Sometimes too much flexibility in a Major League Baseball lineup can be an uncomfortable thing.
This isn’t the case through a long regular season when depth is most useful, but when the outcomes of specific games begin to matter for the standings and the playoffs, having too many moving pieces can be detrimental to a team’s success.
That is the scenario the Chicago Cubs are facing when everyone returns healthy.
Let’s start with the catcher position, where rookie Willson Contreras has been tremendous in the early going but veteran Miguel Montero is still rotating in. Pitchers are certainly more comfortable throwing to Montero, but does that outweigh the added edge of having Contreras in the lineup?
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With Dexter Fowler remaining on the disabled list until after the All-Star break, Contreras has also seen time in the outfield to get his bat in the game. In a future scenario in the postseason or on the precipice of such a contest, Contreras’ highest value will be generated by having him behind the plate, though.
With the other Cubs players who are capable of sliding all over the field, generating the best lineup comes down to who can be in the game and who is forced to sit. We know the players who will definitely be in there. Anthony Rizzo will be at first base. Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant will be playing as well, but at what positions remains up in the air.
Despite Jason Heyward’s struggles at the plate, he will be in the game too. He is too good a fielder to sit on the bench. According to Baseball Reference, Heyward has already been worth nearly one win with his glove alone, and we just reached the break.
A .667 OPS (as of 7/9) is very hard to stomach, but Heyward has been trending in the right direction. His OPS was 60 points lower at the start of June and nearly 20 points lower at the beginning of July.
Addison Russell follows a similar argument for his inclusion, though he’s been better with the bat than Heyward. Don’t be thrown off by Russell’s inclusion in the All-Star game starting lineup. He hasn’t been good at the plate.
He barely cracks the top 10 in OPS among National League shortstops…of which there are only 14 qualified players. But he is a more valuable player through the other aspects of his game.
Assuming we have Fowler back to play centerfield, just one lineup spot remains outside of that day’s starting pitcher. There are a plethora of options at Joe Maddon’s disposal to fill that slot.
Having already ruled out Montero, it would come down to Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur, Albert Almora or a healthy Jorge Soler. All are on the table because of Zobrist’s and Bryant’s flexibility.
Szczur, Soler, and La Stella don’t cut it in the field and don’t hold a significant edge at the plate either. La Stella especially is a minus fielder and doesn’t deserve to play over these other options. The final decision thus comes down to Baez versus Almora; offense versus defense.
Overall, the team is probably a better cohesive unit with Almora in the outfield, allowing both Bryant and Zobrist to remain in the infield. It’s hard to pass on Baez’s bat, but it would be useful to have that asset available for pinch-hitting.
Though it’s a small sample size, Baez has been great as a pinch-hitter thus far this season.
There is Chicago’s starting lineup when the games matter most. It’s a good problem to have to be forced to wade through all this depth, but it will eventually be something Maddon needs to deal with. His decisions could be the difference between a Cubs championship and adding another year to the ledger.