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Cubs Mon Aug 10 2015

Optimizing the Cubs' Defense

Chicago CubsKris Bryant is an average third baseman. Starlin Castro is below average at shortstop. Kyle Schwarber is pretty bad at catching. Jorge Soler is brutal in right field. All these guys have, can, or will hit at the Major League level, but defense is more or less a skill that stays relatively consistent throughout a player's trip through the minors and into the majors.

As a hitter, a tweak in stance, swing, or approach can catapult a player into a superstar (see: Bautista, José) in the matter of months. As a fielder, it takes reps. Thousands upon thousands of ground balls or fly balls off a fungo bat and in live game action is the only way to improve on top of natural ability. Even then, one might only become incrementally better defensively.

Addison Russell's move to shortstop is as much about hitting (Castro has a .236/.271/.304 line this year) as it is about fielding. The Cubs are in a playoff race and they can no longer afford to hand a lineup spot to a guy who is both a minus in the batter's box and defensively. Russell's not tearing the cover off the ball, but he's been one of the best defensive second basemen in MLB this year, and profiles above average at shortstop. It also allows Joe Maddon to play more potent offensive lineup.

But late in games, Maddon likes to flip the script and sub in defensive replacements to best hold leads. He's done it mostly in the outfield corners and at second base (in recent days), but once September rolls around and rosters expand, he can get even more creative. Let's look at what the Cubs defense looks when it's optimized now, and what it could look like in a few weeks trying to defend a ninth inning lead.

Now

cubsdefensenow.jpg

Some big bats are missing when the Thibodeau-esque lineup goes in. It's almost like the Bulls back in the spring. The best offensive and defensive five only had one overlapping player (Jimmy Butler). Kyle Schwarber is one of the hottest hitters in baseball, but he wouldn't even rank in the top two defensively at either left field or catcher.

Soler, crushing the ball to the tune of .361/.439/.417 with seven RBIs in the last 10 games, wouldn't be able to sniff this lineup with his absurdly bad defense in right field.

On the current roster, Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Montero, Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, Bryant and Russell would all crack the list as the best hitter and fielder at their positions. The lineup still remains relatively potent offensively, and the coverage in the outfield plus the subtraction of Castro would greatly minimize the possibility of an error or a crippling extra base.

Coghlan has been incredibly underrated as a hitter this year, and against all odds, has turned in the best defensive year of his career in left field. His versatility of being able to play the infield is the key to the Cubs being able to bench Castro at a time when the offense needs every hot hitter in the lineup to put distance between them and the wild card chasers.

Jonathan Herrera and Chris Denorfia have both made appearances as defensive replacements during the Giants series, and you can expect more of the same throughout the month of August before rosters expand. And when the calendar flips to September, the late game defense will get even stronger.

September

cubsdefenseseptember.jpg

You'd probably never see this entire lineup on the field during a late-game scenario unless the lead is significant (because there aren't many situations you'd sub out Bryant), but it's good to know who's strong where.

Javier Baez will return and has already proven his ability to play a brilliant second base. Maddon wanted him on the opening day roster because of his versatility, defensive skill, and baserunning ability, but the organization rightly sent him down to Iowa to work on shortening his swing. The changes have worked to an extent, and he'll continue to play a variety of second, shortstop and third base. His defensive prowess will come in handy when he comes up.

Mike Olt can lock up third base in a defensive specialist scenario, and might not even be tops in the organization if Christian Villanueva lives up to the hype with his glove. Matt Szczur has been on the shuttle service between triple-A and the big leagues, but it's not because of a lack of talent. He possesses solid defensive skills and will see plenty of innings in the outfield in a few weeks.

Castro could jump back in the picture at a different position if the team talks with him and he's open to trying something new. Sure, he could probably handle second or third base just fine based on his infield history, but I'd love to see give center field a try. He's only got average speed, but his reads on pop flies into shallow left and center field are actually quite good. And if he's able to start hitting like he's capable of again, it would really be nice to be able to get him in the lineup at a spot where he's not going to hurt you defensively.

 
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