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Chicago Cubs Preview: Position Player Smackdown

The Cubs are loaded. Let’s just get that unfortunate fact off our chests right from the start. The Cubs are stacked with talent at every position. Not only are their hitters extremely good, they are extremely young too. That means the Cubs will be better than the Reds not only this year but well into the future. They won 97 games last year and they could be even stronger this year. After several years of saving money while their prospects matured in the minor leagues, the Cubs opened their checkbook this winter to fill the few remaining gaps in their ranks with stellar free agent talent.

Let’s take a position-by-position look at the Cubs players and compare them to their Reds counterparts:

Catcher

Backstop is the Cubs’ weakest position, but only because they are merely good here instead of awesome like they are everywhere else. 32 year old veteran Miguel Montero will be the starter most days. He is essentially an average catcher both offensively and defensively. They also have former Red David Ross to catch one or two games a week. Their most exciting and intriguing option behind the plate is Middletown native Kyle Schwarber. The 4th overall pick of the 2014 draft will split time between catcher and left field this season. He is a poor defensive player at both positions but he can really hit. Expect Schwarber to catch perhaps once per week. The Cubs also have prospect Willson Contreras, the recent convert to catching had a big breakout season with the bat last year.

The Reds will roll with Devin Mesoraco behind the plate. When healthy, Mesoraco is clearly a better hitter than Montero and Ross. Tucker Barnhart is good defensively but is not expected to hit much.

Verdict: Reds. Give the edge to the Reds at this position as long as Mesoraco is able to stay injury-free and approach his 2014 form with the bat. 

First Base

Anthony Rizzo was an MVP candidate last season after hitting .278/.387/.512 with 31 home runs, 101 RBI and a 145 wRC+. He doesn’t strike out much for a power hitter and is happy to take a walk. The 26 year old is entering his prime and is going to torment Reds’s pitching for a long time. He is the best hitter on a team full of good hitters. As good as Rizzo’s stats are he still pales in comparison to Joey Votto’s .314/.459/.541 slash line with 29 home runs, 80 RBI and HOF-worthy 172 wRC+ from last year.

Verdict: Reds. Votto is so good that he blows away Rizzo in this battle of perennial MVP-caliber superstar batsmen right now, although the younger Rizzo may continue to improve as the aging Votto starts to fade.

Second Base

Ben Zobrist may be new to the Cubs but he is a veteran of Joe Maddon’s teams in Tampa Bay. Both Zobrist and Brandon Phillips of the Reds are 34 years old. Phillips had a bounce-back season with the bat in 2015 but Zobrist is very clearly the better hitter among the two competitors. Zobrist put up a 123 wRC+ last year and sports an excellent 118 wRC+ for his career. Phillips delivered a 96 wRC+ last year that is close to his 95 wRC+ career average. 100 is a league-average wRC+. Phillips of course is an elite defender whose glove bridges some of the offensive gap between the two players. Zobrist is also known for his leadership and versatility to play multiple positions.

Verdict: Cubs. Zobrists’ bat and intangibles eke out a slim advantage for the Cubs at this position.

Shortstop

Addison Russell broke into the major leagues last season after being an elite prospect for a few years. He was acquired from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija trade in 2014. Russell has a great glove and a developing bat that is expected to produce dividends soon. Russell put up excellent hitting stats in the minor leagues but struggled initially in his rookie season last year before successfully making adjustments in the second half. He has a chance to be an All Star caliber shortstop for a decade.

Zack Cozart is a tremendous defensive shortstop. He isn’t flashy. He makes difficult plays look easy. Defensive metrics consistently rank him at or near the very top of the league every season. His career batting stats are abysmal. He was hitting for a surprising 104 wRC+ after 53 games last year when he blew out his knee and missed the rest of the season. Indications are he is nearly fully recovered from his knee surgery. Don’t expect him to hit well but he is likely to continue his defensive excellence.

Verdict: Cubs. Both Russell and Cozart are elite defenders but only one of them is likely to hit. Unfortunately it is not Cozart.

Third base

Kris Bryant was the NL Rookie of the Year last season and is poised to be one of the elite players in the game for a long time. At 6’5″ 215 pounds he is not your prototypical 3rd baseman. He is solid with the glove right now but is likely to move to the outfield in a couple years since first base is blocked by Rizzo. Last year at the age of 23 Bryant hit 26 home runs with a .275/.369/.488 slash line and 136 wRC+. Not a bad rookie season, eh? Expect even better results in the future from this elite talent. He was the 2nd overall pick of the draft in 2013. Can the Reds net a similar player with the 2nd overall pick in this year’s upcoming draft?

Eugenio Suarez seized a starting role moving forward by hitting .280/.315/.446 with a good 105 wRC+ last year. His high 23.6% strikeout rate and low 4.3% walk rate sound a note of caution that perhaps he could see a backslide at the plate this year and beyond. Suarez looked bad defensively at shortstop last year but maybe his defensive deficiencies will be masked at the hot corner. Suarez is the same age as Bryant but simply doesn’t have anywhere near the offensive potential as the Cubs star.

Verdict: Cubs. Not a close battle here at all.

Utility Player

Javier Baez was an elite prospect who has stumbled a bit so far in his young career. He is a 23 year old bat-first shortstop who is going to have to move to a new position because Addison Russell is an elite defender. Baez reached the majors at 21 years old in 2014 but struggled terribly at the plate (53 wRC+). He recovered for a 98 wRC+ last year in 28 games. He strikes out a huge amount but he is still predicted by scouts to be a plus hitter eventually.

Jose Peraza is just 21 years old but is ready for the majors defensively. He is very fast and can hit for contact but has very little power. He doesn’t have the star potential of Javier Baez but has a higher floor due to his defense and low strikeout rate. Peraza can play multiple positions. His versatility, speed and defense will definitely offer solid value to the Reds. If he can develop at the plate it will be a bonus. Peraza could also be an option in center field if Billy Hamilton goes down again.

Verdict: Reds. Baez is a boom or bust prospect with suspect glove skills. Peraza offers less potential but is much more certain to be a positive contributor in multiple facets of the game.

Left Field

Both the Reds and the Cubs are expected to deploy platoons in left field. Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler will share left field duties for the Cubs. Schwarber will start against right-handed pitchers and receive the bulk of the playing time. Schwarber is a big-time slugger, perhaps a slightly lesser version of Rizzo and Bryant. Schwarber will also catch occasionally, giving Soler some starts against righties. Soler is a slugger too but has contact issues. He is more of a project but like Baez is a boom-or-bust prospect with star potential at the plate. Neither Schwarber nor Soler are good defensive players.

The Reds are likely to platoon Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler in left field. Neither were ever considered top prospects but both have exceeded expectations in the minors. Both players are adequate defensively. Both players have plus power and could struggle to hit for average. Schebler is younger and since he is left-handed will get more playing time. Schebler has the better chance to have a decent major league career. The Reds are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle here and find a guy who can be a league-average bat with some pop.

Verdict: Cubs. Schwarber is already a stud hitter and could be a star. Soler is a much, much better prospect than either Schebler or Duvall.

Center Field

Dexter Fowler is a veteran outfielder with a 107 career wRC+, which is well above average for center fielders. He has good pop and good speed. His defense is a little below average however. Billy Hamilton is five years younger and has a lowly 69 career wRC+, which I’m sorry to say is downright pathetic. Hamilton is an elite defensive centerfielder though, and that is enough to completely erase Fowler’s huge advantage at the plate. Defense is paramount in centerfield. Hamilton’s epic speed  on the basepaths is exciting to watch but is highly over rated by fans. The baserunning does give Hamilton a clear advantage in his battle with Fowler though. If Hamilton ever learns to hit even a little bit he will be a tremendous asset for the Reds. That is a big “if” though.

Verdict: Reds. Hamilton’s speedy glove carries the day for a narrow Reds’ victory.

Right Field

Jason Heyward was the Cubs’ biggest offseason acquisition. As a minor leaguer he was the top prospect in baseball for awhile and was fully expected to become a superstar. He has fallen short of that threshhold offensively but is as elite as Hamilton defensively. Heyward’s 121 career wRC+ is very good but not as great as predicted. To some extent Heyward has been a victim of foolish expectations. Once a guy is expected to be a superstar people are disappointed when he becomes merely a star. The Cubs appreciated his all-around contributions in the field, at the plate and on the bases and won the free agent bidding for Heyward’s services this winter for $184 million.

Jay Bruce has had his ups and downs over the years. Lately it has been mostly downs, although his underlying peripherals look better than his batting average and RBI totals. His Hard Hit Rates show he hit the ball better than his 91 wRC+ last year shows, but there is no question that Jason Heyward is a better player in every facet of the game.

Verdict: Cubs. No contest here.

That gives the Cubs a narrow five to four victory at the nine defensive positions (including utility). That is true if you do a simple tally, but if you look closer you see that all of the Reds’ victories were by narrow margins, whereas the Cubs blow the Reds out of the water at third base, shortstop, right field and left field. Grading the two teams’ position players as a whole unit you have to give a strong win to the Cubs. The Reds have one star player, Joey Votto of course. The Cubs have Rizzo, Bryant, Heyward and Schwarber. They have potential stars in Russell, Soler and Baez as well.

The Cubs young core of position players is only going to get better over the next couple of years. I would be surprised if they aren’t truly dominant over that time. Even if a couple of their young studs falter the franchise has the financial power to purchase upgrades on the free agent market like they did with Heyward this year. I don’t see how the Reds are going to overcome this juggernaught any time soon.

2 thoughts on “Chicago Cubs Preview: Position Player Smackdown

  1. I’m excited to see what Russell can do this year. He seemed to make adjustments in the 2nd half last year, as you stated, and he’s had a good spring. If he takes a big step forward and turns into a perennial 110+ wRC+ guy with GG defense, that’s a 4 win player out of nowhere.

  2. LF—It’ll be a closer contest if we factor in Winker’s elite bat. Not worried there moving forward.
    CF– No amount of defense can overcome Hamilton’s hitting deficiencies. I could see an argument for Peraza being a better player than Fowler, but not Hamilton.
    SS–Russell has major contact problems. I don’t see that changing appreciably. Again, Peraza could make this comparison much more favorable to the Reds.

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