Maddon and Cubs Assembling a Team with Interchangeable Parts

It’s no coincidence that in building what they hope will be a future juggernaut, the Cubs are employing a process first made common in the growth of dynasties. Over two millennia ago, interchangeable bronze crossbow triggers and locking mechanisms were mass-produced in China and the practice was implemented in gunsmithing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Now the Cubs are stockpiling weapons of their own, deploying them across several positions to increase flexibility and reduce dependency upon any individual piece. We saw that last year when Javier Baez, who had played shortstop in the minors, was shifted to second base upon promotion to Chicago.

Kyle Schwarber was a catcher in college but was given a trial run in left field before being moved back behind the plate, though who knows what the future might hold for him. And now we’re going to start seeing both Mike Olt and Kris Bryant taking turns in the outfield in addition to their third base duties.

About moving his players around, Joe Maddon said, “You get guys and players in some spots that would be averse to that because, ‘I’m a third baseman,’ or ‘I’m a second baseman.’ But our guys are willing to play in different spots.”

I love this. Much has been made of the Cubs hoarding high-end bats and loading up on middle infielders, but they’re doing so with the knowledge that talent will win out. It’s no different from a college football team recruiting several different quarterbacks with the knowledge that some of them will be moved off the position.

That’s because the best players typically have their choice of where they’re going to play as they’re coming up through the ranks. In lower levels of football, you want your best athlete getting the ball in his hands as much as possible, which typically means putting him under center. But as skill and precision become more important, that athletic talent may be better leveraged elsewhere.

In baseball, those great athletes are most often seen up the middle. Knowing that, the Cubs have gathered a collection of shortstops who can eventually be moved around the diamond to positions that may better suit their talents. And while Kris Bryant and Mike Olt play corner IF spots, their situations are no different.

The jury is still out on Bryant’s long-term viability at the hot corner, though many believe he’ll never be more than passable there. If he shows greater defensive competency in LF, the team as a whole will be made better. Either way, by moving players around the diamond, Maddon and the Cubs will be able to find the best possible fits for each of their players.

Another potential byproduct of such shuffling may come in the inevitable trades in which some of these vaunted prospects will be involved. It’s been great to follow these kids on their respective journeys to the majors, but there simply isn’t room for all of them on the roster.

When the time comes for the Cubs to flip a prospect or three for an ace or an established hitter, they’ll get more value from a guy who can play multiple positions than from one who’s rigidly locked in somewhere.

As for the timing of moving Bryant around, Maddon has been somewhat veiled, saying only “We’ll get them out there,” and that “[Bryant]’s going to get a day or two off.”

It’s certainly not something either the manager or the the front office will ever admit publicly, but trying their super-stud in the outfield might also provide an explanation for his likely start in Iowa this season. While he’s still got several games this spring to work on the new position, perhaps 9 or so more in AAA will help to solidify things.

Potential ulterior motives aside, I think it’s fantastic that this team will be flexible moving forward, particularly with guys like Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara. On a team filled with mighty broadswords, those players are Swiss Army Knives.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how Maddon works with his roster, not only in terms of positions, but in the lineup as well. While Anthony Rizzo is locked in at first base, it’s possible that he’ll be batting anywhere from 2nd to 5th. The Cubs are hoping that that kind of flexibility yields the opposite — at least — in terms of the divisional standings.

Now that the roster is being trimmed, we’re going to start seeing more and more realistic scenarios and it’s going to be easier to get a feel for what this team is going to look like come the regular season. But you can be sure that even when the real games start, things are going to be far from static.

Here’s to hoping the results of these experiments are just as fun as talking about them.


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