The Cubs Infield: Can the Youngsters Bounce Back?

Nothing seemed to go right for the Chicago Cubs in 2013. While the team wasn’t expected to be good, it had a young core of players who could contribute to the next winner on the North Side. Virtually all of those players collapsed last season. Starlin Castro finished the year with a .280 wOBA, Anthony Rizzo regressed in his first full season and Jeff Samardzija failed to capitalize on his strong 2012. Both Castro and Rizzo are the more alarming cases. They were supposed to give fans a look at the team’s future before the next crop of talented prospects were ready. They’ll need to rebound if the team want to continue the long climb back to respectability.

Catcher

This may come as a surprise, but the Cubs received nearly 5.0 WAR from their catchers last season. A chunk of that came from a surprising power output from Dioner Navarro who left for the Blue Jays in the offseason. That leaves Welington Castillo as the team’s primary option moving forward. Castillo posted a .335 wOBA against righties last season, which is passable, especially for a catcher. Most of his value is tied up in his ability to hit for average, as he’s not an elite walker and doesn’t hit for much power. Castillo has posted a BABIP above .340 in part-time each of the past two seasons, which could be unsustainable for a catcher moving forward. We don’t really know, as Castillo hasn’t accumulated enough plate appearances to tell us whether this is his true talent. The other issue with Castillo is that the team chose not to use him against left-handers much last year. Those at-bats went to Navarro. George Kottaras was signed as Castillo’s primary backup, but he doesn’t hit either righties or lefties particularly well, so Castillo might have a chance to prove himself against lefties this season. Kottaras’ main skills are his on-base skills and occasional power. He’s never going to hit for a high enough average to be a fantasy asset.

First base

On the surface, Anthony Rizzo had a tough season. After posting a .349 wOBA during his age-22 rookie season, it looked like Rizzo was about to become a budding star. Instead, he hit just .233/.323/.419 over 690 plate appearances. While the season was a disappointment, a look at his peripherals indicates luck dragons may have been the culprit. Strikeouts were a significant problem for Rizzo over the season’s first month. After posting a 24.3% strikeout rate in April, Rizzo got the issue under control the rest of the year. He did finish with a slightly elevated 18.4% strikeout rate, but it was a big improvement considering where he was in April. On top of that, he showed an improved walk rate, and belted 23 home runs. Despite all that, his BABIP was a measly .258. That figure was the ninth worst among regulars. That sounds like a player bound to show some nice improvement this year.

Second base

It’s not a good year when Travis Wood posts a higher wOBA than a starting second baseman, but that’s where we are with Darwin Barney. Much like Rizzo, Barney had terrible BABIP luck. His .222 BABIP ranked worst among all qualified players. Barney isn’t known for his bat, so the poor BABIP luck just added insult to injury. While he’s bound to show a better batting line, he’s not going to do enough in the power and speed department to have fantasy value. Barney’s main value comes from his defense, and he’s an exceptional defensive second baseman.

Donnie Murphy is expected to backup a couple positions on the infield in 2014. He absolutely cannot hit for average, but is capable of running into the occasional home run. Ryan Roberts is a player with the same skill set, except he walks just a little more than Murphy.

Third base

There was clearly something in the water in Chicago, as Luis Valbuena also suffered from a ridiculously low .233 BABIP. He only hit .218, but showed enough patience at the plate to earn another shot against right-handers. At the same time, Valbuena’s BABIP might not raise that much. Over 1500 plate appearances, Valbuena’s career BABIP is just .260. So, while he should show some improvement, it’s not likely he’ll hit over .250. He’s got decent pop if he can stay healthy. The Cubs opted not to use Valbuena against left-handers last year, which could open the door for a platoon with either Roberts or Mike Olt.

Olt enters his age-25 season as a complete unknown at the big-league level. The former prospect has only received 40 plate appearances in the majors. He’s exactly the type of guy the Cubs should be looking to acquire at this point in their rebuilding process. He’s young, and was at least once promising. If he doesn’t work out, at least they didn’t give up much to get him. If he does, the team just acquired a useful third baseman for the foreseeable future. Olt’s strikeout rate is the big question. He has power and patience, but might hit .220 in a full-time role. It’s unclear if the team will keep him around as a platoon partner, so if he can’t win the full-time job against Valbuena, he could be ticketed for the minors again.

Shortstop

In almost every way, Castro’s failure last season was much worse than Rizzo’s. At least Rizzo hit for power. Castro declined in nearly every area. His slash line tumbled, his strikeout rate went up, his walk rate fell, and his power and steals failed to reach their previous heights. The fans, who have been critical about Castro’s defensive lapses, were absolutely right this time around as well. Whispers came out after the season that Castro received some mixed messages within the organization, and tinkered far too much with his approach and swing, possibly due to people within the club asking him to do so. Given what he had showed the previous two years, it’s tough to believe Castro simply stopped hitting at age-23. Due to the awful season, Castro is falling precipitously in early mock drafts. It’s come to a point where he could be a huge bargain. Of course, he’s also one of the candidates who could see his stock rise quite a bit if he hits .360 in spring training.



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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yosoyfiesta
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yosoyfiesta

Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are waiting in the wings…none of the current incumbents will stop these guys from being promoted if they keep hitting.

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