Welcome to this edition of the Cubs’ positional year in review series. On Monday, we discussed first base, a position at which the Cubs are likely set for the next half-decade. By contrast, second base is in a state of flux. Chicago has at least three different players who have shown the ability to be everyday second basemen. Who will man the position next year is anyone’s guess.
For the purposes of this article, we’re inserting Javier Baez as the starter at second. By the end of the season, Baez had clearly become the most frequent patroller of second, if not the everyday starter. In the Cubs’ 10 playoff games, Baez was penciled in at second eight times.
So Baez is the starter, for now. He’s one of the most exciting players in the game, with the ability to make any play spectacular. But he’s also flawed. The 24-year-old’s statistics are that of a good player with shortcomings that keep him from being great.
By most measures, 2017 was Baez’s best season at the plate. He nearly doubled his walk rate, from 3.3 percent to 5.9 percent, while also mashing a career-high 23 homers in just over 500 plate appearances. The extra homers and walks allowed him to post a .796 OPS, up nearly 60 points from 2016. He also had a flair for the dramatic at the plate.
The man lingered at the plate on an inside-the-park homer.
Still, despite all of his big swings and his occasional big fly, Baez still has holes in his approach. His contact rate dropped from a mediocre 72 percent in 2016 to an awful 65 percent in 2017. Nearly one out of every five pitches Baez saw this season ended in a swing and miss. Among qualified hitters, only Joey Gallo swung and missed more often than Baez.
When he does make contact, Baez does damage, of course. But that contact is infrequent enough that his ceiling as a hitter is fairly limited, despite possessing some of the quickest hands in baseball. His much-improved .796 OPS? Just three percent above the MLB average. Decent, but not great.
The Puerto Rico native will probably never be a disciplined hitter, but he needs to be more disciplined to become a good hitter. Despite his penchant for the spectacular, he’s not there yet.
If Baez ever does become even a good hitter, though, he has the defensive chops to be a superstar. He has the combination of range and arm strength that allowed him to fill in so capably for Addison Russell when the shortstop was on the shelf with plantar fasciitis. With Russell he forms the best defensive double-play combo in all of baseball.
If Baez learns to lay off the high fastball, he’ll be one of baseball’s best middle infielders.
On most teams, Baez would be the unquestioned starter at second or short. But he doesn’t play for most teams; he plays for the Cubs, with their embarrassment of riches up the middle.
As I said above, Baez started eight of the Cubs’ 10 playoff games at second. The other two starts went to Ben Zobrist, who was the starter early in the season. At 36, however, Zobrist had the lowest OPS (.693) of any full season in his 11-year career. He also struck out more often than in any season since 2012. Zobrist’s days as an everyday player might be done, but he’s still valuable because of his ability to play so many different positions.
The player really pushing Baez at second base in the future will likely be Ian Happ. Happ hit at every level of the minor leagues before blasting 24 homers in 115 games as a rookie. That’s serious power and Happ posted a 114 OPS+, but he also struck out over 30 percent of the time, and was particularly susceptible to breaking balls down and in as a left-handed swinger. Like Baez, he’s a talented but incomplete player with room to grow. One positive sign from the 2015 first round pick was his defense at second. Scouts wondered whether he had the range to stay there, but he was about average defensively, according to UZR.
Baez seems likely to begin the 2018 season as the starter at second. It’ll be difficult to bench Zobrist and the $28 million remaining on his contract, but Baez is clearly the better player right now. Zobrist will get starts against the toughest righties and also spell Jason Heyward in right field occasionally. Happ will likely get plenty of playing time as well, although it’s unclear whether it will be at second or in center field. He is the fastest player on the team and that speed is best used in center.
Of course, this could all be turned upside-down if the Cubs decide to trade some of their middle infield depth for pitching. That’s certainly a possibility and Happ would likely be the first to go. For this Cubs team, he’s more of a luxury than a necessity. Saying that about a 23-year-old switch-hitter who just hit 24 homers and plays two positions demonstrates the remarkable depth the Cubs have built at second.