This young Cub prepared to play anywhere

January 20th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The signing of shortstop Dansby Swanson this offseason pushed Nico Hoerner to second base, essentially leaving Nick Madrigal in a positional no-man’s land for the Cubs. He will surely be in the mix for an Opening Day job, but the roster fit is unclear right now.

“I’m just preparing for whatever they throw at me,” Madrigal said at Cubs Convention last weekend. “I’m preparing to do my job -- whatever that looks like at the moment. It’s a very exciting time for Cubs fans, everyone in the front office, everyone that’s a part of the Cubs’ team. It’s going to be a great year.”

Madrigal was a key component to the 2021 trade that shipped closer Craig Kimbrel to the White Sox for the second baseman and reliever Codi Heuer. Prior to the 2018 Draft, Madrigal was on the North Siders’ radar. He went fourth overall to the South Siders, and the Cubs grabbed Hoerner with the No. 24 pick. Both were the type of high-contact bats the Cubs have coveted in recent years.

This offseason, though, the Cubs capitalized on the robust shortstop market, landing Swanson with a seven-year, $177 million deal. With the changing shift rules in MLB, Chicago now has two elite shortstops playing up the middle with Swanson at short and Hoerner at second.

At Cubs Convention, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer saw some widened eyes when he dropped the possibility that Madrigal could try his hand at third base. Chicago also has Patrick Wisdom, Christopher Morel and Zach McKinstry among the available options for that spot.

“Guys get hurt, guys get days off,” Hoyer said. “And I think he'll probably play some third base as well. We want to have a really versatile infield. So, we would expect that he's going to definitely work over there and take reps. I mean, it's not the way you think of stereotypical third base -- power, slugger -- but he's a really good hitter, a really good player, and he can definitely do it.”

It’s also possible that Madrigal, who has a Minor League option year remaining, could start the season at Triple-A Iowa to get regular at-bats and prove he is healthy. Coming off an injury-marred ’21, in which Madrigal’s season ended early due to right hamstring surgery, he was limited to 59 games in ’22 due to back and groin issues.

“If I could do it again, I'd probably hold him back out of Spring Training,” Hoyer admitted. “He's a competitor. He probably tried to convince us he was ready and he probably wasn't. I think that's somewhat on us.”

Madrigal said he has worked one-on-one with a trainer in Arizona five times per week this offseason, focusing on different types of strength-training elements than in the past. He said the program has been “nonstop” and he feels like he is in a great spot going into Spring Training.

Maybe there is a place for Madrigal’s bat on the bench as a part-timer at second and third when a high-contact hitter fits the matchup. Even with a 68 OPS+ in ’22 (down from 109 across ’20-21 combined), Madrigal ranked third in swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent), contact rate (90.9 percent) and contact rate in the zone (95.6 percent) among MLB hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, per FanGraphs.

“It’s been a couple of years of the injury bug, but I feel really good at the moment,” said Madrigal, who hit .317 with a .358 on-base percentage in ’20-21 with the White Sox. “I just want to enjoy it. It’s felt like these last couple of years there’s been a lot going on. I’m just looking forward to enjoying this next year.”