the competition for third base and a bench bat. Over the next several weeks, Chicago will be weighing multiple factors to determine how to best handle the hot corner.

The situation
Over the offseason, the Cubs made a series of signings that, when combined with players already in the fold, eliminated much of the competition for the starting jobs around the diamond.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner are locked into regular roles. The starting outfield will feature left fielder Ian Happ, center fielder Cody Bellinger and right fielder Seiya Suzuki. Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart will divvy up the catching duties, while Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini cover the innings at first base.

"Third base is probably the spot where there's more options," Ross said. "It's one of the things where we'll try to find the right mix and who complements each other well and make sure the buy-in is real."

Main candidates
The signings of Swanson and Bellinger caused a ripple effect on the roster.

Christopher Morel, who played a lot of center field and second base in his rookie year last season, was pushed to third, a super utility role or the Minors.

With Hoerner now at second, Nick Madrigal is looking at either a bench role or a trip back to the Minors. He has started getting work in at third this spring. 

Patrick Wisdom might have been an option for first, but the signings of Hosmer and Mancini pushed him to a backup slot for that position. Wisdom has plenty of experience at third base, however, and can potentially help in the outfield, too.

Beyond that group, Ríos (one Minor League option year left) also joins the crowd with the ability to play both third base and first base, while also having the designated hitter slot as a possibility for at-bats. Zach McKinstry (out of option years) and Miles Mastrobuoni (three option years) are bench options with the ability to play third, too.

"Depth, man," Ríos said. "The great teams have a lot of depth, and I think that's what Chicago is doing right now. We've got a lot of guys that you can just stick them out there, and you know they're going to do a great job."

What they offer
One interesting aspect to the list of contenders for at-bats at third base is the fact that they each bring a different skill to the table:

• Ríos has averaged one homer per 13 at-bats in his MLB career with elite rates for hard-hit percentage (47.0), expected slugging (.502) and barrel percentage (15.5). He is also prone to striking out (32 percent).

• Wisdom also has huge power with whiff risk, but from the right side. He was in the 93rd percentile in barrel rate (14.2 percent) in '22, but also struck out 34.3 percent of the time.

• Morel has the ability to play all over the outfield and infield, while boasting plus speed and one of baseball's best arms. He was in the 91st percentile in barrel rate (13.4 percent), but was also prone to whiffs.

• Madrigal slashed .249/.305/.282 while dealing with injuries in '22, but still ranked third in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4 percent) among Major Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances.

"You definitely don't want all the same hitter sitting over there," Ross said with a chuckle. "If you need a crooked number, you can go to a guy that's got some power over there. Or, [if it's] a guy that dominates righties, you can go to a lefty or vice versa.

"Man at third, less than two and you need a base hit and need to pinch-hit for a matchup, then contact matters, right? Putting the ball in play. All those things are the way we kind of think about it."